The Digitalization of Grand Strategy: the US Navy’s Executive Director of PEO Submarines Matthew Sermon On Metal 3D Printing

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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.

Copper-nickel drain deck assembly that will be installed on a Virginia-class submarine by General Dynamics Electric Boat (GDEB) and Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII). Images courtesy of GDEB and HII

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:

“Innovation and risk-seeking behavior has fostered America’s unmatched history of capability and capacity and contributed to America’s social, economic, and military might,” Sermon said. “Prior to WWII, the invention of the assembly line and modern management thinking enabled us to out-produce competitor nations while supplying our warfighters and allies. Success in the Cold War and the Space Race advanced American technology and gave us the global advantage in guided munitions, command, control, and communications, and across undersea warfare competencies. Continued investment from the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations in regional manufacturing hubs, Made in America initiatives, industry 4.0, advanced manufacturing, and automation have paved the way for digital supply chains. As traditional manufacturing centers have shifted overseas in recent decades, policymakers have recognized the need for a new American Industrial Revolution. Continuing these initiatives and cementing them into the foundations of naval shipbuilding is absolutely critical to maintaining America’s innovative edge.”

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:

“Today’s efforts to update Navy and DoD policy will embed advanced manufacturing processes in ship construction, design, and sustainment. New manufacturing methods will lead to improved capacity in the industrial base and advanced capabilities for our warfighter. With updated policy and the engineering data to support design decisions, advanced manufacturing methods will become a valuable and permanent tool for our shipbuilding industry. These advances are critical to maintain and advance our competitive advantage. American industrial might and innovation transcends politics and is fundamental to our national character.”

Matthew Sermon during a visit to Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division (NSWC PCD). Image courtesy of Jeremy Roman via DVIDS.

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:

“Fast-tracking technology is without question a large obstacle for DoD, but something we are making improvements in. DoD — and especially the Navy Submarine Safety (SUBSAFE) program — have excellent safety records. Reliance on time tested technologies, processes, and principles is how we have historically maintained those high safety standards. PEO SSBN is fast-tracking new technology adoption while maintaining rigorous safety requirements. We are generating all the expected laboratory and safety test data required for engineering approvals in parallel with inserting digitally manufactured parts in low risk, “safe to fail” application spaces. This strategy allows us to identify real world failure mechanisms (if they exist) and prioritize the hardest-lab-scale-tests so we maximize investment on projects with potential for success. Industry and academic leaders in [AM] are engaged in the effort and are working to qualify their systems to Navy standards. Transition partners are working closely with the Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence (AM CoE) to set up a network of approved vendors. An initial set of qualified 3D printing machines and approved vendors will make the core of the additive industrial base. Additional companies are welcome to qualify their machines and gain approval for manufacturing using the templates we are generating.”

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:

Columbia Class Submarines are essential to national security. America’s industrial base is at capacity and the historic ramp in submarine building requires innovation and capability beyond traditional manufacturing. Let me be very clear. We need castings. We need forgings. We need plate and bar stock and fasteners and pumps and valves. We will not be able to construct 2 Virginia class and 1 Columbia class per year while maintaining current surface shipbuilding, sustainment, support for our allies, and other branches of the military without a very significant near term increase in manufacturing capability. That increase will come from advanced techniques including [AM]. The Navy is working closely with its service partners in the Army, Air Force, and wider DoD to ensure lessons learned benefit all services. SUBSAFE requirements are among the most stringent and provide an excellent way to ensure that additively manufactured material, meeting SUBSAFE standards, will be suitable for a wide range of military platforms.”

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:

“Getting various agencies across the same branch to work together on AM is happening now,” Sermon affirmed. “[Recently] I attended a symposium at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology where leaders from across the services (Navy, Marine Corps, and Army in particular) came together to talk about programs, advanced manufacturing innovations, and other opportunities for collaboration and learning. There are many parallel efforts going on and enhanced communication and learning from one another is accelerating technology adoption across the DoD. We must drive this acceleration to full scale AM capacity.”

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