One of the enduring legends of the then Lockheed, now Lockheed Martin, organization is the famous Skunk Works which was first formally established in June of 1943 under the legendary Kelly Johnson who led it until 1975. Still flourishing today, this organization has been the ultimate R&D/!RAD operation in that an eclectic group of bright engineers are provided money, facilities and other assets to independently develop leading edge ideas and hardware, then essentially left alone until something comes out the other end. If the failure rate of their endeavors is not high enough, it can be taken internally to indicate that they are not pushing envelopes hard enough. Towards the end of WWII the Skunk Works produced the prototype of the first U.S. jet fighter, the P80 Shooting Star, in only 143 days (7 days earlier than the target date)-the proposal for which having been earlier written and hand delivered to the Army Air Corps in a month. Among their other most noted products have been:
- The U2 spy plane
- The SR-71 Blackbird spy plane
- The F 117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter
- The F22 Raptor Stealth Fighter
The Submarine Force would be well served by an analogue to this Lockheed Skunk Works being established-an Undersea Sk1111k Works-if not so much for hardware, certainly for concepts and ideas regarding roles and missions, payloads and exploitation of emergent technologies.
The DARPA Submarine Payload and Sensors program of 1999-200 I was almost a first step towards the establishment of a no-holds barred intellectualization of future submarines and the means by which they would accomplish as yet undefined roles and missions. It involved the formulation of two large consortia of various traditional submarine-associated entities together with very non-traditional entities and agencies who then independently, aided as appropriate by a small group of government source selection advisors, started with a clean sheet of paper to imagine submarine employment and enabling technologies a couple of decades in the future. One of the amazing outcomes of the two year effort was that, although having started from significantly different conceptual positions, both consortia asymptotically approached very similar and technically credible visions by the end of the two year effort-in essence, the front end of a Skunk Works process. At this point findings and opinions were turned over to the Navy, and although the essential elements of some of them have trickled into programmatic action, the bulk of the work has largely gone unexploited.
Unfortunately, some cultural and corporate barriers have arisen that would impede the establishment and success of another Skunk Works. These include:
1. A ubiquitous management focus on the next quarter’s bottom line.
2. An intolerance of failure by the current military-industrial complex, even though frequent failure is the inevitable by product of truly innovative experimentation.
3. A stated corporate tenet in many cases to be risk-adverse.
4. Goal-oriented, meetings-dominated, process-controlled management techniques that track everything except brilliant, spontaneous insights.
5. Environments that emphasize the accounting for of 100% of a work force’s time spent on assigned sollltio11s at the expense of individual and introspective thought on better determining the real issues and the true nature of the problems.
Not that the answer necessarily lies in workplaces that feature skateboards, ping-pong tables and eclectic attire, but that perceived Silicon Valley model seems to be a feature of a segment of the economy that has gotten some things significantly right when it comes to paradigm-busting concepts in their realm of innovative hard-and software development. Of course, this laissez faire approach isn’t appropriate in all areas-pouring ammonium perchlorate for rocket motors or welding submarine hull sections needing somewhat more formal approaches-but there is room for a back room or black hole where IRAD seed money is available, schedules are loose, and eclectic personalities with significant brainpower are free to interact with one another to create an occasional killer ap amidst a 98% failure rate.
The U.S. Submarine Force and its industrial base still build and operate the world’s finest and quietest submarines, and the recent example of the return to sea of four Ohio-class hulls as transformational SSGNs ranks right up there as disruptive technology along with the NAUTILUS and POLARIS. That being said, one cannot read foreign defense journals without a sense of amazement about what much smaller national economies arc doing with in the area of submarine and submarine payload development, such as Li-ion main storage batteries and nuclear AIP, and wonder if we might not be resting on our laurels. To keep, if not widen, the lead in submarine-associated technologies and payloads, it would be very appropriate to establish, man and adequately fund an Undersea Skunk Works.