Thinking Outside the Box

"I want you to think out of the box," said the Chief of Naval Research, Rear Admiral Jay Cohen to Paul Lowell when he tasked him to find some different - perhaps high-risk - answers to some of the Navy's most challenging problems. "And you may fail most of the time…. that's no problem. The bigger risk lies in not addressing the problems at all."

Thus was born Swampworks, the Navy's newest philosophy for technology development designed to re-think the ways the most vexing problems are dissected and solved. But, unlike other such think tanks, the Office of Naval Research's Swampworks is no blank check think tank. Operating on less than 1% of the Navy's science and technology budget, Swampworks will work by taking a problem and pulling together an ad hoc consortium of expertise from industry, academia, and other federal agencies in order to take advantage of the best talent out there to deliver breakthroughs. The outcome of the projects addressed in Swampworks will influence military strategy, as well as provide direction to long-term science and technology.

A case in point of a problem currently being tackled by Swampworks is the terrorist attack suffered by the USS COLE.

This incident occurred due to a shortfall in a combination of areas, such as strategy, intelligence and limitations in force protection. Swampworks is approaching the issue by looking to better understand the gaps, assess the feasibility of different approaches that could fill those gaps, and to demonstrate the technologies that are identified. Some of the technologies currently being looked at are lightweight armor for ships in port and non-lethal weapons that might maintain a safety zone around a ship. For a future fleet, the answers might lie in new and stronger ship hull materials, and innovative structural geometries in ship design.

"There will be no emotional attachments to any of our ideas," says Swampworks director, Paul Lowell. "If it doesn't work or doesn't make sense, we'll move on. The point is to cherry pick from a variety strategies that can be developed to accommodate new ideas, and to assess quickly the promise in those strategies and ideas."

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