During Information Dissemination’s June 2012 Fifth Anniversary Month, an article by Megan Eckstein in Inside the Navy (18 June 2012—behind the firewall) detailed the December 2011 formation of the “Navy Directed Energy Steering Group”, constituted in order to provide “‘strategic goals, guiding principles, missionary priorities, roles and responsibilities and overarching objectives regarding the acquisition and fielding of DEW across the Navy and the Marine Corps,’ said David Stoudt, senior director of naval capabilities and readiness, and the executive secretary of the steering group.”. Stoudt further explains in the Inside the Navy piece: “By bringing in OPNAV and headquarters [of the] Marine Corps and the warfighters and the fleets and all that, that’s where you go through the process of identifying what kind of military gaps are out there, and then we help the technologists identify where their capabilities could land should they be successful," Stoudt said. “So that’s kind of the marriage that’s happening right now with the steering group."
There appears to be more to this than just a bureaucratic initiative. The integration of disruptive technology is never easy…hence, the name. Institutional interests align in order to protect the status quo, the psychological impact of “sunk costs” seem overwhelming, upgrades of existing technologies suddenly appear at a fraction of the cost of the emerging modalities, and timelines become ever-extended as science and technology/research and development investments chase safer and more easily fielded technology. Steering Group Executive Secretary Stoudt put it this way in the Inside the Navy piece, with my emphasis added: “These capabilities are going to have to earn their way onto the battlefield, meaning if they don’t bring something new to the warfighters that they can’t do either more cheaply some other way or by some pre-existing capability, it’s going to be very difficult to get these things on the battlefield."
There is in this statement, something of an acknowledgement of the difficulty Directed Energy and Electric Weapons Systems (DEEWS) face. That is, if one were to survey current validated Navy capability requirements, it is difficult for DEEWS to displace current approaches to servicing them, given the development costs necessary to bring DEEWS to the point of maturity. So in this case—there is little reason to aggressively pursue them. When requirements officers are then presented with operational capabilities that current systems cannot possibly achieve—but which are tailor-made for DEEWS, one often hears, “well, we don’t have a requirement for that.” And so, absent a requirement, the development costs necessary to mature the disruptive technology are applied to technologies servicing validated military requirements. This vicious cycle reinforces the view often heard from DEEWS critics that “lasers have been just around the corner” for decades.
We live in austere budgetary times, and the tax-paying American public has a right to expect its Navy to question expenses and to manage the budget in a way that provides required current readiness and acceptable future capability. This often drives smart, visionary people to adopt short term mindsets when faced with tough budgetary questions. After all, a Requirements Officer has a two or three year tour in the Pentagon, and he/she makes their bones by presenting leadership with balanced programs. That balance is at most, a POM measurement, and is more precisely, a next-year’s budget target.
I believe the primary value in the new Directed Energy Steering Group will be in its capacity to think beyond the requirements/cost cycle that frustrates the both the introduction of DEEWS technologies and the THINKING that invariably must precede their introduction. At an action officer level, the Steering Group can help break the cycle by gathering a cross-section of the community of interest—to include CONOPS developers, requirements officers, technologists, acquisition professionals, and operators, and perhaps generating concepts enabled by emerging technologies.
Ultimately it will take leadership at the policy and oversight level to plant flags on the battlefield and say “We need to get here, and we need to get here by a certain date. We understand the near-term costs, but the future capabilities and efficiencies more than justify the short term pain.” This vision then can begin to take form through the annual POM process that defines where Navy is going and the fundamental strategy it will follow to get there. This is the opportunity to express the need that will eventually become the kind of formal requirement that a future weapon system development would respond to. Engaging and overcoming the “requirements gap” is a function the new Directed Energy Steering Group should consider; it will make all the difference in the long-run.