WD is ’forward leaning for the Navy’

Culture of innovation and dedication keeps China Lake mission perpetually relevant

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

WD is ’forward leaning for the Navy’Even as constantly developing technology and the shifting nature of warfare drive changes in national defense, the way the Navy’s presence at China Lake responds to those factors is rooted in the same principles upon which the base was established — a dedicated sense of mission, and an agility that allows real time adaptability to those evolving needs.

“People talk a lot about change. We have certainly seen a lot of it, and it seems to be coming faster and faster,” said Scott O’Neil, executive director of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division. “That makes some people excited and some people uncomfortable.”

For the latter group, he tells them to focus on what hasn’t changed. “We are forward-leaning for the Navy — we have been innovators from the get-go — and we are focused on the warfighter and the fleet. Those have been persistent since the days of World War II. Those are constants.”

Current China Lake leaders say that foundation ensures that WD is poised to weather the implications of fiscal and political unknowns that loom on the horizon.

Shoring up the strength of those institutional assets are the aligning stars in senior Navy leadership who bring to their roles a history and understanding of the weapons division.

Commenting on the landscape of Washington, D.C., O’Neil said, “We are definitely in the midst of a number of changes in leadership inside the beltway that could have a very positive impact for us.”

Two recent promotions that could translate to more intuitive representation include those of Vice Adm. David Dunaway, who is the new commander of NAVAIR, and of Rear Adm. Mat Winter, who was recently named the new weapons program executive officer. Both previously served as commanders of NAWCWD.

Rear Adm. Paul Sohl, who assumed command in August, also brings to his new role an established passion for the local mission, which he served as a test pilot during a tour in the 1990s.

“Having this degree of understanding in the leadership of what our capabilities are is a luxury we really haven’t had before,” said O’Neil. “This is an opportunity that we don’t take lightly. And as we move the Navy’s agenda forward, NAWCWD will play a major role in that.”

“We are as relevant today for the Navy and Marine Corps as we have ever been because of what we deliver,” said Sohl. “We have an expeditionary team leading us in an expeditionary age.” To keep the weapons division on that leading edge, he does not just look at where technology is today, but where it’s going in the future.

Both Sohl and O’Neil pointed to the environment itself — not only unduplicatable swaths of unencroached air, land and sea ranges, but the intellectual capital found in the highly technical workforce — as key components to success in the local mission.

One of the greatest forces pushing research, development, acquisition, testing and evaluation is the increasing need for interoperability.

“Think about the networked world we live in,” said Sohl. Part of the weapons division’s challenge is to integrate the diverse platforms and weapons as they grow exponentially in sophistication and complexity.

Sohl identified this as one of the three focus areas outlined by Dunaway. “That was the first thing we did – made sure our objectives were aligned with our boss. And since our mission hasn’t changed, neither has our alignment.”

He said that he believes the diversity of ranges, infrastructure and skill sets “guarantees a home run in integrated and interoperable warfighting capabilities.”

The second objective — speed to fleet — “just means getting things out there faster because the environments and threats change.” One of the advantages to having the research and development components linked with the test and evaluation at China Lake is a natural streamlining of that process.

Another paradigm shift coming from command is that, instead of having the warfighter give feedback after deployment, getting that voice involved in the front end of the process.

“It’s difficult because there’s no formal avenue for this, but there are huge benefits for it,” said Sohl.

For the final objective — affordability — Sohl said that is a natural consequence of the increased efficiency in the first two objectives.

“So while that isn’t necessarily in our lane, if we can do complete integration and interoperability testing of systems and get them quickly to the fleet, that makes it more affordable,” he said.

Although the classified nature that dominates the work at China Lake prevents O’Neil from elaborating on specifics of up-and-coming projects, he acknowledged that some of these will be “game changers” in defense.

One of the greatest areas of growth for China Lake — and one in which WD continues to lead in innovation — is in unmanned systems.

“I think we are in the midst of a change, really kind of a cliff of a new era for naval aviation,” said O’Neil. “Even though we’ve been focused on unmanned systems for a decade, that’s pretty early in the scheme of things.”

Last year, the unmanned work at China Lake eclipsed the work relating to manned missions. And according to Sohl, that field is changing as fast as it is growing.

“A lot of that comes back to the fact that we learn lessons faster. Just look at the physical environment out here,” he said. When you have the ability to walk outside of a lab and onto a runway, then right back into the lab, that speeds up the process of development.

Sohl said he only glimpsed the scope of work conducted at WD during his previous tour, but has been blown away by his current birds-eye view — particularly in the quality of the workforce.

“The people piece is what I’ve really enjoyed spending time on.” He that said when he walks the halls and meets individuals, the feedback has one common theme — WD employees at all three sites love their work. That unity even appears to forge bonds that extend into retirement. Sohl said he was expecting a handful to turn out to the recent retiree appreciation event at China Lake. There were actually 130 retirees in attendance. “That’s a lot of folks who are still engaged and interested in what we do.”

In looking at how those employees are attracted — and retained — Sohl and O’Neil said they work to maintain the culture that has historically given China Lake and other WD facilities an edge: an environment that fosters the innovation that enabled an impressive list of firsts (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjPAqjYpZSk for those who haven’t seen it) and a freedom to follow the thread of unanticipated discoveries that crop up in research.

While the Navy is officially interested only in the technical applications that relate to national security, that research has spawned commercial applications as well. The glow stick is widely recognized as one of the most popular commercial legacies of China Lake research.

The Navy did not leverage its invention of that technology, but this is another way the Weapons Division has changed its way of doing business, said O’Neil.

He described a recent meeting where management was discussing its work in biofuels, in which scientists have found a way to transition butenol into jet fuel. An extension of that technology is the exploration of whether it would be feasible to build a pilot plant at the geothermal site where CO2 can be scavenged as it is released to the atmosphere. The direction conversion of waste CO2 to jet fuel is critical technology for the nation and for WD. “There is enough CO2 wasted annually at the Coso Geothermal Facility to provide fuel for all of our jets,” he said.

“We’ve been very deliberate about understanding the potential of all of our jet fuel technology in the commercial sector so that we can more astutely assess its value, which is something we’ve never done before,” said O’Neil.

Not just giving that value away is part of being a good steward of China Lake’s own resources and putting that value back into RDAT&E, he said — and is also another example of innovation.

“You talk to our employees, and they are excited about the mission, about serving our country and having the opportunity to think differently and postulate new ideas,” said O’Neil.

“We are really fortunate because we have a full spectrum of capabilities — from basic science research to being able to analyze and understand the systems we have in the field today. That’s a broad spectrum. And it creates strategic opportunities because we have the people, facilities and knowledge to support the warfighter from beginning to end.”

The 2005 BRAC outcome increased those assets, he said, from the some $250 million in new construction at China Lake, Point Mugu and San Nicolas Island and more than 1,000 new billets.

That recent influx of new professionals has introduced a fresh perspective and enthusiasm to the seasoned staff of China Lake. O’Neil said challenges of bridging the generation gap are no different than they are in society at large, “except that our groups are bonded by a common language — the love of technology and the desire to serve our country.”

If the mission can bring those bright minds to the desert, Sohl noted, the community plays a role in helping keep them here.

The connection between Americans and the military that protects them is changing, he said — not waning, but growing more abstract. Wars are fought on foreign soil in ways that have a less direct impact on, and require less sacrifice from, the common citizen.

China Lake is a microcosm of civilians living side by side with those who are directly contributing to defense, even if those individual roles are less visible from a broad perspective.

Strong relationships between those inherently symbiotic components of community and military can reinvigorate a sense of patriotism — cultivating a stronger workforce, which in turn improves national defense for everyone.

“At the end of the day it’s about relationships between people — between the base and the community,” said Sohl. “Relationships matter. And the community is a very important part of that.”

Story First Published: 2013-01-02