If you were standing near the present day carrier piers at Naval Station Norfolk on the morning of 8 March, exactly 150 years ago today, you would have seen at anchorage between Fort Monroe and Newport News several of the Union Navy’s most powerful warships. Turning to look up the Elizabeth River you would have seen a great plume of soot trailing what was truly an innovative creation of the day – a hybrid incarnation of a Greek trireme and an armored floating battery known as the CSS VIRGINIA. She was the Confederate Navy’s first steam-powered ironclad warship and was en route that morning to deliver a stunning blow against the Union Navy that would shatter conventional thinking about warship design, and profoundly changed naval warfare forever.
However, the following morning, again from your shore-side view point, you would have noticed an odd cylindrical object at anchor west of the present day Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. Overnight, USS MONITOR had arrived. MONITOR was a monumental technological achievement and quite possibly the most revolutionary warship of the 19th century (even more so than CSS VIRGINIA). She was fully steam-powered with no mast or sails, built almost entirely of iron and crowned with an armored revolving turret (the first of its kind on a warship). And she had arrived just in time to disrupt VIRGINIA’s initiative to finish off the Union Navy in Hampton Roads.
While this first engagement between ironclad warships eventually ended in a stalemate, the historic battle marked a sweeping change in conventional thinking and ushered in a new era of naval warfare. Wind powered wooden warships were instantaneously obsolete.
It’s one thing to look back and admire the significant achievements in our past, especially when they involve a revolutionary new platform or weapon system. But innovation does not always have to equate to a huge technical leap forward; it does not always have to come in the form of a new multi-billion dollar program; and it certainly does not have to be the be-all and the end-all solution. Simple solutions (e.g., changing tactics based on lessons learned from a series of meaningful exercises) can often be just as effective at ushering in a new era in warfare. An example of this is how in the inter-war period the Navy learned to sustain itself for a trans-oceanic campaign lasting three years with 6,000 nautical mile supply chains.
But in order to have a true innovative culture in our Navy, we need to foster the type of environment in which everyone has the opportunity, regardless of position, to think critically and improve the way we do business in the Fleet. It is for this reason that RDML Kraft and the Navy Warfare Development Command (NWDC), the Fleet lead for innovation, will be hosting an Innovation Symposium on 13-14 March titled: Regaining the Innovation Advantage…Awakening our Creative DNA. This symposium is an integral part of a larger campaign plan now in development to reinvigorate the conditions for an innovative culture and overcome our internal barriers to innovation.
Now, anyone who works for me (or reads my blog) knows that I am naturally skeptical of symposiums and conferences. These events are often treated as vacations away from the office with no real requirement to produce anything of substance. I do, however, believe that when properly planned and executed, we can achieve great value from bringing together some of the brightest minds in the business to think through and discuss our current challenges. I will kick-off the symposium next Tuesday and look forward to the rich discussions and, most importantly, the actions and meaningful changes that we pursue as a result.
All the best, JCHjr