The 20th century saw the development and use of a record number of new and revolutionary technologies, both commercial and military, with steadily increasing levels of dual purpose. But it was not until mid-century that the U.S. Navy moved to link the independent research efforts in academia, the military, and industry under a single Office of Naval Research (ONR).
Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. David J. Hahn, spoke with Defense R&D Outlook senior writer J.R. Wilson about ONR’s current and future efforts to maintain the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ technological edge in an age of growing challenges from a variety of potential adversaries, with China and Russia leading the race to end American maritime military dominance.
Much of what the DOD labs do is classified, as is some of their intelligence gathering on what potential adversaries are up to, but the admiral provided some insight into what the U.S. Navy is doing and the challenges it faces, today and into the future.
Defense R&D Outlook: How has ONR’s R&D portfolio changed in the past 10 years?
Rear Adm. David J. Hahn: You have to go further back into the history and the origins of ONR, born out of the experiences the nation had in World War II. At that time, much of the research was done at the state rather than federal level, primarily to promote commerce, through university-based researchers.
But as we entered World War II, we saw the application of military technologies would be incredibly important and there was a role for the federal government to play. We began federally funding specific military projects late in the 1930s, and by the time the war came around, there was enough momentum to carry us through that.
With the end of the war, those involved did not want to lose the binding energy that had been created. They institutionalized that with the stand-up of ONR in 1946, with a charter to plan, foster, and encourage technology for the benefit of the military. During World War II, there was a patriotic spirit that moved through every U.S. citizen, including universities doing research. When the war ended, that did not naturally continue. During its first 10 years, ONR, with a relatively soft touch, convinced them we could do this kind of research in a university setting and share it with both military and civilian channels.
It wasn’t until 10 or 15 years later that the National Science Foundation got its momentum. However, the military labs funding and executing research got its start in the early 1900s, leading to the standup of NRL [U.S. Naval Research Laboratory] in the 1930s. Today, NRL is the only Navy specific lab, although we do have warfare centers that have done a fantastic job, as well.
Our portfolio is now moving to a position where we see on the horizon the need for technologies that can be applied on a naval sense to deal with peer adversaries such as China and Russia. We expect, at least in the near term, to continue that.
What are the major efforts currently underway?
With a portfolio as broad as ours, with a target of future naval power, that has a complex answer. Platforms – under, on, and above the sea – boil down to the basic sciences, and we will never leave that part of scientific discovery to someone else. We have positioned ourselves to have the right level of expertise connected to that research and to fund only those parts that have a role out there or are strictly military – for example, high-energy lasers, which have a role in manufacturing, but development there has enabled us to create a high-energy laser system that can be used on the battlefield.
There are some areas that are new, especially with the speed at which discoveries are taking place, such as AI [artificial intelligence] and what it can do. We are moving more of our research efforts into that, although we have been involved in that research for decades. But today’s computer systems are such that algorithms that could not run well enough to complete the task can be now used.
Can you prioritize the Navy’s top five research areas for me?
There are a whole lot of issues and I prefer to look at this whole set of science and technology as a set of opportunities. We have positioned ourselves, with the right expertise and connectivity across the globe, to be able to take advantage of something developing. So to say there is a top five would be misleading. There is a temporal component to the discovery and application of scientific discoveries that changes the potential. So we look at getting the deterrent capability we want by measuring how quickly we can get that out into the field and cause our potential adversaries to pause and choose an option other than military because of our people and our ability to, frankly, overwhelm them.
What new areas are anticipated in the next decade?
That goes to looking at scientific discovery through the lens of our adversary. Our role is to make sure we equip our team with the best we can and how to counter what the adversary may use, especially if they don’t play by the same rules we do, using something like altered DNA to change human beings to have enhanced abilities, which is not someplace we’re going to go. But that becomes a pretty daunting and huge challenge to counter. We’re paying more attention to that due to the huge potential that has arisen. You can think of some pretty scary things we have to work through to determine, (a), is it possible, and (b), how do we counter it.
What is ONR’s relationship with NRL, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the other service labs?
ONR and NRL and the Navy’s warfare centers have a fantastic and very robust relationship with the other service labs and DARPA, including the Coast Guard, as well as other agency research arms. That way a taxpayer dollar only gets spent once to develop new technology rather than having duplication.
And with academia and our allies?
The vast majority of our grants go to academia, and we have thousands of performers across our universities in the U.S. We have ONR Global, which has bound us to foreign labs since World War II. With our partners and allies, we can do collaborative research and spot scientific discoveries we are not doing in the U.S. The ”secret sauce” is to have academia, our defense industry, and knowledgeable scientists and officers who can deal with those.
What is the thrust and status of ONR R&D into AI?
We look at how it will create an advantage for us going forward and how we will counter it if potential adversaries put it into their systems. We use an ethical background and rigor on verification and protection of intellectual property, working through legal means to acquire technology and work with them [the creators]. China doesn’t do it that way. In their system, anything done anywhere in China – no matter how they got their hands on it – is moved into military application if the Civil-Military Fusion committee feels it is of value to the military.
Very little scientific discovery that takes place can remain hidden very long. By design, all the fundamental research in academia is shared with the whole world and speeds across the globe via the Internet. We have to understand how AI can be used in different areas, how we can use it, and how we can counter it.
What are your goals for directed energy weapons (DEWs)?
DEWs hold promise for defense and some limited offensive purposes. China also is looking into that, and we keep an eye on what they are doing. They already are testing a railgun; we don’t have a railgun on our ships yet.
What is the status of railgun development and deployment?
We remain interested in railguns and continue to explore the necessary elements leading to their operational use on a naval platform. I won’t indicate a time where we will be in position to field – it may even be possible we already have fielded. We operate today against a peer competitor who has the ability and desire to move from R&D to deployment, with greater development on unmanned platforms.
As a country, we have been here before, in the Cold War, and we remember the atmosphere and talking about and exposing things or not. So we’ve always been reluctant to talk about what we’re doing. We certainly don’t want to go into conflict with China, but we must be in position to field an advantage that will allow us to win if we do.
China has seen how the West has advanced through scientific discovery, both commercial and the military. And they see one of the means to promote how well China is doing is through the publication of papers, but there is a quantity vs. quality issue, as many of their papers duplicate what already has been done.
How important are UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) and autonomous small- to mid-size surface and undersea unmanned platforms?
Pretty important. It always comes down to massing effects. In World War II, with the advent of the aircraft carrier, you could mass effects with the speed and number of aircraft to a point in space. Looking at today, the movement from manned to unmanned aircraft is a natural progression, both in the air and on the surface and subsurface of the ocean. The key is how you control those, especially if you attach munitions to them. But until we can move those to the point where they can be used safely and effectively, they won’t be used.
What work is ONR doing with respect to GPS alternatives?
Precision navigation and timing are important to all the services, which is about all I’m going to say about that.
Where are you in developing defenses against EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) and cyberattacks?
Any counters to EMPs and cyberattacks are important to the Navy and our allies, but I’m not going to open my playbook for anyone to look at.
For future combat operations, how important to the Navy are: jam-proof communications; large unmanned, semi- or fully autonomous ships and submarines; advanced, long-range mine and enemy ship detection; advanced/expanded battle group defense (air, sea, subsurface)?
All four of those I would consider very important to any calculus trying to describe future Navy power. The importance of mass effects at any point in space at a time of your choosing is very important.
How do the ships and weapons of potential adversary navies match those of the U.S. Navy?
There’s not as great an advantage as we would like, either in quantity or quality. We’re uncomfortably close in some areas and must do anything we can – with a sensitivity to the fact these are taxpayer dollars and there are lots of pressures on the budget – to create capacity and capability, not just for the U.S. Navy, but for all the services and our allies. In the future, it will be an all-domain environment, not just one service doing the bulk of the combat effort.
When you look at the away fight, in somebody else’s backyard, it’s not just their navy you have to consider, but the rest of their military force. Land-based forces that project out, for example. There’s an old saying that “you never fight a fort with a ship,” but that’s what we’re looking at. So what we have to do is much larger than just the maritime capabilities of a potential adversary.
If, as some argue, the age of the aircraft supercarrier is nearly over, what are the alternatives and what is ONR looking at?
I don’t agree with the premise. If you’re about being able to have mobility of forces and create mass effects at a time and place of your choosing, the aircraft carrier is an awesome and unmatched capability. So it’s not that the age of the supercarrier is over, but how do we best equip that carrier to do what it needs to do in future conflicts and stay ahead of the adversary.
What is ONR doing to improve the Navy’s operational capabilities in the Arctic?
We have long been involved in the Arctic, which is just an extension of the rest of the blue part of the globe. As it becomes more accessible, we need to be in a position to understand the changes occurring and the effects on our current and planned platforms. We continue to have scientific missions using more modern tools and systems to monitor that area, as well as keep an eye on what potential adversaries are doing.
Is there anything else you would like to add or expand upon?
The DOD labs, which are made up not by facilities and equipment but by people, are a necessary element of our enterprise across DOD. The NRL has just shy of 1,000 Ph.D.s doing bench-level scientific research and discovery, along with hundreds of scientists and engineers who take what they come up with and move it forward, which helps not only the military but the commercial world, as well.
And that moves across decades. For example, many elements of the iPhone were the result of federally funded research, without which Apple and others would not have been able to create the world we have today in communications. You can trace advances in almost any area back to federally funded R&D, which is an enabling capability that gives advantage to our team. So we can’t discount the DOD labs at the worst possible moment. You can’t just spin those up overnight. We did that prior to World War II and we simply were not ready for what our adversaries were able to do. So DOD labs are vitally important, more so in peacetime than in war.
This interview originally appears in Defense R&D Outlook 2019.