Innovative culture alive and well

China Lake workforce maintains sense of urgency to meet emerging threats

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Innovative culture alive and wellAs growing threats continue to emerge on the global scene, the U.S. military must adapt to an increasingly complex environment. “Everything we must do must contribute to the increased lethality of our military,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently told defense leaders.

“I think China Lake fits that bill very well,” said China Lake Alliance Director Scott O’Neil, who hosted local leadership in the Navy’s mission on Tuesday to share updates with alliance members and guests.

Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division Commander Rear Adm. Brian Corey and Executive Director Joan Johnson presented lists of innovative achievements, high-profile visits and employment statistics that paint a picture of a thriving, forward-focused mission — and widely acknowledged our critical contributions to national defense.

“We have had a fantastic last week,” Corey said in his opening remarks.

China Lake celebrated the 50th anniversary of its Electronic Combat Range, with three of the original “plank-holders,” or founders, of the installation in attendance. The VX-9 Vampires flew over in formation, reminding attendees of the capabilities facilitated by our ranges.

On Friday, the China Lake Navy Ball drew its largest-ever crowd with 350 military, civilians and community members coming together to celebrate the Navy’s 242nd birthday.

“The reason I started off talking about the Navy Ball is because this community supports our base like no other in the country,” said Corey.

“We were incredibly fortunate to have Lt. Cmdr. Mike Tremel join us from Strike Fighter Squadron 87 aboard USS George H. W. Bush.”

On June 18, Tremel shot down a Syrian fighter jet south of Tabqah after it had dropped bombs near an allied force. It was the first time a U.S. pilot had made an air-to-air kill since the Kosovo conflict in 1999. It was the first U.S. Navy shoot-down since 1991.

Listening to his story, “we had some pretty salty senior employees absolutely in tears,” said Corey. At the conclusion of Tremel’s remarks, attendees of the Navy Ball gave him a standing ovation.

“We are asking our aircrews to do things we never imagined possible, even a few years ago,” said Corey. People friendly to our cause are being defended in the same stack that includes Russian fighters armed to the teeth and Syrian civilians going about their daily business.

“These are the most complicated rules of engagement we have ever faced.” But what is incredible, he said, is that the warfighters understand the implications of getting it wrong, and the leaders on the ground have their backs.

With such critical contributions to national defense, the capabilities of China Lake are at an all-time high. However, hiring the staff necessary to carry out the work has run into some obstacles.

Although the mission grew by about 180 people this year, changes in the administration and the federal hiring freeze made it difficult to entice recent college graduates to join the team, said Corey.

“Some thought it might be an indication of a downturn and didn’t want to join up with us.”

However, Johnson noted that she anticipates growing the workforce by another 370 positions next year. With attrition, that means hiring 770 new people in 2018.

“This is an extremely aggressive goal,” she said. The good news is that because of the foresight of her predecessor (O’Neil), the base demographics have shifted tremendously.

A decade ago O’Neil noted that more than half the workforce was just a few years away from retirement. “Today, 56 percent of our workforce has been here 10 years or less,” said Johnson.

“That’s a great news story, because it means we are bringing a whole new generation of motivated people into the mission.”

But even more important than the quantity of workforce, Corey said, is the quality, which is “off the charts.”

He pointed to some outside-the-box advancements that have been invented by some of the base’s most junior employees. One of these is a device less than a cubic foot in size that can be fitted to existing aircraft infrastructure to provide wireless communication.

Now, using an off-the-shelf tablet held by the pilot, the military can send critical information mid-flight. Outside of the defense applications, the commercial uses have great potential.

“The reason I’m showing you this stuff is because it can be built here,” said Corey. Normally such tools are manufactured in Orlando. The quality is high, but so is the price tag. Worse, it cannot be turned around very quickly.

The admiral engaged with his chain of command to bring the conversation outside the fence in hopes of finding some private company interested in putting in a light manufacturing shop.

When asked if IWV Economic Development Corp. could play a role in matching private industry with military innovations, Corey responded that “what I think we can do inside the fence is lean forward toward opportunity.”

One of the main complaints of industry is that the deliberation time for military decisions leaves too little time for development.

“If we can shorten that decision window, that might make a difference.”

In April Johnson cited Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson’s warning that in the surging threats to safety, the world is looking at a winner-take-all outcome.

“I can’t speak for the country at large, but I can tell you locally … the comments CNO made completely resonated with the admiral and me,” she said.

Since 1943 the culture at China Lake has been built on a sense of absolute urgency — and that remains the same today.

“What we are doing is taking the handcuffs off our warfighter,” she said. “That’s how we operate here, and it is one of the reasons that our credibility and reputation continue to prove to be so valuable.

“We are taking chances, not asking permission. We are bringing solutions to the table.”

Story First Published: 2017-10-20