The Digitalization of Grand Strategy: the US Navy’s Executive Director of PEO Submarines Matthew Sermon On Metal 3D Printing
Just as war shapes history, grand strategy is what shapes war, and military grand strategy all over the planet has changed faster than all of the other rapidly changing things over the last few years. There are many competing definitions of ‘grand strategy’, but I think this is one context in which the most general definitions tend to be the most useful: the RAND Corporation’s Center for Analysis of US Grand Strategy defines it simply as the description of “a nation’s most important and enduring interests and its theory for how it will advance or defend them”.
For the first time probably ever, owing primarily to the emergence of the industry 4.0 technologies, the rate of technological change of manufacturing in the commercial market at-large is starting to approach speeds that used to only be achieved by militaries mobilizing for war. In turn, the US military has responded by creating countless new agencies and funding new nonprofit R&D organizations to stay ahead of the exponential evolution of advanced manufacturing industries.
Existing agencies within the Department of Defense (DoD), as well as the branches, have put a spotlight upon the new innovation ecosystem and have been incorporating new technologies into their supply chains at a gradually accelerated rate. More so than any other individual in this milieu of the federal government, Matthew Sermon, the US Navy’s executive director of Program Executive Office, Strategic Submarines (PEO SSBN), has been unapologetically bullish in his support for accelerating the new technological landscape.
Sermon’s role is multifaceted, but its key aspect is his responsibility for running the Submarine Industrial Base (SIB), a task assigned to him in September 2021. As head of the SIB, Sermon has pushed the Navy to broaden, deepen, and accelerate its incorporation of advanced technologies, with the buildup of metal additive manufacturing (AM) capabilities being at the center of these efforts.
This general field of activity for the DoD — being an early adopter of disruptive technologies — is of course not new, but has been a permanent feature of the organization since World War Two. What is new, on the other hand, is the way that digitalization has allowed the military to start making up for the lost time represented by the US domestic manufacturing base’s several decades of decline that led up to the Obama administration’s launch of the public-private Advanced Manufacturing Partnership (AMP) in 2011. In an interview with Sermon via email, he explained to me the broader context that the activities of the US Navy and the DoD fit into historically:
As Sermon points out, US strategy concerning advanced manufacturing is one of those rare public policy initiatives that has bipartisan support and is relatively immune to undermining by the volatile short-term uncertainties characteristic of congressional gridlock. Among other reasons, this is because it is recognized that success in amending the elements of the military procurement process can only be achieved on a long-term scale:
Again, though, despite the political consensus that exists surrounding DoD’s need to stay ahead of the curve in technological innovation, it will obviously always be difficult to initiate changes quickly to such an enormous organization. On the other hand, Sermon noted some specific ways in which DoD is attempting to address that difficulty:
The SUBSAFE program certifies US Navy submarines to ensure that they’re watertight and can recover from flooding. Established in 1963, SUBSAFE certifies submarines in the areas of design, material, fabrication, and testing. In the 60 years that SUBSAFE has been in place, the US has lost just one submarine: the USS Scorpion, which wasn’t SUBSAFE-certified.
Considering its longevity and effectiveness, the demonstration that metal AM can fulfill SUBSAFE standards could enable a much more seamless transfer of technological gains from one area of the DoD ecosystem to the others than has been possible previously:
From the long-run, strategic perspective, streamlining amongst various facets of the DoD and the federal government, as a whole, is perhaps the single element that will play the most decisive role in the digitalization of the US domestic manufacturing ecosystem. It would seem like no accident that as the evidence mounts that a scale-up of AM in the US is already in progress, cross-agency cooperation in the context of AM-driven supply chain digitalization has jumped to the forefront of the agenda driving US government industrial policy:
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