Leveraging a decade of hard lessons, CERDEC’s NVESD looks to bolster the Army’s technology investments by embracing change
By Dr. Richard Nabors and Mr. Nathan Burkholder
Science and technology (S&T) initiatives historically have been seen as a primary support mechanism in helping to address long-term challenges that the U.S. Army will face from conventional military threats. However, as demonstrated in Iraq and Afghanistan, unconventional (asymmetric) threats, defined as those strategies and tactics employed by an often inferior force to offset their deficiencies and exploit weaknesses, continue to impact Army strategic land power, significantly raising the sustainment and life-cycle costs for military equipment.
The dynamic evolution of threats necessitates that conventional S&T acquisition development processes evolve as well. Therefore, preserving the Army’s dominance for the next 20 years and beyond will require integrating the S&T innovation lessons learned from the past decade of rapidly addressing these asymmetrical threats.
The Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD), based at Fort Belvoir, VA, is applying three overarching lessons learned on innovation from Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom (OEF and OIF) to its efforts in supporting the Army’s future strategic land power investment strategy.
LESSON ONE: IDENTIFY FIRST PRINCIPLES
A significant lesson learned from the past decade of conflict is the importance of identifying the root causes behind the challenges—their first principles—in order to develop innovative technology solutions.
This importance of identifying first principles to enable innovation technology can be seen in Elon Musk’s recent and revolutionary commercial advances at SpaceX and Tesla. In a January 2015 Business Insider interview, Musk said, “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”
Instead of looking at what everyone else was doing, SpaceX used the first-principles approach—and questioned conventional wisdom—to determine what exactly a rocket needed for its material construction. And in doing so, determined that it could build rockets at 2 percent of the cost of what everyone accepted as normal, a truly revolutionary innovation. SpaceX did this by focusing on creative, abductive thinking—looking for the most direct explanation—which promoted imagining the possible. This point of view takes much more mental energy to develop from scratch and question historical premises. Most typical organizations, including rocket manufacturers, develop technology based on inductive and deductive thinking, which is tied to past evidence and logical extrapolation and results in small incremental improvements. With first-principle thinking, SpaceX was able to innovate in clear leaps by going back to the fundamental questions affecting space travel: what needs to be accomplished, what is the real problem, what really matters to the end user.
In the case of strategic land power, the rapidly changing nature of the asymmetrical threats faced in OEF and OIF provided unique challenges for the Army to address. Many of the long-term, lifesaving technical achievements developed during those conflicts came from the Army laboratories and research centers that applied the method of first principles to look beyond the symptoms of the challenges into their fundamental elements.
Building on the demonstrated success of innovations such as airborne change detection, hyperspectral imaging and advanced ground-based radars, it is important for the Army to continue to apply resources and energy to the remaining strategic land power asymmetrical challenges, such as detecting explosive hazards in high clutter environments at much faster operational tempos to ensure future dominance and the safety of our warfighters. Doing so will continue to give the S&T community opportunities to provide effective and efficient materiel solutions with long-lasting effects.
LESSON 2: INJECT ORTHOGONAL THINKING
One of the most important distinctions about innovation is that rather than supporting the ability to “do something better,” which is more akin to incremental improvements, innovation focuses on “doing something different.” Orthogonal thinking is a catalyst for innovation and occurs when a problem is approached from a completely new angle. Orthogonal thinking implies a fresh, new perspective often provided from those not involved with what would be considered the traditional fields of study associated with the problem.
From 2007 to 2010, innovation flourished for the detection, neutralization and mitigation of asymmetric threats for ground-based platforms. This was the result, in large part, to organizations such as the Joint Improvised Explosive Device (IED) Defeat Organization and the Army’s Counter IED Task Force, led by CERDEC NVESD, which successfully adapted new processes for integrating innovative short and midterm initiatives into field-ready capabilities. These organizations explored the use of new outreach platforms, such as industry days, workshops and online forums, to engage in dialog with industry, academia and international research organizations to provide opportunities for injecting orthogonal thinking into the development process.
Additionally, the asymmetrical threats in Afghanistan and Iraq led to a positive byproduct in unifying the military and federal S&T enterprise in examining internal areas of research that could be applied in new ways against a unique threat. Engineers and scientists explored opportunities to look outside the traditional development cycles that bounded their thinking and discovered orthogonal applications and cross-domain solutions. This created opportunities for S&T investments in one area to find multiple applications; and created dual-use capabilities, which improved the overall cost-effectiveness of S&T exploratory investments across the federal enterprise. For example, microwave research by the Air Force for crowd control applications influenced the development of vehicle-based directed-energy systems that initiated IEDs used by the Army and Marine Corps. In another example, portal screening research by the Army, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration directly influenced military checkpoints and suicide bomber detection systems deployed throughout Iraq and Afghanistan.
LESSON 3: WILLINGNESS TO CHANGE
By definition, innovation creates organizational conflict. A disruptive new idea struggles to gain a foothold because it challenges convention. The military conflicts of OIF and OEF demonstrated that those organizations that could positively and rapidly embrace change were at a significant advantage in meeting the unique challenges associated with asymmetric warfare.
Asymmetric warfare allowed the enemy to adapt quickly to address the technological and military advantages held by U.S. forces and their allies. They embraced the “fail fast” approach often used in software development, which resulted in resilient organizations that were tolerant of failures and adjusted quickly to minimize the impact and cost of flawed processes and methods.
This unique threat to the conventional strength of the U.S. military encouraged the DOD acquisition community to embrace aspects of this fail-fast philosophy out of necessity to adapt to an ever-changing adversary. New organizations such as the Rapid Equipping Force were formed—going to far as to include the qualifier “rapid” right in their name. This approach of embracing rapid change can, at times, create natural tensions between maintaining core competencies within conventional approaches and quickly adapting to a changing environment. What OEF and OIF taught us is the importance for the Army S&T community to be able to do both of these things to ensure long-term success. Army S&T must maintain core competencies in key areas to preserve conventional overmatch strength but also must be able to have portions of their organization unencumbered to quickly adapt to the rapidly changing, fail-fast approach used in asymmetric warfare.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
NVESD is actively working to apply these three lessons to create an innovation-rich environment to support the Army’s efforts in addressing strategic land power initiatives such as the unconventional uses of explosive hazards to counter U.S. military superiority. One example of an innovation activity is a crowdsourcing initiative completed in 2014 that NVESD executed for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology in partnership with the Counter Terrorism Technical Support Office headed by the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low-Intensity Conflict.
This effort leveraged InnoCentive, a crowdsourcing company that accepts “challenge problems” in a range of technical areas and gives cash awards for the best solutions to solvers who meet the challenge criteria. NVESD executed two challenges focused on detecting in-road explosive hazards as well as explosively formed penetrators. This initiative used all three of the lessons learned identified above: establish first principles, inject orthogonal thinking and demonstrate willingness to change.
To begin, NVESD organized a multilaboratory team to distill the fundamental core elements that characterize these long-term challenges for asymmetric threats. In doing so, NVESD identified that, at a root level, one of the main challenges was in being able to detect and characterize man-made objects from the natural environment. Using this first-principles approach, NVESD discovered similarities between the Army’s military problem and challenges facing the commercial autonomous vehicle industry. Similar to SpaceX’s experience, by taking a fresh look at the fundamentals, NVESD was able to identify new opportunities for exploring cost-effective innovations.
This iterative process took several weeks to complete and was critical to ensuring a sound foundation upon which to build the prize-based challenges—in essence, it made sure that the Army generated external innovation in response to the right questions. Narrowly defined problem statements may result in too few responses by unintentionally forcing “solvers” toward a subjective viewpoint regarding the nature of the solution. Similar risks also apply to problem statements that are too broad. Careful work was required at the start to identify those portions of the overall problem that were most appropriate and suited for this process.
NVESD broke down the problems into their first principles and posted them on InnoCentive in a manner that obfuscated their source and was devoid of their military context. This helped NVESD ensure the widest possible dissemination of the challenges to a nontraditional audience of more than 300,000 solvers from more than 200 countries. Through InnoCentive’s strategic partnerships with organizations such as The Economist, Nature Publishing Group and Scientific American magazine, challenges posted have the potential to reach more than 13 million individuals worldwide. This diverse body of potential solvers from across many different disciplines enabled NVESD to inject orthogonal thinking from outside of the traditional military development communities into their organization.
InnoCentive documented and provided to NVESD more than 82 solutions in response to the challenge posting, with five of the solutions awarded prizes ranging from $2,000 to $7,000. Awarded ideas came from as far as New Zealand and India. These ideas provided NVESD with completely new sensor approaches to explore, such as a fast-pulse, high energy X-rays coupled with gamma-ray LIDAR [light detection and ranging] for faster detection of explosives hazards at standoff, as well as new ideas for using fractal analysis algorithm techniques for identification of man-made objects from natural, organic backgrounds.
The final lesson, a willingness to change, can be seen in how NVESD is embracing a culture of exploration and introducing the Army to even larger numbers of nontraditional sources of technical excellence. The use of prize-based challenges is just one part of their larger strategic approach, which includes other initiatives such as technology wargaming, horizon scanning and new in-house efforts designed to promote discovery events for new hires who are bringing fresh eyes to old challenges. These help to inject new thinking and innovation opportunities into an organization with a history of excellence in developing advanced sensors and technologies in support of some of the Army’s hardest challenges.
In order to continue to provide world-class capabilities in 2025 and beyond, the Army must be open to new approaches while still maintaining the core technical competencies that are foundational to the military overmatch relied on today.
The lessons learned from OEF and OIF are helping CERDEC NVESD and the Army at large to embrace innovation, be open to change and to take a fresh look at the best technical approach to long-term challenges. Following years of expensive conflict overseas, the U.S. military needs its own innovators, like Elon Musk, that can help find creative, cost-effective solutions to the asymmetrical challenges still remaining and shape the direction for S&T investments into the future. Organizations like CERDEC NVESD are working to instill these lessons learned to create the environment in which new ideas can be explored, matured and transitioned into formal acquisition programs for strategic land power dominance into 2025 and beyond.
For more information, contact CERDEC Public Affairs at 443-861-7566 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
DR. RICHARD NABORS is the deputy director of the Operations Division at NVESD at Fort Belvoir, VA. He holds a doctor of management in organizational leadership from the University of Phoenix, an M.S. in management from the Florida Institute of Technology and a B.A. in history from Old Dominion University. He is Level I certified in program management.
MR. NATHAN BURKHOLDER is a strategic analyst supporting the NVESD. He holds a B.S. in engineering from Messiah College.
This article was originally published in the April – June 2015 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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