Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus, a creative and questing leader, has just announced the creation of Task Force Innovation—a long
overdue effort to put real emphasis on
the critical role of innovation in running the Department of the Navy.
According to a January press
release and in conversation with several of the leaders involved in the
concept, it seems clear that the task
force will focus broadly across many of the key activities
in the department. It will seek to create and maintain an
innovative work force, looking at personnel activities to
“harness the creative energy our sailors, Marines and civilians already have.” The task force also will look hard at
using what might be termed “big data”—large quantities of
information to drive innovation. Finally, the task force will
seek to provide paths to the fleet for emerging operational
capabilities, essentially, technology. This all makes sense as a
vector for the task force as it gets started.
Having focused a great deal on innovation throughout
my career—particularly as the leader of “Deep Blue,” the
Navy’s innovation think tank immediately after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and as commander of U.S. Southern
Command—I would offer some important advice to the
innovators as they get started.
First, they must demand access to the top. The task force
currently is scheduled to report to the undersecretary of
the Navy. This is acceptable but not optimal. It should
report at least monthly to the secretary himself. Particularly
given Secretary Mabus’ inclination to innovate, this makes
great sense. It also provides the ultimate “top cover” in the
department and gives real heft to any recommendations.
Next, the task force should leverage other people’s money.
The task force will not be heavily resourced, but that is fine.
It should be small, nimble, flexible and able to convince
other larger entities in the Department of the Navy’s enterprise. It also should reach out to the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the CIA innovation
cell, other government and interagency equivalents and
above all to the private sector for funded projects that can
Of course, the task force must hire the best. People will be
looking hard at who the mechanics of the task force are and
what their career mobility looks like. Are these individuals
on an upward track? Are they already “screened” for their
next assignment? Does the 0-6 in charge compete and make
flag? Ensuring a track record of promotion and good next
assignments will send an enormous signal.
This group must “work the seams.” Of course, a ton of
innovation already is in progress across the Department of
Advice for the Innovators
BY ADM. JAMES STAVRIDIS, USN (RET.)
the Navy and indeed across the entire Defense Department.
But several seams are not being exploited and should be
One is biotech. The truly big changes that are coming
will be tied to biology—human performance enhancement, human life extension, energy from biomass, synthetic
designer drugs and many more. Innovation needs to recognize the key importance of biotech.
Then, we have cyber. Lots of work is going on here
already, of course. But what are the areas where too little
focus is being applied? Big data applications for everything
from air traffic control of unmanned vehicles to maritime
domain awareness make sense, as well as finding the right
balance of logistics and warfighting in a given scenario.
And where is the nation’s Cyber Force? Its appearance
should be comparable to the emergence of the Air Force at
the end of World War II.
The Arctic and the global environment are ripe for innovation. Building on the Navy Department’s work on sustain-ability, renewable energy and environmental responsibility,
specific work can be done very innovatively in the high
North. The department is well positioned to explore this
type of innovation through both technology and personnel.
Social networks and strategic communications are front
and center. If we are going to wrest control of the strategic narrative away from criminal enterprises such as the
Islamic State, we need both technology and trained personnel to do so. What are the innovations that will enable
And, the innovators must pick the winners. Recognizing
that perfection in innovation is the ultimate chimera, we
still have to do our best to invest in the right broad operational and technical areas. The three key operational areas
that make the most sense are special forces; unmanned
vehicles, including space; and cyber. Thinking through
both the right technologies and the best operational practices to find the synergies in this new triad could be a
powerful contribution from Task Force Innovation.
Perhaps the best part of the task force is simply the message it sends to the entire million-person department: We
are open to new ideas, excited to implement them, unafraid
if many of them fail and committed to change.
Hopefully the message emanating from the Navy will
fall on listening ears in other
parts of the Defense Department. In this turbulent 21st
century, we are not going to
out-muscle our opponents;
we need to out-think them.
As this era of brain-on-brain warfare unfolds, Task Force
Innovation is a welcome innovation unto itself.
Adm. James Stavridis was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander for NATO from 2009-2013. He is the 12th Dean of
The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, from which he holds a PhD in international law, and he
is chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Board of Directors.
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