Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) is among the DOD’s top warfighting forces working to develop a robust defense against the advances and aggressive actions of America’s adversaries in the fight to counter violent extremists organizations and great power competition. To that end, NSWC established a new department within its headquarters structure – the N9 Future Concepts and Innovation directorate.
This small and empowered team serves as the community’s headlights, searching in the often unexplored spaces of horizon technologies and accelerating technology sectors to identify and capitalize on transformational and exponentially disruptive opportunities, which will increase precision, speed, and lethality on the battlefield while also reducing risk to mission and force, and costs.
Special Operations Outlook recently had the unique opportunity to discuss the new organization with Director Capt. Christian Dunbar, and Deputy Director Dr. Bruce Morris, who explained that, overall, the N9 acts as the Naval Special Warfare Command’s Strategic Innovation element, and is NSWC’s mechanism/vehicle to conceptualize and develop future and transformational operational concepts within the context of strategic guidance, new and challenging security environments, and revolutionary commercial technologies.
Asked about the thinking behind the creation of the new directorate, Dunbar indicated it came about as a result of NSWC leadership identifying it had a potential pathfinder role to play in supporting the DOD’s efforts to deter future threats and maintain U.S. technological superiority. Introduced in 2014, the Third Offset Strategy was an initiation of DOD’s Defense Innovation Initiative.
“Innovation, as a deliberate line of effort in the force, was directed by Vice Adm. [Tim] Szymanski during NSWC’s recent ‘Force Optimization’ holistic future force analysis,” Dunbar said. “In the ideation process, we began by looking at industry, applying some of its best innovation practices and then molding them with what already existed inside of the Department of Defense. That was between 2017-2018. Vice Adm. Szymanski, as the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, stood up the N9 as part of Force Optimization, and our current commander, Rear Adm. Collin Green, has expanded on it.”
The N9 charter is to explore and develop transformational and disruptive or 10x concepts in the areas of technology, process, and organization, and synchronize its efforts with both the assistant chief of staff for plans, assessments, and strategy (N5), and the assistant chief of staff for resources, requirements, and assessments (N8). Collectively, their goal is to inform and help balance future NSW strategy and capabilities between countering violent extremist organizations and addressing great power competition. As such, the N9 directorate clearly supports NSW’s Vision 2030 “call to action” along the paths to strengthen, compete and reform the force [see Special Operations Outlook 2019-2020].
Dunbar said that the team is currently structured with “about five individuals.” In addition to himself and Morris, the team also includes a technically savvy senior enlisted adviser, an operations officer, and additional operational subject matter experts (SMEs). “We occasionally increase by one or two individuals with reservists that we bring on board,” he said, noting that the Reserve talent enables the team to “flow industry and technical expertise in and out as we ‘surge to ideas’ using those resources.”
Outlining some of the N9 directorate’s current efforts in support of NSWC’s Vision 2030, Dunbar explained, “Vision 2030 has three lines of effort: strengthen; compete; and reform, and it echoes a great deal of what the U.S. Navy, USSOCOM [U.S. Special Operations Command], and the NDS [National Defense Strategy] were charging us to do in the rapid innovation space. Directly, we [N9] are given specified tasks to expand innovation across the community, increasing synergy and processes. Half of our work is focused on five-to-15-year technology horizons, and the other half focused on the possibilities of right now.”
He offered the example of the directorate’s exploration of agile acquisition tied to Vision 2030’s “reform” line of effort.
“One of the things we worked on right away was an exploration of what agile acquisition really meant and with whom we might want to partner,” he said. “We did a lot of exploration into SBIRs [Small Business Innovative Research], AFWERX, SOFWERX, DIU [Defense Innovation Unit – DOD], U.S. Army Futures Command, the Secretary of Defense’s Close Combat Lethality Task Force, and other transactional authorities. We really got a good handful of lessons learned that we’re now in the process of applying within our organization.”
Morris elaborated, “I would highlight the process of applying it within the organization and add that, as any ‘innovation’ team would attest, beyond the initial antibodies and the frozen middle, most organizations don’t have an innovation challenge; they have an innovation onboarding challenge. This is our team’s top priority: to ensure that lasting processes and rhythms are established within our first years of operating.”
“Our charter is [to] act like a set of headlights, maybe even with high beams, for the community,” Dunbar added. “That allows us to see where the accelerating technology sectors are moving, project how that’s going to change our operating environment and our adversaries’ capabilities, and then explore concepts that change the way we will fight – transformational innovation. Then we need to figure out what else we need to do to onboard it.”
Within those accelerating technology sectors, Dunbar and Morris both highlighted areas where the evolution of multiple technologies opened the door to the introduction of disruptive concepts.
Dunbar started by clarifying differences between transformational and disruptive concepts.
“We used business and academic theory to discern the differentiation between transformational and disruptive innovation. One is completely transforming the way we do business to have different offerings, different value propositions, different ways to solve a customer’s need or a market’s need,” he said. “By contrast, disruption, as adapted for our use, is really more akin to exponential disruption to our current offerings. How do we get a 10X result, or 10 times result, out of an application of technology for our advantage and before our competition?”
He referenced the frequently cited industry example of Blockbuster Video being disrupted by Netflix, noting, “If you were Blockbuster, you got disrupted by someone using a new digital model and completely changing the way you should have been doing business. You were too focused on sustaining innovation of your core operations and efficiencies and missed an outside use of technology applied to your core business.”
“So we’re doing the same thing, somewhat like mobilizing a corporate venture capital model for strategic innovation,” he said. “Instead of corporate venture capital as a financial investment trying to make money for the organization, our model is being out there exploring to see where the technology is that can then be adapted to our core business with a disruptive return on investment.”
Morris offered the example of the N9 directorate focus on autonomous mobile robotics (AMR), describing it as “an accelerating commercial technology sector being applied to our mission.
“In the DOD, robotic autonomous systems [RAS] only has pockets of thought leaders, let alone technological excellence and investment relative to the commercial sector,” he said. “Industry’s ability to endorse, develop, and integrate AMR into their core offerings and value proposition is on an exponential up-curve. What we have done is taken a deep dive into all of the core and supporting technologies for applying AMR/RAS and their increasing levels of autonomy applied toward the NSW mission set.”
He continued, “Our team is confident that AMR/RAS, using higher levels of autonomy and less reliance on remote operation by humans, is one of the most promising and transformational opportunities in warfare. This is very intriguing in an organization that is human capacity-limited. Combine full movement and taskoriented autonomy with a holistic computer vision suite on organic sensors, precision-guided munitions, low-to-no-latency command and control supported by a 5G backbone and unlimited compute on the machine or the tactical cloud, and now you have a convergence of technologies that disrupts the maneuver battlefield. Machine learning algorithms to support maneuver on the battlefield is truly a game-changing capability for increasing precision, capacity, speed, and lethality, while significantly reducing risk to SOF personnel.”
“There are a lot of things that go into AMR,” Dunbar added. “It’s job analysis. It’s communication. It’s operational data. It’s task data. In our world of robotic autonomous systems, which is the DOD’s vernacular, the strategies probably haven’t really collapsed into all of these enabling technologies in the systems engineering approach. You have to ask things like, ‘Where’s my data? Where’s it stored? Where’s my compute-on-the-edge? Where’s my tactical cloud? Can I communicate without latency? What are the things that need zero latency or can absorb some latency?’ All of those pieces have to get brought to bear. So, ultimately, a team like ours can say, ‘Okay, I’m watching these technology horizons. I see a convergence of about six or seven of these, and that convergence now enables this new concept.’”
He noted that the process also advises DOD research and development investments, “because our team is watching the way the commercial market is accelerating the technology and developing feasible and viable concepts to be developed.”
Morris expanded on the example, highlighting a visit to SOFWERX in Tampa, Florida. The visit had been designed to examine how special reconnaissance might be performed in the year 2030, based on projections of USSOCOM’s future operating environment.
“That future environment might include things like denied comms or denied GPS,” he said. “But it was really where we were trying to solve that 2030 problem for special reconnaissance where operational concepts for autonomous mobile robotics fell out. In fact, it was only after we came back to Coronado and thought about it for a while that we realized that this is really going to apply to a lot more things than just special reconnaissance, because it was more than just the robot. In fact, it was more than just an intelligent robot with artificial intelligence and machine learning on it. We realized that by allowing lots of robots to work together and allowing for human-machine teaming of that larger mix, utilizing 5G technology and not necessarily moving lots of data around on the battlefield like we do today, but instead doing a lot of ‘compute on device’ on the robots themselves and on the operator, and on the edge – we would need to bring our own network forward with us to be able to do this – we really came out with a very disruptive, concept. And we call that the Artificial Intelligence [AI] for Small Unit Maneuver [AI/SUM] transformational concept.”
Dunbar and Morris characterized AI/SUM as representing the convergence of ubiquitous operationally relevant data, 5G connectivity, unlimited compute-on-the-edge, computer vision libraries, and autonomy in mobile robotics, all integrated into SOF operational concepts to create dilemmas, disruption, and overmatch for adversaries across the competition continuum. As envisioned, the future of AI/SUM involves NSW’s tactical maneuver elements teamed with swarms of cooperatively intelligent autonomous mobile robots to gain, maintain, and extend access in contested and complex environments, providing decision advantage and the precise application of effects.
Another early accomplishment for the N9 directorate has involved the establishment and expansion of NSW’s “Blue Network,” a “crowd and community” concept that draws support from NSW personnel assigned to other locations and billets. “This initiative really reflects the guidance provided by the NDS, which calls for outreach to academia and industry.
“At the time, in our shop we were reading a book called Exponential Organizations,” he said. “And part of that book explored crowd and community as a method for innovation generation and development. We ideated on how we could energize our [NSW’s] crowd and community, to find all of the ways that we can get into academia and industry. Our initial map found that we’ve got more than 70 NSW personnel assigned or located in academic institutions or at places like DIU, with unique access to industry. Further, we turned to focused targeted industries, and we discovered that our Reserves represented a significant piece as well.
“After we mapped it and identified the concept, it was formalized by Rear Adm. Green under the moniker of the Blue Network,” he said, “And at that point, it was just a matter of networking teammates and putting people to work.”
Current N9 activities involve working across elements of the Blue Network to explore transformational and disruptive concepts and opportunities and ensure they are developed and assessed in a rigorous, repeatable, and recognized process informing the strategy and future with confidence.
In parallel with continuing efforts focused on tying clusters of NSW personnel into collaborative ecosystems, N9 has also been conducting a highly successful pilot program to reach targeted industries through its Reserve Force. In support of this program, NSW Group 11 has recently established a specialized Naval Reserve unit specifically for NSW’s innovation support, finding and harnessing reservist talent for their “day job” expertise. That Reserve unit has grown from five to 10 members over the last 18 months, and is projected to grow to 20 in FY 21. “It’s not just SEALs and SWCCs [Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crewmen] who are out there in the Reserve community, but also those who are in industries of interest like AI and data,” Dunbar said. “If we find other experts in the Reserve Force or industry experts we could facilitate entering the Reserves, we can bring them into those spots for drilling reservists. They are essentially attached to our team in the N9, working on these transformational concepts with a real understanding of the technology. They are essentially serving as advisers on the staff. One of our highlights is we’ve got an industry chief data scientist working at a multibillion-dollar corporation. He’s a reservist now, part of our network, and advising us as we’re trying to build out our strategy for digital modernization and transformation.”
Asked where the greatest innovation challenges exist today, Dunbar chose his words carefully. “I think that we still don’t have a common understanding of the word ‘innovation’ in the DOD,” he said. “Everybody thinks it’s theirs. And I would say that everybody is right. Our big challenge is organizing it.”
He continued, “The fact is that innovation is everywhere in NSW and the DOD. We see successful innovation in all of our major capability portfolios. We see it working well in responding to tactical challenges from the grass roots. Our challenge is to decide how much to invest and how rapidly to respond based on impact and scale. However, as an organization, we would assess ourselves as relatively successful in this horizon of sustaining innovation with some room for improvement.
“We have also seen a significant change and focus in the DOD to conduct adjacent innovation,” he added. “This horizon of innovation is marked by a significant National Defense Strategy shift to great power competition. The NDS shift is a great catalyst for significant innovation efforts, and we see the leadership across the department creating the environment to enable these efforts that may not have traditionally been present. Our challenge will be to take stock of all of our efforts inside of NSW, identify where we best enable the rapidly innovating joint force … as well as other elements of national power, and also identify where we have a unique value proposition that was previously untapped.”
“The third horizon of transformative [and disruptive] innovation is certainly where the majority of innovation challenges lie,” Dunbar continued. “Like many organizations, we are not a digital company at the core. As such, we struggle to comprehensively understand the whole of implications of innovating in the digital space and prioritizing resources and talent toward that end. Essentially, digital modernization and transformation is viewed as ‘new start’ for the DOD and competes against other warfighting resources instead of getting the benefit of being viewed as an entire strategy shift requiring new investments. We’re seeing that ship swinging now, but it will take significant time to swing that ship. It will be a journey.
“Over the past decade, commercial industries have designed, architected, and demonstrated the ability to release the full potential of digital networks, data, algorithms, and AI. NSW and SOF can continue to learn from industry and design our own ability to optimize the impact of digitization. Digital transformation enables a greater potential for NSW to embed learning, iteration, and innovation in its operating model at pace and scale to enable greater speed for creating new value propositions to compete, strengthen, and reform, to be the NSW our nation needs,” he said.
Morris concurred, highlighting the fact that leadership understands this and is pointing to the need to “bring the necessary talent on board.”
“We’re just going to have to work hard on more than just speeding it up,” he said. “Everyone knows by going digital we can make increases in our understanding 1,000 times faster. But we’ve got to get the technical leadership and engineering talent on board. We can’t take existing people and then just give them a new job title. We actually have to bring these experts from the outside in. So the challenge is how to do that and how to do that quickly. And I think everyone’s struggling with that competition for talent.”
He added, “To [USSOCOM Commander] Gen. [Richard] Clarke’s credit, he’s recognized the challenge. And he’s tasked his Chief Data Officer Dave Spirk, who is an HQE [highly qualified expert] hire brought on as the chief data officer, to help him shape that. We often have conversations with Dave where we talk about this. It’s just that it’s new, and sometimes new things just take a little bit longer to onboard.”
“We’ve also got many senior leaders in NSW that have embraced this,” Dunbar said. “NSW is in the process of finalizing our search process for an HQE in our own headquarters to be our force technology officer. That’s a good step forward.
“So we’re doing it. And we need people to apply. Ultimately the team will fill out with software experts and data science experts over time. While we have some initial nascent movement, I think we are poised to establish a larger investment in targeting talent from the commercial sector to help our digital modernization and transformation plans,” he said. “The leadership has identified this [NSW modernization and transformation] as being imperative to achieving Vision 2030. It’s just that it’s new and it’s complex. So it’s important to have a team that can go out, independent of the daily battle rhythm of ‘man, train, organize, and equip’, and explore horizons and opportunities for our community. We, as headlights, can search around in the often unexplored spaces of horizon technologies and accelerating technology sectors, bring that back, and ideate and generate impactful applications to our mission, and package some of the complex technologies found there in tangible military concepts to ensure our competitive advantage and lethality overmatch for the future.”
This article originally appears in the following edition of Special Operations Outlook: