On a warm summer day, in the skies over the Arabian Gulf, I had the honor of flying with our new “strike group” commander.  It was 1995, and carrer strike groups were known then simply as Carrier Groups.  Rear Admiral Robert M. Nutwell had recently assumed duties as Commander, Carrier Group THREE and, as part of his turnover, was flying a mission with each of the squadrons embarked in USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, the Admiral’s Flag Ship.  An aviator by trade, Admiral Nutwell had flown the A-7E Corsair II during the Vietnam War.


I was assigned to VQ-5 Detachment BRAVO flying airborne ISR missions in the ES-3A Shadow.  A four-seat jet, we left one crew-member behind to accommodate the Admiral.  We launched off cat 2 and headed north to Kuwaiti airspace, where we would fly our mission in support of Operation SOUTHERN WATCH.  Once on station, the Admiral moved to the back of the aircraft where I would give him a demonstration of the jet’s special capabilities.  After a short demonstration, he asked me to go back to the Tac-Map, or Tactical Map.  The Tac-Map was an overlay of our position on a map of the earth, and included geographic features, borders, cities, threat rings, and a tactical datalink display.

I have to admit, we had a ton of cool gadgets on that jet and I was a little incensed by the fact that he was so infatuated with something we typically took for granted.  First of all, we were sitting in front of a touch-screen display, a rarity in the civilian sector at the time.  From that display we operated a bank of advanced receivers that searched on energy, only stopping when a frequency was active.  Digital recorders were also automatically initiated on energy, while a short, digital playback feature allowed us to review the most recent intercept.  There were also left and right hot-keys next to the space bar that enabled direction finding for whichever frequencies were active in the corresponding ear at the time.  All of this was displayed on the Tac-Map, along with the link picture provided by the E-2C Hawkeye, allowing us to correlate threats to specific tracks.  Yet, it was the Tac-Map that piqued his interest — for good reason, as I would soon learn.

A-7B cockpit with roller map (marked in red)

As an A-7E Corsair II pilot, the Admiral had flown combat missions over Vietnam.  His aircraft was equipped with a roller map to aid in navigation.  This was literally cut-out pieces of paper map, taped together and then stretched between two rollers.  In the cockpit, there was a pointer over the map that was designed to display aircraft’s position during the mission.  According to the Admiral, they would spend hours cutting up and piecing together maps of their routes, which they would then stretch tightly on the rollers in preparation for the mission.  Once airborne they would activate the roller map which, without fail, would rapidly roll through the entire route leaving only a spinning wheel and violently flapping map at the end!  Hours of work wasted.  Today,  a digital map tool displayed aircraft location anywhere in the world, with threat rings, geographic features, and other elements at your fingertips.  The Admiral was impressed.  How far we had come during the course of his career.

…and Now (aka “there’s an app for that…”)

Today, industry has seemingly left the military in the dust.  In the civilian sector, there is literally an application, or app, for everything.  Yet in the military, our equipment is rarely state of the art, while our fielding of new technology is severely hindered by bureaucratic barriers and self-imposed restrictions.  As a member of the ES-3A Fleet Introduction Team (FIT) in the early 1990’s, then CTI2 Hall had key input into system design and upgrades.  At regular FIT meetings out in NAWC Indianapolis, Fleet input was considered, voted on, and implemented.  New software versions and capabilities were often available to the Fleet in a matter of months!  Innovative ideas were captured and acted on, resulting in a better product and improved mission readiness.

Today, we are lucky if our browser is up to date — literally.  Twenty years after my flight with Rear Admiral Nutwell, something has changed.  The gap between industry and the military has closed, and now reopened, with industry leading the way.  Rarely do I find myself impressed with our new tools or wondering when such technology will make it into my home or onto my smart phone.

The Way Ahead

How do we once again gain the technological edge?   Partnerships with industry may provide a start.  The Secretary of the Navy recently announced such a program.  Known as SECNAV Tours with Industry (SNTWI), the program places top performing Navy Sailors with leading companies for a year.  According to the program description, “Upon their return to Service, they will be drivers of innovation as the Navy looks to the future.”  Or will they?

There is no doubt SNTWI is a great initiative.  Partnerships with companies such as Amazon, Google, and Apple can be extremely beneficial.   Similar programs such as the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell (CRIC) and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum serve as other agents for change as well.  There will be no shortage of ideas or desire for innovation.  But will “the system” allow it?

To ensure success, we must eliminate barriers and, more importantly, encourage risk.  All too often innovative ideas collide with a system replete with bureaucracy, threatened by risk, and afraid to fail.  We are slowly building a Navy of innovators.  As leaders, we must ensure the environment in which they operate is conducive to innovation.  We can’t just encourage innovation — we must enable innovation.  Until then, the clocks on our collective VCR’s will continue to flash midnight.