It is no secret that technology is rapidly taking over the military. This can be seen in recruiting techniques, training styles, and weapons and tools being used in battlefield settings. Behind the gruff, rough, dip-spitting, barrel-chested freedom fighter attitude that the Navy SEALs and Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewmen (SWCC) of Naval Special Warfare have come to be known for, there is a small group of geniuses attempting to modernize NSW and Special Operations in a way that has never been seen before.

This small group of brilliant humans is assigned to a new department within NSW’s organizational structure, known as the N9 Future Concepts and Innovative Directorate. The N9’s core responsibility is to seek out the newest cutting edge and future technologies and apply them to the progression and growth of NSW’s mission-set and warfighting capabilities.

The N9 came into existence as a way for NSW to support the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Third Offset Strategy, which was developed in 2014. The Third Offset Strategy represents DOD’s desire to identify future threats and ascertain and develop cutting-edge technologies that will guarantee the United States’ military dominance for years to come.

Spearheading the N9 organization is Director, Capt. Christian Dunbar and Deputy Director, Dr. Bruce Morris. The N9 is tasked with searching for, identifying, and developing transformational and disruptive technologies and processes. NSW’s overarching goal is to develop a technologically updated framework that addresses and has the ability to combat and defeat terrorist groups and maintain superiority over other “super-power” nations. The N9 directive dovetails nicely with NSW’s Vision 2030. Vision 2030 is a movement to overhaul NSW — implementing new procedures, technology, and tactics to improve the operational fortitude of its operators and prepare for tomorrow’s enemies.

Summarizing the task and goals of the N9, Dunbar, in a long-form article with the Defense Media Network, stated that,

“Vision 2030 has three lines of effort: strengthen; compete; and reform, and it echoes a great deal of what the U.S. Navy, USSOCOM (US Special Operations Command), and the NDS (National Defense Strategy) were charging us to do in the rapid innovation space. Directly, we are given specified tasks to expand innovation across the community, increasing synergy and processes. Half of our work is focused on five-to-15-year technology horizons, and the other half focused on the possibilities of right now.”

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Personnel from Naval Special Warfare Command (NSWC) test the night-time capabilities of a Ghost Robotics’s robotic dog. NSWC is committed to its sailors and to the deliberate development of tactical excellence, ethics, and leadership as the nation’s premier maritime special operations force supporting the National Defense Strategy. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sean Furey.)

Currently, the N9 consists of about five members for the time being, but that number is expected to increase in the very near future. The team also likes to bring in extra help from the NSW Reserves. Dunbar explained, “We occasionally increase by one or two individuals with reservists that we bring on board.” Dunbar said these members “flow industry and technical expertise in and out as we ‘surge to ideas’ using those resources.”

Dunbar nicely summarized the purpose and role that the N9 plays now and will play in the future: “Our charter is to act like [sic] a set of headlights, maybe even with high beams, for the community. That allows us to see where the accelerating technology sectors are moving, project how that’s going to change our operating environment and our adversaries’ capabilities, and then explore concepts that change the way we will fight; transformational innovation. Then we need to figure out what else we need to do to onboard it.”

As mentioned before, the N9 is on a mission to develop transformational and disruptive ideas and technologies. To clarify what that actually means, Dunbar expounded on the subject in his Defense Media Network interview.

“We used business and academic theory to discern the differentiation between transformational and disruptive innovation. One is completely transforming the way we do business to have different offerings, different value propositions, different ways to solve a customer’s need or a market’s need. By contrast, disruption, as adapted for our use, is really more akin to exponential disruption to our current offerings. How do we get a 10 times result, out of an application of technology for our advantage and before our competition?”

Dunbar and Morris acknowledge the fact that in order to develop and explore new technologies and concepts, much of their data acquisition, research studies, and equipment development will have to be obtained from the private sector.

One example that Morris provided was the N9’s interest in autonomous mobile robotics (AMR). He explained that it is “an accelerating commercial technology sector being applied to our mission.” Morris went on to say,

“In the DOD, robotic autonomous systems (RAS) only has pockets of thought leaders, let alone technological excellence and investment relative to the commercial sector. Industry’s ability to endorse, develop, and integrate AMR into their core offerings and value proposition is on an exponential up-curve. What we have done is taken a deep dive into all of the core and supporting technologies for applying AMR/RAS and their increasing levels of autonomy applied toward the NSW mission set.”

Reaching a level of AMR advancement where the technology becomes Special Operations applicable is no easy task. Dunbar pointed out that there are many facets, details, and questions that have to be answered when applying AMR to the Special Operations area of responsibility.

“It’s job analysis. It’s communication. It’s operational data. It’s task data. In our world of robotic autonomous systems, which is the DOD’s vernacular, the strategies probably haven’t really collapsed into all of these enabling technologies in the systems engineering approach. You have to ask things like, ‘Where’s my data? Where’s it stored? Where’s my compute-on-the-edge? Where’s my tactical cloud? Can I communicate without latency? What are the things that need zero latency or can absorb some latency?’ All of those pieces have to get brought to bear. So, ultimately, a team like ours can say, ‘Okay, I’m watching these technology horizons. I see a convergence of about six or seven of these, and that convergence now enables this new concept.'”

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Because the N9 keeps a steady pulse on the current commercial technology market, it is able to accurately advise the DOD on where to supply money and manpower.

NSW’s “Blue Network” is another deliverable that the N9 has had a heavy hand in creating and subsequently growing. The “Blue Network” was developed to identify individuals within the NSW community that have strong academic and industry-related backgrounds. Naturally, individuals with relevant industry experience are often on the Reserve side of the house.

Dunbar explained that they “ideated on how we could energize our crowd and community, to find all of the ways that we can get into academia and industry. Our initial map found that we’ve got more than 70 NSW personnel assigned or located in academic institutions or at places like DIU, with unique access to the industry. Further, we turned to focused targeted industries, and we discovered that our Reserves represented a significant piece as well.” He went on to say, “After we mapped it and identified the concept, it was formalized by Rear Admiral Green under the moniker of the Blue Network, and at that point, it was just a matter of networking teammates and putting people to work.”

Working in conjunction with the “Blue Network”, NSW has also created a new Reserve unit under Group 11. The unit is dedicated to providing support and identifying and recruiting reservists with strong technological backgrounds.

Dunbar further explained, “It’s not just SEALs and SWCCs who are out there in the Reserve community, but also those who are in industries of interest like AI and data. He went on to say,

“If we find other experts in the Reserve Force or industry experts we could facilitate entering the Reserves, we can bring them into those spots for drilling reservists. They are essentially attached to our team in the N9, working on these transformational concepts with a real understanding of the technology. They are essentially serving as advisers on the staff. One of our highlights is we’ve got an industry chief data scientist working at a multibillion-dollar corporation. He’s a reservist now, part of our network, and advising us as we’re trying to build out our strategy for digital modernization and transformation.”

This new technological movement does not come without its challenges. NSW is a very capable and intelligent organization. It is built around combat tactics, weapons, intense training, and years of learned lessons, all culminating into a very specific training and deployment program. While technology is a definite asset in every facet of NSW, the human operator is the most important weapon and tool in the NSW arsenal. With the development of these new cutting-edge technologies, more emphasis will be placed on the data and AI aspect of waging war. The transition will not be simple.

Further explaining the challenges ahead, Dunbar said, “Our challenge will be to take stock of all of our efforts inside of NSW, identify where we best enable the rapidly innovating joint force, as well as other elements of national power, and also identify where we have a unique value proposition that was previously untapped.”

Dunbar continued,

“The third horizon of transformative innovation is certainly where the majority of innovation challenges lie. Like many organizations, we are not a digital company at the core. As such, we struggle to comprehensively understand the whole implications of innovating in the digital space and prioritizing resources and talent toward that end. Essentially, digital modernization and transformation is viewed as a ‘new start’ for the DOD and competes against other warfighting resources instead of getting the benefit of being viewed as an entire strategy shift requiring new investments. We’re seeing that ship swinging now, but it will take significant time to swing that ship. It will be a journey.”

The understanding that Dunbar acknowledged was that the talent and resources needed to make this plan a functional reality will require the talent, input, and employment of people that truly specialize in these types of industries. While some reservists do have the aptitude and education to assist in this development, the major players will not be organic to NSW, SOCOM, or D0D. Rather, the private sector will be the major player in making Vision 2030 and the Third Offset Strategy a reality.

On that point, Dunbar added, “We’ve got to get the technical leadership and engineering talent on board. We can’t take existing people and then just give them a new job title. We actually have to bring these experts from the outside in. So the challenge is how to do that and how to do that quickly. And I think everyone’s struggling with that competition for talent.”

He went on to say, “Ultimately the team will fill out with software experts and data science experts over time. While we have some initial nascent movement, I think we are poised to establish a larger investment in targeting talent from the commercial sector to help our digital modernization and transformation plans.”

Our fighting force is in the midst of a huge technological and data shift. It is going to be interesting to see what our Special Operations units look like 10 years from now.