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Military looks toward innovation

As federal budgets tighten, the military is depending on the technology industry to innovate and save money, according to several discussions at AFCEA West last week.

The period of World War I and World War II resulted in an incredible amount of innovation, ranging from Naval aviation to the island hopping campaign, noted RADM Terry Kraft, commander of the Navy Warfare Development Command.

“We used to be innovators. Now a lot of these things are happening in industry, outside of the military,” he said.

The goal is to translate industry's innovations – whether it’s the rise of the social network or different ways of communicating – and decide what that means to the military.

“We have an incredible source of talent inside the military itself,” he noted.

The junior leaders returning from the war have great ideas on how to fight in the future.

“Unless we have a channel for those ideas to be pushed up a chain of command, those people will get frustrated and will walk away,” said Kraft.

Kraft sat down with the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert a year ago, who voiced the need for a group of free radicals, or junior officers, that can send those ideas his way.

“How do we make this a process that can survive inside a bureaucracy? We need to change our culture throughout the Navy," said Kraft. “To show junior officers we value these things and we want your ideas.”

Bringing back experimentation to where it needs to be, creativity and not being afraid to fail are also key points to keep in mind, said Kraft.

"Someone who has an idea needs a channel to get up to people that matter, who can take action on these ideas and turn them into something that will work for us,” said Kraft.

RADM Matthew Klunder, Chief of Naval Research/Director Innovation, Technology Requirements, and Test & Evaluation, wants to keep the momentum on innovation going amongst industry.

“This is still the age of discovery and invention,” he said. “Innovation is critical. Don’t let this next great thing you have bubbling up somewhere be hidden in a corner. We want to hear from all different folks."

That ranges from small to large defense and technology companies, Department of Defense labs, academia and warfare centers.

“What is our goal? We always want to bring technological advantages to sailors and marines,” he said. “If you can make that existing system more affordable or effective, I’m in. I’ll give you my business card today.”

It's not financially feasible to keep developing the coolest, next-generation system that can do anything.

The days of destroying an adversary's $1,000-or-less system, weapon or tactic with a "multi-million dollar something" are over.

"We will eventually lose on that. We will never have enough money or magazines big enough to conquer that," said Klunder.

His challenge is to flip the cost curve on adversaries.

“Kraft and I have talked about this," said Klunder. "What if I can get a projectile that maybe costs $25,000-ish."

Shooting that projectile out of a reasonably priced railgun that can do many different missions is going to be the future of combat.

“What if my adversary goes, wow, I can’t afford to send those million-dollar missiles in because the Marine Corps and Navy team will take them out with cost-effective systems,” he said.

Legacy systems will play a big part in the missions the Navy is asked to do, said Greenert.

“It’s important we are confident and proficient in operating the legacy systems we have today,” said Greenert. "That is more important than bringing something on that isn’t fully tested and ready to go."

One local company that's embracing the opportunity to keep the old stuff going is El Cajon-based GET Engineering.

"We not only build the old stuff," said Dave Grundies, vice president. “We are able to network big parts of the old stuff out of the equation."

That means the chain of heavy cables, located three decks down, can be taken off the ship.

"You can have less weight and your ship can be more green. You can go further with less fuel," he said.

The Marines are also doing their part to foster innovation from the inside.

The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, said one four-legged robot "dog" coming out of its Warfighting Laboratory is making strides.

The Legged Squad Support System (LS3) is the size of a gigantic Saint Bernard, he said, and can carry 300 to 400 pounds of gear.

“Imagine marines taking stuff off and putting it on robots walking smartly behind them,” said Amos.

The Coast Guard Innovation Expo ended up being one of the biggest NDIA-associated events, bringing together young innovators that displayed top-notch mechanical and electrical design projects.

"We paid for exhibits for them to put up displays amongst industry,” said Adm. Robert Papp, Jr., Commandant of the Coast Guard.

The expo got canceled last year due to the reduced budget and scrutiny placed on government conventions.

“It’s one of those things I am disappointed about,” he admits. “We are hopeful we may get into it every other year."

For now, the Coast Guard is looking for innovative ways to replace its fleet of 30 aged medium endurance cutters with 25 offshore patrol cutters.

Source selection is currently in progress.

“The driving factor is price. It’s got to be affordable," said Papp. "I am excited about this project. There are smart people out there, talking to Coast Guard people and coming up with unique solutions.”


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