“This Great Laboratory”: The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

97580003A spectacular firing of the Naval Research Laboratory’s test railgun. Basic research in this area has contributed to what will soon be a full weapon system deployed at sea for testing in 2016. Photo courtesy of Naval Research Laboratory.

By Don J. DeYoung

One hundred years ago the world was changing—rapidly and violently. It was springtime, 1915. The first great war of the 20th century was raging across Europe and into Asia and Africa. Trenches and barbed wire, stretching from the English Channel to Switzerland, had locked the combatants in a bloody stalemate for months. Artillery, machine guns, and flamethrowers pounded, raked, and scorched “no man’s land,” ending thousands of lives in just hours. More than a million men were already dead. Offensives were futile, so increasingly brutal measures were taken to break the impasse. On 22 April, in Flanders fields, a yellow-green cloud of chlorine gas drifted among choking, dying men. Days later, on 7 May, a U-boat torpedoed a passenger liner, RMS Lusitania. The big ship sank in 18 minutes, claiming 1,195 lives, including 123 Americans. The first tank had not yet rumbled over the trenches, but that day was fast approaching.

Watching the spreading destruction from afar, Thomas Alva Edison had an idea that grew out of the great inventor’s concern that America would be pulled into the war. On 30 May, when asked by a New York Times correspondent to comment on the conflict, he urged the government to: “Maintain a great research laboratory, jointly under military and civilian control. In this could be developed . . . all the technique of military and naval progression, without any vast expense. . . . At this great laboratory we should keep abreast with every advanced thought.”

The Congress soon approved the Naval Act of 1916 with the goal of a “Navy second to none.” Among its provisions were funds to create what would become—through the combined efforts of Edison, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Naval Consulting Board—the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). On 2 July 1923, NRL was officially established. The principal speaker at the new facility’s opening was Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who had followed his father, Theodore, and cousin, Franklin, into the job of assistant secretary of the Navy. As the Naval Consulting Board wished, NRL was placed administratively in the secretary’s office, under the assistant secretary. This was done to allow it to become a research establishment for the whole Navy.

Edison’s idea was that a government laboratory, working in league with industry, and knowledgeable of naval needs, would help build American sea power through long-term, mission-related research and development, all with the purpose of defending the republic. For more than 90 years now, NRL has fulfilled the inventor’s vision. This was affirmed in 2005 when the Navy League’s New York Council bestowed the laboratory with the Roosevelts Gold Medal for Science. The council noted that NRL had “helped make the U.S. Fleet the most formidable naval fighting force in the world,” and called it “the Government’s premier defense research laboratory.”

NRL continues to fulfill Edison’s vision by contributing to what may become the most revolutionary advances in naval power projection in decades; laser weapons and railguns. NRL scientists were the first to propose and simulate the use of incoherently combined, high-power fiber lasers as the architecture for the Navy’s new Laser Weapon System (LaWS). In 2014, LaWS was deployed in the Persian Gulf aboard the USS Ponce (AFSB[I] 15). At less than one dollar a shot, in testing it has downed an unmanned aerial vehicle and destroyed moving targets at sea. NRL’s railgun program began in 2003 and has since become a critical element in the efforts to develop hypervelocity electric weapons for long-range fire support and ship defense. When the Navy deploys its first hypervelocity electric launcher, its success will be partially because of NRL’s work.

Why NRL Works

As the corporate laboratory of the Department of the Navy, NRL conducts basic research, translates the results of this research into technologies, and assists in the transfer of these technologies to other Navy Department, Defense Department, federal, and industrial organizations for incorporation into effective operational military systems. The successful transition of these technologies supports NRL’s corporate philosophy that a sustained and well-managed investment in multidisciplinary research and development leads to continual improvements to the nation’s defense, helps prevent technological surprise by potential adversaries, and can lead to revolutionary and world-changing capabilities, such as sonar, radar, satellites, GPS, and, maybe soon, laser weapons and railguns. The reasons for NRL’s success certainly include basic imperatives such as a high-quality workforce, challenging programs, and satisfactory facilities, but there are other factors of vital importance:

Broadly Based Multidisciplinary Program 

NRL’s program includes more than 15 scientific disciplines and applied technology areas, including optics, chemistry, plasma physics, materials science, oceanography, acoustics, electronic warfare, radar, and space science and technology. This approach allows a better understanding of a problem and taps the creative synergy of diverse disciplines. Moreover, technical problems are becoming increasingly complex in nature. For such reasons, NRL established its Nanoscience Institute, which conducts research at the intersections of materials, electronics, and biology. Later, NRL created its Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research to support research in intelligent autonomy, sensor systems, power and energy systems, human-system interaction, and more. Recently, using a methodology reminiscent of Project Hindsight, the Office of the Secretary of Defense led a survey that confirms the benefits of a multidisciplinary program: NRL made 181 contributions to 52 of 83 current major defense acquisition programs. NRL was found to have affected 26 of 35 Navy major programs (74 percent) and 17 of 48 non-Navy programs (35 percent). The survey, however, likely undercounts contributions from early basic and applied research that found their way into these programs outside the knowledge of the survey respondents, which replicates Project Hindsight’s chief weakness.

Organizational Position

Public Law 79-588 created ONR and placed it, along with NRL, within the Office of the Secretary of the Navy in 1946. Since then NRL has reported directly to the Chief of Naval Research (CNR). This preserved the original guidance from Edison and the Naval Consulting Board that NRL be placed where it could focus on the long-term needs of the Navy, rather than on short-term operational requirements.

Strategic Guidance and Funding

NRL’s programs address the capability gaps identified in the Naval S&T Strategic Plan. Department of Defense and Department of the Navy strategic documents provide the foundation for this plan. It is a broad strategy that articulates a general direction for the future, while retaining sufficient flexibility and freedom of action to meet emerging challenges. For its base program, NRL receives broad guidance from the CNR that also establishes level of effort. Using a rigorous internal review process, NRL then develops an annual comprehensive base program plan that is proposed to the CNR. The base program, funded directly by the CNR, is a vital key to NRL’s success. Indeed, the importance of a supportive CNR to an innovative NRL program cannot be overstated.

Navy Working Capital Fund

Reimbursable funding provided by Navy, Defense, and non-Defense sponsors through the Navy Working Capital Fund helps to produce world-class research results at the lowest possible cost. The system works as follows. All costs of doing business are distributed proportionately as overhead charges added to the cost of a research work year and are paid by the sponsors of each project. Sponsors have the choice of funding or not funding individual projects on the basis of cost, scientific quality, and responsiveness to their needs, so it follows that NRL’s researchers must compete by satisfying those needs. The capital fund also fosters decentralized decision making by placing the responsibility for program success on the technical abilities of each division superintendent and branch head. This is proper because technical decisions are best made at a level of authority closest to the expertise of the researchers.

Continuity of Civilian Technical Leadership

A landmark White House study, chaired by David Packard in 1983, stressed that, “The quality of management is crucial to a laboratory’s performance. Federal agencies must insist on highly competent laboratory directors.” Indeed, the job of NRL’s senior management is to choose areas in which to work, divest work that has become appropriate for other performers, serve as the final arbiter of scientific merit, and foster the basic conditions necessary for innovation. The latter includes a high-quality staff, challenging programs, productive partnerships, effective support services, satisfactory facilities, state-of-the-art equipment, and a reasonable degree of autonomy. History has shown that the stable continuity of NRL’s senior civilian management is a key to ensuring those conditions—just six civilian directors have guided the program since 1949. This stability is most vital for nurturing the laboratory’s long-term basic research programs.

A Collaborative Naval Research Enterprise

In a three-year period (2012-14), there were 507 “interactions” between NRL and other Navy laboratories. The interactions included, but were not limited to, panel and committee participation, shared research, and funded collaborations. There also were 266 interactions with Army laboratories and 188 with Air Force laboratories. Over a similar three-year period (2010-12) NRL researchers had 1,019 collaborations with 232 U.S. universities and research institutions in 48 states, and 193 with foreign universities and research institutions in 34 countries. NRL also has a relationship with the private sector that is characterized by a high level of productive collaboration and mutual respect. Charles Townes, Nobel Laureate and former vice president of the Institute for Defense Analyses, commented on that relationship when he said, “NRL is important to all of us–to defense industry and to science.”

An Indispensable Nature

NRL is important to all of us because of what it does, but it is indispensable for what it is—a government laboratory. The federal government ultimately bears sole accountability for national missions and public expenditures, so decisions concerning the types of work to be undertaken, when, by whom, and at what cost should be made by government officials responsible to the president. The government therefore must be a smart buyer and be capable of overseeing its contracted work. For this the government uses its “yardstick,” a term introduced by political scientist H.L. Nieburg. In technical matters, this measure is the collective competence of its scientists and engineers. Their advice must be technically authoritative, knowledgeable of the mission, and accountable to the public interest.

One example of NRL’s impact as a yardstick was described in Joint Forces Quarterly (October 2009). During construction of USS Seawolf (SSN 21), the contractors chose a titanium alloy for the boat’s muzzle and breech doors instead of the usual steel. Because Seawolf’s torpedo tubes were larger than those of the older Los Angeles (SSN 688)–class boats, the contractors, quite reasonably, wanted to use a material as strong as steel but only about half the weight. The alloy, however, has another property. Under certain conditions it becomes brittle. Cracks can form by the simultaneous action of tensile stress and a corrosive environment, such as seawater. The phenomenon is called stress corrosion cracking and it will fracture some titanium alloys, at times fast enough for one to “stand there and watch it happen.”

NRL had quantified the sensitivity of titanium alloys to stress corrosion cracking in seawater many years before Seawolf was designed. One paper cautioned that, “no prudent program manager would schedule a program in which [stress corrosion cracking] of new materials might be a problem without provision for a sound experimental characterization of stress-corrosion properties in the pertinent environment.” Unfortunately, NRL experts were not asked their opinion on using this alloy, nor were they consulted until after the mistake was detected—by chance. The stroke of luck occurred when, during Seawolf’s construction, a hinge pin fractured while being straightened by a hydraulic press. It was made from the same titanium alloy as the muzzle door that it was intended to support. The Navy quickly formed a team with the best available experts on process and material technology. The panel of government scientists from ONR and NRL determined that the contractors’ decision had “placed a material with risk of unstable, catastrophic failure at the pressure hull boundary,” and they proposed improvements to the process of selecting materials. The Navy implemented their proposals and commended its “unbiased technical experts” for contributing to Seawolf’s safe operation.

“The Government Should Maintain a Great Research Laboratory”

Thomas Edison envisioned what would become NRL as he watched the bloody clash of six empires and then proposed what he believed was necessary to defend the American republic. Since that time, alongside industry and the other elements of national power, NRL has helped to transform the U.S. Navy, protect national security, and improve everyday life in ways the great inventor could not have imagined during that tragic springtime, 100 years ago.

About the author:

Don DeYoung is the executive assistant to NRL’s director of research.