“A Valuable Commodity”: Talking about Naval Sea Systems Command’s Warfare Centers


Full-Spectrum Life Cycle for Platforms and Systems

Donald McCormack, executive director of the Naval Surface and Undersea Warfare Centers, sat down to discuss the centers’ science and technology portfolio.

Q: Why do the warfare centers do science and technology?

A: Since the early 1960s, there have been numerous studies and commissions to examine the effectiveness of Department of Defense (DoD) and Navy research and development organizations. A recurring conclusion is the government must maintain strong in-house technical knowledge to retain “smart buyer” and “honest broker” capabilities. These responsibilities include helping the Navy translate warfighting needs into technology requirements, performing warfare analyses, and verifying the quality and effectiveness of platforms and systems—all inherent governmental responsibilities that cannot be performed by industry or academia. The primary role of the warfare centers is to help make naval programs successful by providing unbiased technical advice and solutions to our partners, namely the program executive offices (PEOs), the fleet, the Marine Corps, the Office of Naval Research (ONR), DoD, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Our scientists, engineers, and technicians provide technical advice and solutions across the entire full spectrum lifecycle of platforms and systems—from cradle to grave. Overall, our science and technology (S&T) portfolio across all nine divisions is small in the context of our “full spectrum” portfolio, but it is a critical part of what we do. In addition, the ability to do science and technology helps us attract and retain our talented scientists and engineers.

Q: What do you mean by a “full spectrum” portfolio?

A: The entire lifecycle of a platform or system may span 40 to 50 years. At the beginning stages of S&T, one of our divisions may design and build a prototype system in partnership with ONR, the PEOs, the fleet, Marine Corps, academia, or and/or industry. If the prototype meets Navy requirements, then the Navy may decide to transition the technology into a formal program of record and ultimately onto a ship, platform, or system. Once a program is established, our industry partners generally manufacture the platform or system and the warfare center division’s responsibility becomes a technical oversight role throughout its remaining lifecycle. Data shows when the centers participate in S&T at the beginning stages of the platform or system lifecycle, the transition from S&T to a fielded system through the proverbial “valley of death,” where programs don’t make it all the way through the process, is more effective and consistent. I also want to point out—I often hear people use the words “S&T” and “innovation” synonymously, but I think it is important to understand “innovation” happens across the entire lifecycle, not just in S&T.

Q:Are the warfare centers’ S&T investments generally focused on next-generation technologies?

A: No. In fact, the Naval Sea Systems Command’s warfare centers are equally invested in reducing total ownership costs for fielded platforms and systems toward the end of the acquisition lifecycle, specifically in maintenance and obsolescence management. A great example of this is a recent Naval Innovative Science and Engineering Section 219 research project at Naval Undersea Warfare Center Keyport Division in a plasma thermal spray process for submarine components. Within the warfare centers, Keyport Division specializes in maintenance and industrial base support, fleet material readiness, and obsolescence management for undersea warfare. Keyport successfully developed a plasma thermal spray process for applying chromium oxide ceramic coatings to a submarine brine pump shaft aboard a Los Angeles-class submarine. The spray provides significant protection against wear and corrosion and exceeded all metallurgical and mechanical testing criteria. Currently a grinding process is being developed to fully qualify the pump shafts components as “A” condition assets—ready for issue to the fleet. The S&T project was done in partnership with Trident Refit Facility Kings Bay, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and Applied Research Lab Penn State and aligns with the total ownership cost focus area in the ONR S&T plan. Ultimately, this research shows real promise for increasing the operational availability of our fleet platforms.

Q: How much of the centers’ portfolio is S&T?

A: If you look at our overall workload in fiscal year 2014 across our seven surface warfare center divisions and two undersea warfare divisions, the preponderance of our workload is in research and development through fleet support. In ’14, seven percent of our workload was in S&T. The majority of our S&T funding is acquired through ONR, DARPA, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. In addition, the divisions execute S&T under the Section 219 program as well as independent applied research and in-house laboratory independent research funding from ONR. Historically, our divisions at Dahlgren, Carderock, Newport, Panama City, and Indian Head execute larger S&T portfolios than some of our other divisions.

Q: How do the centers determine their S&T investments?

A: Across the warfare centers, we base our S&T investments on several factors. First, we look at naval requirements, which are driven by the needs of our warfighters. Our scientists and engineers work with warfighters in the field, program managers within the PEOs and the Chief of Naval Operations/Marine Corps staffs to help determine, translate, and shape naval requirements. We also align S&T investments with guiding documents such as ONR’s Naval S&T Strategy, the Naval Sea Systems Command Strategic Business Plan, and the Surface Warfare Enterprise S&T objectives—strategic plans that are also based on naval requirements. Second, we look at S&T portfolios across industry, academia, and other warfare centers/systems centers to identify unique research opportunities within the division’s mission areas. This reduces the duplication of effort across the government. A good example is Indian Head’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division. They are DoD’s leading experts in the field of energetics—no one else is developing next-generation energetics material our warfighters need for current and future weapons systems. Third, we align our S&T investments with our 125 technical capabilities across the nine divisions. Our capabilities are essentially defined areas of expertise; each one includes people with knowledge, skills, and experience and requisite facilities and equipment. Overall, every division has a chief technology officer who works closely with the division technical director to identify technology investment areas and then lead S&T efforts that deliver cutting-edge technologies into the hands of our warfighters.

Q: How have the centers benefitted from the Naval Innovative Science and Engineering Section 219 authority?

A: Since Section 219 authority was established, we have made significant improvements in the health of our technical workforce by providing opportunities for our scientists and engineers to work on relevant research projects. Section 219 authority also provides more flexibility to support advanced degrees, rotational assignments, and certifications for our workforce as well as invest in aging facilities and equipment. Most importantly, Section 219 provides more opportunity for the warfare centers to participate in cross-organizational, multidisciplinary teams (including industry and academia) to mature technologies and transition them into formal programs of record. We were very excited when the 219 authority was recently extended by Congress until 2020 and hope it will become a permanent authorization.

Q: What do you see as the biggest S&T challenges?

A: As Navy leadership continues to make tough decisions in this budget-constrained environment, it is easy to become shortsighted with S&T investments. These investments are a valuable commodity for the Navy’s future; it’s our seed corn. Remember, it often takes decades to develop, mature, and transition breakthrough technologies like the laser weapon system, or for our chemists at Indian Head to synthesize new molecules and then develop and field energetics materials. At the same time, the demand signal for Navy operations and presence is increasing as the DoD strategy pivots towards the Pacific. To address this challenge, we need to aggressively innovate across the entire lifecycle now. If we don’t, the funding may be there, but I’m concerned we won’t have time to develop the necessary technologies. Another related challenge we face is the number of leading scientists in key research areas who are retiring faster than they can be replaced. For example, it takes about 10 years of hands-on experience and dedicated mentoring by a senior chemist to reach a journeyman level in energetics. To address this challenge, we need to continue to improve our processes for hiring, retention, and knowledge management.

Q:Any closing thoughts?

A: The Naval Sea Systems Command warfare centers have long and distinguished legacies in S&T—some divisions date back to the 1800s. More than 100 years ago, Rear Adm. John Dahlgren began a tradition of proving naval ordnance that is carried on today at Indian Head Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division (founded in 1890) and Dahlgren Division (1918). Newport Division’s historical roots trace back to 1869 when the Newport Torpedo station was established. From these roots, the surface and undersea warfare centers were formed in 1992—today, we provide technical expertise across multiple portfolios in multiple warfare areas. Our Dahlgren scientists and engineers are leading the technical design and testing of the railgun and the Navy’s first laser weapons system deployed aboard USS Ponce (AFSB[I] 15), working in partnership with Naval Sea Systems Command and ONR. These are just a few examples of the warfare centers’ S&T contributions that are helping to ensure our Sailors and Marines stay on the right side of an unfair fight.

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