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“And without a respectable Navy – alas, America! – John Paul Jones

Often referred to as the “Father of the American Navy” for his daring naval exploits during the Revolutionary War, Captain John Paul Jones made his mark on the future of American naval forces in his successful defeat of British warships Serapis and Countess of Scarborough off the coast of England. And part of his plan for the American Navy was “forming a proper corps of sea officers…by teaching them the naval tactics in a fleet of evolution.”

The United States Navy has evolved from wooden sailing ships at its founding on October 13, 1775, to steel-hulled cruisers and battleships in the late 1800s, to the planes and aircraft carriers that helped secure victory in World War II. Nuclear-powered surface ships and submarines were first commissioned in the 1950s, and President Ronald Reagan unveiled a modernized 600-ship Navy in the 1980s.

But what does evolution mean for the U.S. Navy in the age of digital disruption and the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

For Chief of Naval Research Rear Admiral Lorin C. Selby, it means complementing traditional naval submarine, surface, and aviation platforms with “the small, the agile, and the many – small unmanned, autonomous platforms that can be constructed, tested and adapted quickly; can be built in large numbers; and are less expensive than larger platforms.” Selby believes this Strategic Hedge can deter China, Russia, and other adversaries by deploying these inexpensive platforms en masse, thereby overwhelming our adversaries with a near-limitless supply of replacements.

Admiral Selby has said that “America is at its best when our government and our business sector are aligned with common goals.” That is particularly true now, when government- and military-funded research and development has shrunk. Defense Innovation Unit Director Michael Brown has stated that the U.S. government’s funding of R&D worldwide is now only 3%, compared with approximately 36% in 1960.

Selby recently shared his thoughts on innovating naval innovation, partnering with industry, and pivoting to facilitate innovation.

You are a Rickover-trained submarine officer who has also led the Naval Surface Warfare Center, so you’ve got experience on naval platforms below and on the surface of the sea. What are the top experiences you have had that prepared you to lead the future of the Navy’s research and innovation to address new and emerging threats?

Admiral Lorin Selby: It all started for me as a nuclear engineering major and Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps midshipman at the University of Virginia. I got to work at the reactor and see what nuclear technology could do. After that I got to see the technology firsthand as a submarine officer. And then I went to graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I was exposed to some of the brightest minds on the planet. One of my professors had been in Idaho when the first naval reactor went critical [began to operate at steady state], and he described how they were standing in the control room with paper calculations and slide rules, and how amazingly close they were for what today you’d consider imprecision. All those experiences really allowed me to get deep insight into where the technology was going.

Throughout, I also became aware of what I considered a shift away from a world where most research and technology development was driven by the U.S. government, with funding in government laboratories or those established by the government like Bell Labs, to being driven by private industry, places like Silicon Valley, driven by private capital. As I advanced in my career and commanded the USS Greeneville in Hawaii, I started realizing that the technologies that were available in our private lives, like my personal computer, had more power than the computers on my submarine. I realized there was this tension and need for government to be able to start bringing technologies from outside which was a bit anathema to the way we traditionally did business.

Fortunately, I had a few friends who encouraged me to join the Navy’s acquisition corps, where I felt I could have a role in transforming the future of the Navy and Marine Corps. And that’s where it really hit me that we are now living in a world where technology is outside the lifelines of the government, and inside the lifelines of the government we are operating on a market that is tuned for 1986 when I was commissioned in the Navy.

Pivoting is critical to successful innovation: becoming fascinated with a problem, building a minimum viable product, and quickly pivoting away from what doesn’t work to what you think will. What pivots are needed in Naval innovation, and what impact could they have?

Selby: The acquisition system we have today is not broken, I’ll be very clear about that. It’s tuned to do exactly what it does, and it arguably does pretty well. We get the finest submarines, finest fighters, finest destroyers, finest missiles. Everyone in the world is trying to copy us or steal our stuff. We still produce the finest military equipment on the planet bar none. That’s because the acquisition system we have is really good at doing that.

Here’s the problem: the world has moved on. Today’s technology is mostly being developed outside the government, and it’s mostly digitally based, software-enabled systems and sensors. The acquisition system we have that produces these exquisite, complex warships is not the system that can produce these smaller, agile systems. We keep trying to change the current system to produce new technology and I think that’s the wrong approach. The world of complex multibillion-dollar platforms still needs to operate for the foreseeable future because it has deterrent value and offensive firepower when we need it. We need to let that system do what it does well.


But we need another acquisition ecosystem which is more of this disruptive world. In Lead and Disrupt: How to Solve the Innovator’s Dilemma, Charles Reilly and Michael Tushman lay out what you need to disrupt: ideation, incubation, and scale. I contend we ideate really well, both in and out of government. We know how to mature promising ideas in incubation, but it tends to be episodic, and isn’t resourced with the scale, speed, and repetitiveness we need. Teams come together then disband. When we need to bring the team back together, there is a lag, and they need to be retrained. And we don’t scale very well. The good ideas that come out of incubation in the military are at least two and a half years behind because the funding process is tuned to billion-dollar procurements.

For a billion-dollar platform, you want a methodical process where you get all the details right before you start to contract for it. But if you want something right now because the experiment worked and the sailor needs it right away, we don’t have a system that does that. We don’t have the money in the right buckets and the individuals with the right authority.

I really believe if we can unleash a new kind of innovation model not only in the military but throughout government, it would impact the entire American economy. We can unleash a whole new set of processes and procedures that could light the fire that would carry us through the rest of the century as the leaders of the planet. No one can innovate like the American spirit because we are open, connected, and we share, and we can iterate and change faster than anyone on the planet. Russia and China will always be on our heels wondering what will come out next and let them copy all they want. They will never be able to compete with the innovative spirit and economic engine that we can unleash.

Innovation is built on partnerships, and the Office of Naval Research has put that into practice by helping Stanford University establish the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation to connect defense, commercial and academic organizations by inspiring the future workforce and promoting technology areas of interest to the office. How are those partnerships going?

Selby: Industry is doing some great things, and I think wishes the government would develop more agile funding methods. Innovative ideas must go through a typically laborious government process to get funded. Even rapid acquisition processes experience challenges, because there are very narrowly defined funding buckets and it’s very difficult to move money between them. Budgets are very tightly controlled and anything a little outside the lines entails more process. We need to have firm accountability to taxpayers and Congress, so I completely understand the rationale, but I think there are other ways to be accountable while also being more agile.

Bureaucratic organizations became that way for a reason and are tuned for a certain point in time. When times change, organizations tend to lag the problem. We’re in the classic problem that now that the world is accelerating so rapidly, it’s hard for any organization to keep up. Particularly the Navy and Marine Corps, which are tuned for a more industrial era. As we go into a more digital, informational age, we need to find ways to morph our practices, process and accelerate.

We’re in a pivotal moment in history. If we don’t get it clear by the end of this decade we will fall behind, and I don’t know that we will recover. Countries like Russia and China, which are not as encumbered by rules and the past, do things faster. I’m not suggesting we adopt their practices, but we do need to find a way to move faster in our own democratic, free, and open way. The good news is that American industry is figuring this out. Most of the companies advancing technology are American and are still the model that most of the world wants to follow. We know how to do this.

I want to learn from the companies that weren’t digitally native, that struggled. Those that had an industrial mindset but made the leap and figured it out, like Citi, and those that didn’t. Sears with a website is not Amazon, and the design principles that drive success today are fundamentally different than industrial companies. We need to figure it out and we need to go fast.

At the beginning of your tour of duty, you publicly challenged yourself by saying “I’ve been given one thousand days in this job to make a difference for our country.” At about 700 days into the job, what is your biggest national security concern, and where do you think you are in making that difference?

Selby: My biggest concern is if we don’t as a country make the leap in this decade, we will lose.

300 days is not a lot of time left. I’ve initiated something called SCOUT to demonstrate disruptive practices and processes and bring together commercial systems and sensors. SCOUT is a repeatable system for rapidly identifying alternative ways to bring unmanned technologies to problems, operationalize them and get them to scale in the fleet. SCOUT is more about data than hardware and our proof of concept is being tested with drug interdiction. SCOUT isn’t just a technology proof of concept, it’s proof to leadership of a new process that we can extend to other use cases.

I’ve started to hear my concept of strategic hedge come back to me from other senior leaders. Most promising is that I’ve had more junior and mid-grade officers from throughout the fleet reach out to ask how they be part of my “disruptive insurgency.” If I can set the table for those behind me to have hope that there is a different future they can be part of, then I’ve succeeded. That’s the most enduring thing for any leader, to have people behind you who can take your job one day and do it even better than you can. That’s the most promising thing I’m seeing.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Follow me on LinkedIn or check out my other columns here.


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