The Future of the U.S. Navy—Greater Partnership with Private Industry
The U.S. Navy must increase partnership and coordination with private industry to leverage commercial expertise, knowledge, and experience to address challenges.
To improve readiness, capability and proficiency, the U.S. Navy must focus on deepening partnerships with private industry so that commercial expertise, experiences and efficiencies can be applied to the Fleet. Fostering meaningful relationships with private industry would provide a venue for innovative ideas and nondefense industry thinking to be applied to U.S. Navy challenges in areas such as safety, operations and readiness. This would provide much of the same benefit as crowd-sourcing but with industry experts and leaders. The creation of mutually beneficial partnerships would also provide the commercial sector access to and routine contact with the U.S. Navy and allow for increased coordination, collaboration and information sharing that may be important to business, like: piracy, maritime cybersecurity, port security and information sharing.
The Secretary of the Navy’s (SECNAV) September 1, 2017 direction to conduct a Strategic Readiness Review of the force is an important first step in fostering new and greater relationships between the U.S. Navy and the private sector. For these ends, the most important aspect of the Strategic Readiness Review is not the fact that this study was commissioned, it is in the specific guidance to include both “service and industry experts” in the review and recommendations. The U.S. Navy must seize on the momentum of the partnerships created in this initiative, as well as senior leadership’s recognition of the value and potential that private industry expertise, experience, and resources can have on Fleet issues and challenges. To capitalize on the gains and partnerships that will be created with private industry, specific initiatives should be developed to continue where the near-term Strategic Readiness Review will leave off. One idea would be for the U.S. Navy to create an enduring advisory group of industry leaders, essentially mirroring the Defense Innovation Advisory Board structure but empowering it to create specific nonpermanent focus groups that can apply industry experience to specific Fleet issues to inform decision making and provide recommendations or solutions.
A useful model, the Defense Innovation Advisory Board was established in March 2016 by the secretary of defense and was created to provide private industry expertise to benefit Department of Defense culture, processes and the entire organization. This board, which has already seen some success, could be easily established and adapted to fit U.S. Navy needs, bringing together industry leaders to assess a wide range of challenges and issues facing the Fleet. Private industry and the public would gain a better appreciation for U.S. Navy significance, capabilities, and mission while the Service would gain tremendous experience and knowledge that could be used to review specific SECNAV focus areas as well as anything the advisory board identifies during visits with commands and sailors. Responsible only to the SECNAV, and made up of a diverse and rotating group of industry leaders, the advisory board would have direct input and access to provide U.S. Navy leadership with recommendations and proposals to improve safety, efficiency, and effectiveness as well as other initiatives that could benefit both the military and the private sector.
Private industry experts would no doubt be able to provide a fresh perspective and analysis of challenges facing the Fleet, potentially providing recommendations, ideas or solutions that military run studies or surveys might not identify due to differences in paradigmatic thinking, such as focuses on efficiencies in terms of profit margins and cost savings, shareholder interests and different views on technological solutions. While some of what the U.S. Navy does is unique to the military, it is not a stretch to think that the Fleet can, and would, benefit from nondefense industry processes and lessons learned. Commercial shipping companies may not be able to provide recommendations for combat or tactics during a war at sea, but that does not mean they can’t relate to many other aspects of naval life, work and operations. As an example, the private shipping industry would no doubt be able to provide useful input on a wide range of shared issues, such as seamanship, navigation, safety, training, education and certification, watch rotation, vessel maintenance, and even shipyard repairs and capacity.
Partnerships formed through initiatives like an advisory board also provide an opportunity for better communication and coordination between the defense and commercial sectors, not only at the senior leadership level but down to individual commands, ships, aircraft and submarines. The private sector might benefit from a military that is more responsive or receptive to industry concerns like piracy, or other maritime and air security and safety matters. Better communication, integration and familiarity may also increase interaction and information sharing at executive leadership levels and individual units while at sea, with U.S. naval and commercial vessels willing and interested in communicating as partners when they are in proximity to each other. Encounters between naval vessels and merchants at sea, or in port, may someday be welcomed as a chance to connect and share, as opposed to just another chance to practice remedial ship handling and collision avoidance.
Those resistant to greater partnership with private industry often highlight the unique role, organization and mission of the U.S. Navy, but this does not preclude the ability to come together on issues which are analogous between the two. Others point out that several U.S. Navy innovation initiatives to improve the Fleet already exist, like the Naval Innovation Advisory Council; but these critics fail to highlight that most of these efforts are organizations are primarily comprised of active duty military members and Department of Defense civilian employees. Current initiatives will not achieve their full potential until they reach outside the defense enterprise or leverage private industry experience and expertise. The U.S. Navy should endeavor for ways to bring an enduring outside perspective and independent analysis to military thinking, including leaders and experts from across the private sector who are not inculcated in the service’s parochial paradigms or even beholden to the military chain of command. Given recent challenges and the resource constrained environment, the U.S. Navy owes it to its sailors and the nation to find ways to overcome ethics concerns and security concerns that, when misapplied, restrict collaboration efforts with private industry. If the former Secretary of Defense found a way to successfully navigating the legal concerns inherent in partnering with private industry, the U.S. Navy can as well. There will always be barriers to implement initiatives involving the private sector, but the reward far outweighs the risk.
Greater partnership and collaboration of an enduring nature between the U.S. Navy and private industry, especially in the maritime, aviation, security, manufacturing, and technology sectors, will provide an important opportunity for innovation and increased readiness and effectiveness of the Fleet. Casting a wider net to bring in lessons learned and experience that exists outside the U.S. Navy will provide a valuable perspective. Access to industry processes, policies and knowledge can directly impact many of the U.S. Navy’s competencies, as well as effectiveness, readiness, operations and safety. As responsible stewards of taxpayer resources, national security and military personnel, the U.S. Navy must increase partnership and coordination with private industry to leverage commercial expertise, knowledge, and experience in a way that can address challenges to realize meaningful changes that will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the Fleet.
Matthew Krull serves as a fellow at the Atlantic Council and is a Surface Warfare Officer in the U.S. Navy. The views and opinions expressed are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the Atlantic Council, U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Government.
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