WASHINGTON — Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro announced initiatives aimed at making the service more responsive to warfighter challenges: the creation of the Disruptive Capabilities Office to quickly apply new technologies to operational problems, and a pilot program that would help programs of record be more agile.
Del Toro said he signed off on the creation of the DCO to carry on the mission of the Unmanned Task Force, a pilot program that had reached the end of its 12- to 18-month planned existence.
The service two years ago established the UTF to scour government and industry inventories for unmanned technologies and rapidly vet them to address specific operational needs.
In contrast to the highly public work of the Navy’s Task Force 59 in the Middle East, the UTF’s work was largely classified — often looking at specific actions Russia or China might take and seeking an unmanned technology that could help prevent or respond to that scenario.
Michael Stewart, who led the UTF, told Defense News he worked with fleet commanders from across the globe to generate a prioritized list of their toughest operational problems that their current toolkit couldn’t solve. The task force’s small staff would then assemble a sprint team of legal, policy, warfighting, technology and regional experts to brainstorm potential solutions to those problems using existing technology only. The team would rapidly toss out the ideas that would take too long to field, were too complex, were not mature, and so on, and then settle on a small number of potential solutions to test and evaluate in the field, he said.
“We were buying down risk very, very quickly, and we could demonstrate it in an operational setting very quickly,” Stewart said.
The other key feature was that Stewart reported directly to the vice chief of naval operations, a four-star admiral, to discuss the work of the sprint teams and ask them to find small sums of money for specific test events without having to go through the traditional budgeting process.
Del Toro, who announced the DCO’s creation at an event celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Naval Research Laboratory, told Defense News the new office will keep the same work process as the UTF and report to the vice chief and the Navy secretary.
“It will look very much like the Unmanned Task Force in the beginning, until we actually start expanding the different topics and issues we’re going to be working in the Disruptive Capabilities Office,” Del Toro said.
In the early days of the office, it will consolidate all the unmanned initiatives in the Navy to “make sure that we’re super focused on the right thing, the right operational requirement,” Del Toro said. Eventually, it will begin taking on operational problems that might be solved with other emerging technologies.
At the heart of this office, as was the case with Stewart’s UTF, is a “direct line with top leadership so that we can make quick decisions, especially quick resourcing decisions, and put money towards it so that we can actually get things moving faster,” Del Toro said.
The U.S. 5th Fleet would still maintain operational control of its Task Force 59, U.S. 7th Fleet would continue its recent work with four large unmanned surface vessels operating out of Japan, and U.S. 4th Fleet would continue its experimentation with a fleet of Sail Drones in the Caribbean, he said, adding that they’ll all share lessons, concepts of operations and more through the DCO to get the most out of lessons learned.
Michael Brasseur, who led Task Force 59 from its fall 2021 inception until his retirement from the Navy this spring, told Defense News that TF59 had “a bold vision focused on solving key operational problems, and bold people assuming a lot of risk to translate that vision to reality fast.”
“That speed is enabled by novel business models, relentless focus on execution, rapid iteration” and more that allowed the fleet to stitch together a hundred disparate unmanned systems into a sophisticated maritime domain awareness network,” he said. “I am encouraged by [Del Toro’s] announcement today, my hope is that the DCO builds on the successes of the UTF and TF59, but is even bolder.”
Agility in programs of record
Del Toro said his aim isn’t just to help the service bring in new technology outside of its programs of record, he wants to make the acquisition programs more agile as well.
He said in his remarks he would kick off a pilot program with the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems — which oversees the Navy’s program offices for weapons and sensors — to create some budgeting flexibility.
Rather than look at spending program by program — the budgeting process today includes specific lines for each individual type of missile, each combat system, each sensor and more within PEO IWS — this pilot would create a portfolio view instead. If an upgrade on one missile needed to be accelerated to meet an urgent warfighter need, the PEO could shift money from elsewhere within the missile portfolio to make that happen, for example.
Del Toro said that if this proves it can increase the rate of development and fielding so the acquisition programs can better keep up with the fleet’s ever-evolving needs, this would be expanded to the other PEOs that cover platforms like ships and aircraft.
After the event, he told Defense News that “I want to give the PEOs maximum flexibility to be able to respond to emergent operational requirements that develop.”
This effort will start with legal authorities the Navy already has to move money around from program to program but will hopefully identify the limitations of the current system and identify changes that could make this portfolio approach to spending much more agile.
The pilot will be a success, he said, in “proving, demonstrating there’s value in this — to Congress, to the American taxpayer — so we can build the case in a credible fashion for perhaps, if additional congressional authorities are needed, to propose them in the future.”
Leveraging science and technology
During the event celebrating the centennial of the Naval Research Laboratory, the lab’s Director of Research Bruce Danly spoke of its role in spearheading long-term, high-risk research projects that commercial industry has little interest in.
This type of work will still continue — Danly mentioned a “rapid radiation remediation concept” that would protect space-based sensors from a high-altitude nuclear bomb detonation, something that’s been validated in the lab and will soon be demonstrated in space, as well as research into using laser light beams to send communications, as an alternative to radios that are increasingly at risk of being intercepted or jammed.
Del Toro talked about newer ways to innovate: the new Naval Innovation Center at the Naval Postgraduate School will “enhance and accelerate the innovation process at NPS by … bringing research concepts out of the lab and into the field faster.”
The Marine Innovation Unit “is focused on the identification, experimentation, and rapid fielding of technologies and capabilities to address gaps identified by our Marines,” he said.
“We are dedicated to ensuring that we are collaboratively working together to get the most return on investment of the taxpayers’ money, so that there is no redundancy in what we do, so that work that’s being done in one lab is being shared equitably across the entire enterprise — and actually into the Air Force and into the Army, collaborating as much as we can because that’s absolutely the right thing to do,” he said.
To help focus all these efforts, the Navy’s new Science and Technology Board met for the first time last week to discuss how it would pursue its mission of identifying how new science and technology could be applied to defense missions in novel ways.
Del Toro also directed Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Kurt Rothenhaus to submit a science and technology strategy within 90 days to guide how fiscal and human resources are spent to solve sailors’ and Marines’ operational problems today and into the future.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.