ONR-NDIA Conference Notes

The conference put on by the National Defense Industry Association (NDIA) with support from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) has ended. If you are in anyway interested in military science and technology (S&T), you should get to this conference.

Even if you're not interested in S&T, this conference is enlightening for another reason: witnessing the depth of partnering in the military-industrial complex. This is not meant to be derogatory or otherwise an invective against privatized war development. Far from it as this is a reality and this conference, unlike the glitzy show in the movie "Why We Fight", is about information sharing and connecting people. Contracts are downstream (ONR doesn't do contracts, but is more of a matchmaker... ). This is not about having a solution and finding a buyer, but talking about needs and gaps and finding solutions. Modern technology increasingly requires an industrial hand with fewer opportunities available to individual tinkers, the DARPA autonomous desert robot notwithstanding... (people are mortgaging their house for this competition, those robojocks laying everything on the line).

The NDIA, for a bit of background, has its roots in the aftermath of The Great War when people gathered 'round and saw the US was caught flat-footed in munitions development and production (1919: Army Ordinance Association). Merging with another similar organization (1944: Naval Ordinance Association) after World War II, the NDIA was formed nine years ago (ONR is sixty years old by the way). Don't get confused that NDIA is only for the good of the country, however. In its booklet of priorities, NDIA's #1 priority is finding opportunities for its industrial members.

ONR was created by public law is very unlike other military labs. ONR's mission is to "foster, plan, facilitate and transition scientific research in recognition of its paramount importance to enable future naval power and the preservation of national security." Interestingly, because of the evolution of warfare, the scientific research has expanded into social sciences and application of warfighting theory. It is for this reason the Expeditionary Maneuver Warfare & Combating Terrorism Department came to ONR September 2005.

I could continue to talk about ONR and how impressed I was with their flexibility and responsiveness and highlight General Douglas Stone, of the Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command (MAGTFTC) at 29 Palms in California, imploring private industry to find solutions to his problems. I can also cite examples of solutions that came to him or he actively sought and found include "firepole" evac solutions for 7-ton transport trucks, a HMMWV on a skewer for rollover simulations, and IED detection systems. But I won't (beyond what I already have), because all is not about technology but about the solution.

Neither a firepole for quick evac from 7-ton transports nor the HMMWV-on-a-stick for rollover simulations are especially high-tech (two examples cited by General Stone). The culturally-aware Marine is especially low-tech and the acknowledged future determiner of victory, or at least creating an opportunity for victory. The "de-centralized, self-reliant, innovative, networked groups" employing terrorism to threaten the US must be met by "train[ing] Marines who are culturally aware... with an overseas mentality". The future combat force is just as concerned about what USAID (US Agency for International Development) is doing, if not more, than what the DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) is saying.

Theorists and the media, as was heard at the conference, are still talking about al-Qaeda while the US military is already on AQAM : "al-Qaeda and Associated Movements". AQ has franchised, giving ideological, financial, and any other support it can to other groups. Sometimes it has nothing to do with these groups but provide a model of "success".

Largely, solutions to these groups and related problems do incorporate technology but they have a heavier reliance on doctrinal change that the technology requires. The need to counter these groups, projecting the force (kinetic or humanitarian, or a combination) is to be done through the new LCS system (Littoral Combat Ship). This module system which we seem to hope allies buy into and acquire themselves will be a significant (quantitatively) part of the "1,000 Ship Navy" of the future.

On the topic of the future of Navy, I took the opportunity as a holder of a press badge to ask the Secretary of the Navy, the Hon. Donald C. Winter, about his thoughts on Thomas Barnett looking to reshape the US Navy. The not unexpected answer was "I'm not going to comment on what an analyst recommendation" (or something to that effect) (incidentally, his comments at NDIA are available online).

A flexible adversary, asymmetric threats, and budgetary requirements are driving new initiatives and development models. Shortened development cycles, open architecture, and increasing accountability and visibility (in the contracting arena) are hallmarks of the ONR processes to reduce costs. This includes creating hybrid scout vehicles (quieter, longer range), to UxVs (x= surface, air, underwater, or ground), modular ships for packaged mission systems, and "spiral" development to allow incremental technology deployments instead of solutions that require sea-changes ("come as you are systems").

This is the type of flexible backbone we need to create and ensure security. If only ONR's dynamic programs, which includes the effective Science Visitor Program (much like the old, now gutted, International Visitor Program of the State Department), could be replicated across the government's civilian sector.

Enough of the cheerleading for ONR...  having a press pass was great and something I'd encourage everyone to get. While I was the only blog to actually attend (Noah from DefenseTech.com was invited, but he decided getting married was more important; Popular Mechanics (!!) couldn't pay their reporters enough to go apparently), I was among a handful of 'real' media. They were all rather technical however. I did get to meet Sharon Weinberger who writes for Aviation Week. Who? She was on the Jon Stewart Show recently as the author of Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld. I recognized her voice as she asked the SECNAV a question... My press access also allowed me to do academic research with PAOs and others that isn't appearing here. A great dual-use of my credential.

Enough of ONR. It's a great organization that does not have a peer in Army or Air Force. This is too bad as ONR has better ownership and accountability over products / projects.