This Naval Research innovation initiative suddenly seems super relevant

In its ongoing search for innovation towards the strategic edge, the Office of Naval Research has turned to academic. ONR recently sponsored a research project ...

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In its ongoing search for innovation towards the strategic edge, the Office of Naval Research has turned to academia. ONR recently sponsored a research project called the Gordian Knot For National Security Innovation. It’s housed at Stanford University. For what’s been happening since the center opened last fall the Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the chief of Naval Research, Rear Adm. Lorin Selby.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Adm. Selby, good to have you on.

Lorin Selby: Hi Tom, it’s great to be with you today.

Tom Temin: And I want to start with the name of this project, the Gordian Knot for National Security Innovation. Nobody untied the Gordian Knot, it was just sliced in half with a sword stroke. So is that the kind of breakthrough you’re looking for here?

Lorin Selby: Yeah, I mean, so think about so you get this Gordian Knot, which was supposed to be some intractable unsolvable knot. And I think the theory was that it was proposed that the person who could untie that would become the king of Asia. Well, Alexander the Great apparently walks in, he looks that knot, he says, let me take my sword out. He just like whacked into it. It kind of reminds me that seen in the Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the guy comes out with a sword swishing away, and Harrison Ford pulls out his revolver and just shoots him, I’m like, OK, got it, let’s get right to the chase. But that’s what I’m looking for is those kind of orthogonal, outside the box ideas that we traditionally just are not able to come up with because we become so constrained by our existing bureaucracies, existing processes. And we sometimes can’t get out of our own way to go find those kinds of solutions. So I’m trying to energize this process.

Tom Temin: And that seems particularly relevant right now with what has been going on overseas for the past few days. You have a military with very old physical platforms and tubes and hulls and so forth. But they have modernized them with the intelligence in what is coming out of those platforms. And in some ways, it’s a way of thinking more than a technological challenge?

Lorin Selby: Yeah, what’s going on right now, obviously, in Ukraine is atrocious. And that is just one further example of basically the fact that the world we live in today is not a safe place. And there are players on the world stage out there that are trying to find ways to subvert world order that we have grown accustomed to, and that has allowed our economies of many nations around this world to flourish. Freedom for those who are part of democratically aligned nations are being threatened. And this is just one example. There are many others. And you know it, let me just frame it for you. Because even before the Ukrainian thing came up, I think you and I and your listeners, all sense we’re in a kind of a very pivotal, tumultuous time in history. And some of it is driven by the politics on the world stage, some stuff you’re seeing right now with Russia and Ukraine, but much of it is actually being driven by technology. And I think all of us are recognizing that technology is racing ahead at a rapid pace. But the systems that we have in place to live our lives are failing to keep up with that technology.

Now, there’s some examples like SpaceX, Apple, Google, where they’ve kind of figured it out. And they have become truly digital companies. And they’re actually adapting and operating very well in that environment. But there are many others. And I think the majority of other companies, organizations, governments that are struggling to figure out how to keep up. And so I think that sense of that discomfort right now with Ukraine is now being taken to the next level. This is not just about feeling uncomfortable. This is about people dying, and companies being overthrown because of some of these waves of change that are being experienced. So I am trying to find ways to energize folks to think differently about the world we live in today and challenge every assumption. It’s not just about providing new kit or hardware to the warfighter. That’s important. But it’s also about challenging our processes, or bureaucracy, finding different ways to do business so we can go faster.

Tom Temin: Now, from a practical standpoint, the ONR looks at so many domains of physics and projectiles and kinetics and hulls, you name it, what would be the scope of what you’re doing here at Stanford?

Lorin Selby: This is going to be everything from unique technologies, biotech, artificial intelligence, hypersonics, quantum, also, it’s gonna be about policy procedure, things that we can change that allow us to do things differently. So it’s really across the spectrum. It’s not just about things, but it’s about the way we do business, the way we think. It’s about training people to just be innovators. It’s not intuitive for people to think like that so we’re training people to think differently about how they approach problems.

Tom Temin: And what form will this take research projects at the individual level? I mean, how does this work operationally?

Lorin Selby: Well, so just for background, we’ve actually been working with Stanford for a while. I mean, in fact, they were one of the first grants we provided back in 1946. So in our is 75 years old now. That was one of the first grants and it was for Stanford Engineering and worked on microwave, micro electronics, things like the Minuteman II missile systems. A lot of things came out of that and they’re like, initial semiconductor work came out of that in this research. So we’ve had a long partnership.

We’ve been doing something called Hacking for Defense for many years, which Stanford and Stanford has now kind of taken that and they’re running with it on their own. It’s also been going out to many other universities. But this is where we provide, well, we, it’s not just us, it’s other parts of the government, provide example problems to Stanford, they take those into the classroom, and had teams of students working with professors, and they bring in speakers like myself and others to talk about things, but they have them think about how could they solve this problem in a different way. And it’s resulted in some really kind of interesting things. You know, this, I mean, just think about, think about the younger generations, right? They come in with blinders wide open, and they come up with ideas that you and I unfortunately, that’s kind of in the rearview, I mean, we I still come up with good ideas once in a while. I’m sure you do too, but many more commodities, younger folks. And it’s our job now to take those and elevate, magnify, put the megaphone up to their mouth to blast the message out, because there’s some gems in there that will help us actually change the world.

Tom Temin: We are speaking with Rear Adm. Lorin Selby, he’s Chief of Naval Research, it’s only been going four months, this latest round, give us some examples.

Lorin Selby: Right now, the latest what we’re trying to actually do for kind of first project here. So I’ve been on a campaign that I call reimagining naval power. So again, naval power is Navy and Marine Corps, because I’m part of the Department of the Navy. So it’s both the Navy and Marine Corps. So I came to the job about 19 or so months ago now. And I looked around I said, OK, we’ve got some amazing hardware in the military, amazing systems, very complex, very high end. But the world is moving to a place where I believe a lot of the things that can actually provide value are actually smaller, meaning cheaper, less complex, and you can proliferate in numbers, like hundreds or thousands. These are things like autonomous systems, unmanned or uncrewed, as the British would say, uncrewed systems. Maybe just unattended sentries, you could scatter over the ocean or drop on the floor. I think it’s a different world.

Now, I’m not suggesting you still don’t need these more complex things, because you do. And there may be a day late this century where you don’t, but for now, you do. But they need to be augmented, complemented with some of these other capabilities to provide additional feeds of information. So one of the first projects that I’ve got the Gordian Knot Center thinking about is how do we bring together a team of thought leaders and students to try to challenge some of our existing assumptions and try to propose some additional ideas. The idea that I have put on table is what I call a hedge strategy or a plan B. And that is a strategy where we go after the small, the agile and the many. And what I mean by that is small systems that have a cost point that is low enough, so that can have many of them. So that many piece, and it’s an agile, I don’t necessarily mean agility in the physical space, although that’s important. But it’s more in the ability to rapidly adapt the technology and synergy. So agility, in a sense, I can change what it looks like, what it sounds like, what kind of signals it puts out. And we can do that, because most of the systems I’m talking about, have digital backbones that are software based. And so the software can be rapidly changed to make these things look differently actively and provide different information. That’s what I’m going after first.

Tom Temin: If that sounds like a challenge for the human machine interface, because the software can adapt, but the thinking has to adapt in a situation where well, this column is kind of blocked, we’re watching this in Ukraine, the main road in hasn’t been going so well. So maybe they’re circling around more to the northeast or something, is that kind of part of this?

Lorin Selby: That will be a part of that. I’m hoping that something comes out of this, you know, I don’t want to teach the jury, I want to let them come up with the ideas and then tell me. But just so you know, I actually have another initiative that I’m working right here at ONR that I call decision superiority. And that kind of gets after what you’re saying there. So we all think, react, make decisions differently, the more we can understand how we make those decisions, and how our brain functions, how the input in our eyes, our ears, how that is assessed. How do we optimize the way information is collected, assimilated and presented to the human, whether it’s visual form, auditory, whatever, how do we do that in a way that I have a better chance of making a decision faster than you? And hopefully, righer, may not always right, but but righer than you? Is that a word? I don’t know. But, but more right and wrong.

Tom Temin: More right.

Lorin Selby: Yeah, right. So that’s what I’m trying to get after. That’s decision security. That’s a whole nother initiative that I’m actually we’re just getting started on this year. Because I think while there’s a lot of work that’s been done on many aspects of this, you know, brain science, visual, I don’t think we today really put the whole thing together in a context that I want to make a better decision more often than my adversary does. And that may sound really? But as we look at we’re not really there yet. And because a lot of this is based on kind of new brain science that we know more about every single day, as well as the ability with software to rapidly change the way information is collected, analyzed and presented. This is a very recent opportunity for some amazing discovery. And I think just amazing acceleration of our ability to do better, faster.

Tom Temin: And I want to ask you about the human aspect of this, especially at Stanford University in some of the other academic areas where ONR and other research facilities of the military are engaged. You know, in the military, there’s tradition of butting heads over ideas. And at some point, somebody says, OK, this is the way we go, you know, on campuses, do you find that the people involved from the campuses are able to maybe abandon some of the ideas that seem to be so important about coloring books, and safe spaces and so forth, and really talk about lethality and talk about the future of things in a way that people are going to argue back with you. And it might get heated.

Lorin Selby: A lot of that’s because of those, again, there, they bring in the kids or kids, students who were younger. So the blinders are wide open, they’re not as restricted on what they what they already believe, because they just haven’t lived enough life yet. There’s goodness in that, there’s also a little sometimes, you know, you got to kind of give a little reality, that’s OK. But I think that will result in some of that thinking that will challenge a lot of our assumptions and things that are not gonna be popular in a place like the Pentagon, at least not until they’ve been socialized in the mean, you try to show, let me explain you what this can really do. And that’s also something that my organization can actually take some of those ideas. And we can actually go do experiments to actually show maybe some will be in Mali, some digital world, but some will be with real hardware. And again, the hardware I’m talking about is mostly going to be much lower cost things. So we can actually do experiments, hopefully more frequently, more widely. So more people get to see, and really challenge our assumptions by bringing in some of these new ideas, new thinking with some of this new kit, this new hardware.

Tom Temin: And it mentions here in some of the values of this Gordian Knot Project, that you want to look at the technology insights and expertise of Stanford Engineering. So that’s another element that seems to be coming in here.

Lorin Selby: In this because it resides at Stanford, I mean, we’re obviously gonna look wide and far. And again, when these teams get set up, they reach out, you know, anywhere and everywhere they can reach into the providing insights. Clearly being in Silicon Valley. You know, as you know, there’s a host of technology companies in that part of the world. There’s a host of startups out there, there’s a lot of venture capital out there, which is also something we hope to maybe get them excited. Because one of my premises here, there’s I think there’s a sector of our society that is just waiting to be tapped into, it’s like, you know, coach put me in, I’m ready to go. There are so many companies out there, and some they’re not even companies yet just a couple folks that have a good idea that are in figuring out how do I get this idea to the right thought leader inside the Pentagon or some other part of the military or the government? I mean, this is really a whole government approach we’ve got to take on here because it’s not just the military, more than anything, Ukraine not being part of this, but more than anything, we’re in an economic war with China. This is really an economic war, right, this point now, could it go like Ukraine? Yeah, unfortunately, it could. But if we could figure out a way to energize the economy of this nation, and other like minded nations around the globe, working together, I just don’t think China could keep up. I really don’t we, if we can unleash that furnace, that energy, that excitement, we can scale this up to a level that even China would have a hard time competing with.

I grew up as a submarine warfare officer, very much a follow the rules, follow procedure kind of guy. I’ve gotten to a point in my life where not that I don’t want to follow rules that’s still important for operating nuclear submarines and other things. But there are definitely places where we need to start jumping outside our normal lanes of thinking and start taking some risks that we have not done in the past. And I’m trying to find ways you can tell I’m kind of I’m kind of there. So now I’m trying to find ways to get my my friends as it were there that are at my level or higher, because while they all recognize the challenge, they all recognize the threat. I think they struggle with how do we do that. And again, sometimes because we sometimes grew up in very narrow slices. And so we don’t know what’s too far afield from us. I have been blessed in my career to have many, many jobs in and around acquisition. I mean, I’ve had almost every job in around acquisition. I’ve had some time on Capitol Hill as a liaison, an officer on a nuclear submarine, I have seen a lot and that is just dumb luck, Tom. I’m just, I don’t know how it happened. But it did. So I’m in a position where I now can see across many different lanes, and I’m sure there’s stuff I’m missing. But I see a lot. And I’m just here to tell you, if we don’t make some major changes in the way we do business, we’re going to be struggling to keep up again, people understand that, but they need some guidance and help figure out how to do that. I’m trying to provide some of that.

Tom Temin: You mentioned acquisition. And that’s an important point here because at some point, these technologies and these ideas need to be commercialized and because of the budgeting and planning process of the Pentagon, which ironically was brought in by whiz kids of decades ago, right out of college almost or you know, some of them were, but it has created what is commonly referred to as the Valley of Death for ideas to operationalizing, and acquisition is in the middle of all of that. So does this particular project, look at the acquisition aspects? Or do you have that being researched somewhere else?

Lorin Selby: Yes, so the Valley of Death, or what I call the Moat of Despair, because Valley implies it’s a natural phenomenon. It’s not natural. It’s a moat. It’s intentionally dug, usually around a PEO, program executive officer, because he or she is trying to keep their programs on cost, schedule, and performance, but they see new things, even things that will enhance performance as somewhat risky, because it could risk schedule, it could risk costs. So as a result, there’s a resistance to kind of new things coming in. And so when you get in these programs, especially the big complex warships, these are decades long programs. And so it becomes very hard for me to to inject new technology into that, once they’ve signed a contract to start building. And again, having been an acquisition guy, you know, I am one, having been a program manager, I’m a PEO right now in some sort of things that I do, I understand that, I get it. But I also think we could find ways to make this go better and go faster. And one is, there needs to be an owner of that bridge, whether it’s a bridge over the moat or bridge over the valley, you need to have an owner. Today, there’s no single owner. I take up technology in my ONR world, the science and technology world, and I can only push it to about TRL level 5 or 6, that’s because of the money that I have is the basic research, you know, 6.12 and three and budget parlance. OK, that’s where I take it to get to go to TRL 8 or 9 where a PEO wants it before they’re willing to put it on a system or ship or aircraft or whatever it’s gonna go on, you have to put more money in to bring it that for. That money resides normally in the PEO’s, or in a couple other pockets, but it’s normally in the PEO’s. And again, they are using that to do kind of some of their existing modernisations.

So today, it’s like a, you got to get the right people in the right room, you have a little bit of heated discussion, and then eventually, someone breaks a deal. So it takes serendipity, relationships, networks, it shouldn’t be that way. It should be more of a process. And yes, not everything needs to cross the bridge. But if you have an owner of the bridge, who’s given authority and money, the right kind of money, you could move things across the bridge faster. And then a PEO could say yes or no if they still need to. But I think it’d be far more yeses than nos if you do this right.

So I’m trying to figure out how to create the bridge. And then maybe be the owner, I don’t know, but but at least propose the idea. And figure out how to do that. That’s a conversation that is actually getting pretty exciting right now in the building. So we’ll see where this goes. But I think this is an important aspect of how you technology faster. Put one person in charge, and then let them own it, give them the authorities and move stuff across. Go back to World War II. Think about how Vannevar Bush was the guy that you know, that President Roosevelt trusted for all science and technology stuff. Things like the Manhattan Project came out of it. Think about Rickover, Rickover came out and you know, out of nowhere, just kind of took over and just did it. There were proposals that it should be split between many different bureaus in the Navy. And he said no, that won’t work. You have to single up all lines on one, one individual one organization and let him do it and they fail. OK, fire him and put him aside. But let’s give him a chance. So that bridge concept is really important. We’ve got to figure it out that piece out because I think that’s a critical link here that could actually save this, make us go much faster.

Tom Temin: Rear Adm. Lorin Selby as Chief of Naval Research. Thanks so much.

Lorin Selby: Tom this has been fantastic, great conversation really enjoyed it.

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