New Golden Age of China Lake is here

Continued coverage of the Feb. 23 IWV Economic Outlook Conference

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

New Golden Age of China Lake is hereWhen historians look back at the Golden Age of China Lake, they will be talking about 2017-2020.

That was the message Rear Adm. Brian Corey, commander of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division, delivered to the attendees of the Indian Wells Valley Economic Outlook Conference — and the truth of his claim appears to be validated by a steady stream of high-profile dignitaries from the Navy and Department of Defense.

“The brand that is ‘China Lake’ is unbelievably high right now,” Corey said, adding that language cannot adequately express how well things are going within the borders of the base.

Although China Lake has led the Navy — and thereby defense — in innovation for decades (see related story, this page), compounding protocols to mitigate risk (real and perceived) have reduced DOD’s edge in the face of rapidly advancing global threats.

His presentation included a slide that showed contrasting tracks of development in domestic and adversarial capabilities. While DOD has long held a significant advantage, high costs and protracted timelines to mitigate risk are slowing development — putting adversaries on an imminent trajectory to overtake our advantage.

Strides to overcome that trend and lengthen our lead were highlighted in a short video about the development of the solid-fuel ramjet.

Matt Walker, project lead, said his team was able to bring the concept to reality in six months.

“One of the biggest barriers we faced right from the start was a risk-averse culture,” he said.

Last May, Corey challenged the team to fly a solid-fuel ramjet engine by the end of summer.

Vice Adm. Paul Grosklags, commander of the Naval Air Systems Command, said that the limited timeframe for such an ambitious goal had not been achieved at China Lake in decades. “The greybeards said it could not be done.”

The engineers executed their first test without success. That result was met with a proposal for a months-long failure analysis. Corey asked the team if they knew what went wrong, and they thought they did. They corrected the problem and tested the following week — this time successfully.

“This taught me an enormous amount about risk,” said Corey. While many perceive risk mitigations as measures to protect against critical losses, “it turns out, the bigger problem is personal and professional risk.”

“We need to take the handcuffs off the folks and let them charge ahead,” said Grosklags, adding that a little professional risk was worth bringing capabilities to the fleet in a timely manner.

“It’s important to take risks because our adversaries are outpacing us in many ways,” said Joan Johnson, executive director of NAWCWD.

“We need to build a culture where we recognize we are going to make mistakes up front, but get products into the hands of the fleet more quickly.

“We may fail early, and we may fail often, but we are going to learn from our failures.”

On the business side of the house, Johnson reported that NAWCWD’s budget grew to $1.5 billion in 2016 — up $100 million since 2014.

During that same period, civilian employees at China Lake grew from just over 3,000 to more than 3,900. In 2016, NAWCWD brought 666 new hires aboard. The goal for 2017 is another 300 new hires.

She noted employment at NAWCWD represents a payroll of some $466 million — a significant contribution to the local economy.

Other capabilities developed at China Lake that have drawn national attention include the UAV swarm, the successful testing of which was highlighted in a recent broadcast of 60 Minutes.

During his visit last year, former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter said that China Lake is “in the sweet spot” of the strategic transition plan for defense.

“Everything you do here is part of the cutting edge,” said Carter. Those sentiments continue to be echoed not just by leadership of NAWCWD, but by the high-ranking officials who have been coming to China Lake in droves to witness groundbreaking developments. Those visitors include Chief of Naval Operations; Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition; and Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

“This is why the demand for our services is off the charts,” said Corey. This commitment has allowed China Lake to deliver integrated capabilities sooner and at a lower cost.

“The Navy leads in innovation, and China Lake leads the Navy. Innovation starts here.”

Pictured: NAWCWD Commander Rear Adm. Brian Corey listens to presentations following his speech at the IWV Economic Outlook Conference. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-03-10