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From AI to Ships to People, NPS Acquisition Research Symposium Explores New Frontiers for Defense Innovation

From AI to Ships to People, NPS Acquisition Research Symposium Explores New Frontiers for Defense Innovation

Nickolas Guertin, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition (ASN RD&A), delivers the keynote address on the first day of the 21st annual NPS Acquisition Research Symposium. The event brought together acquisition professionals in a research-focused forum that connects scholars, practitioners, and policymakers.

The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) hosted the 21st annual Acquisition Research Symposium on May 8-9 in Monterey, Calif., bringing together experts from government, military, industry, and academia to explore the impact of defense acquisition on the delivery of innovative and necessary warfighting capabilities.

Co-hosted by the NPS Department of Defense Management’s Acquisition Research Program and the Naval Warfare Studies Institute (NWSI), the two-day event illustrated the value of basic and applied research to drive operational innovation and prepare leaders with the critical and creative thinking required to solve the hard problems facing the U.S. Navy, Marine Corps and joint force.

The event’s keynote speaker, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition (ASN RD&A) Nickolas Guertin, acknowledged that his many years producing and presenting research at the symposium prepared him to succeed in his current position as the Navy’s chief weapons buyer. 

“I don't think I would have the job I have if it weren't for the work that I've done through the Acquisition Research Symposium to take these ideas, to think about them hard, to work with another person as a co-author or co-authors and put down ideas about what we should be doing differently about this work,” Guertin said. “Through that, I became known as someone who is not reckless but purposeful about innovation.”

Guertin also highlighted the symposium’s collaborative environment, diverse topics, and structure, which allows participants to explore different tracks and gain insights from various fields.

As with previous events, this year's Acquisition Research Symposium featured research papers and briefing presentations focused on recently completed and ongoing projects sponsored by the Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of the Navy (DON) and conducted by researchers at various institutions.

Experts delved into such issues as artificial intelligence (AI), cybersecurity integration, shipbuilding, supply chain resilience, software acquisition, and optimizing relationships through contracting. Throughout the symposium, individual research projects were connected with larger strategic naval and defense priorities.

Guertin, for instance, discussed his rigorous approach to the Navy’s recent shipbuilding review, a tough assessment of weaknesses in industrial capacity, workforce, budgeting and acquisition processes that have put the Navy behind in meeting goals for a fleet that can ensure maritime dominance. A separate panel assessed both past and present challenges in shipbuilding, including a case study on the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, one of the programs running behind schedule and over cost.

Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Kurt Rothenhaus, himself an NPS alumnus, chaired a panel on AI in acquisition. Researchers considered how large language models can be used to streamline processes in contracting, program management, and systems engineering; Rothenhaus situated this research within the framework of the recently released Naval Science and Technology (S&T) Strategy that identifies the Secretary of the Navy’s research priorities. 

Rothenhaus noted that NPS and the symposium are critical in helping improve science and technology not just in the U.S., but also for partners and allies.

“What the military does when we acquire weapons systems or other capabilities is truly complicated,” Rothenhaus said. “It's something that merits study. And so what brings me back is seeing the scholarship of the students here at the Naval Postgraduate School and colleagues from around the country and the joint community really taking a hard look at how we do acquisition and how we can get better at it.”

A second panel on artificial intelligence, chaired by NWSI Director Randy Pugh, addressed AI in sustainment, talent management, and cost modeling. Pugh, a retired Marine Corps colonel, connected his past operational experience acquiring software-intensive intelligence systems to today’s challenges acquiring AI.

“At the time, there was nothing more risky or complex than acquiring a software application. It’s just filled with ambiguity and cost and risk,” Pugh said. “Acquiring AI tools or doing AI for the acquisition community is going to be like acquiring software, only exponentially more complex and exponentially more risky.”

The symposium also provided a platform for student research. During a poster showcase on May 8, dozens of NPS warrior-scholars from the Department of Defense Management discussed their innovative studies and thesis findings with attendees. 

Among those presenting at the poster show were Marine Corps Capt. Daniel Lim and Navy Lt. Cmdr. Hans Lauzen, whose classified research project on resilient satellite communications architecture and autonomous systems delivered not only research, but a tangible solution developed in coordination with industry partners and fielded in less than two years. 

Lim reflected that the ability to have conversations with senior leaders at the symposium and throughout their research process “allowed us to not only increase leadership awareness of what we are doing and the impact that academia can have in the operational environment, but also integrate their feedback into our design process and accelerate the technology, ultimately increasing mission accomplishment and the value that we deliver to the warfighters.”

In addition to Navy and Marine Corps students, presenters at the poster show included officers from other DOD services as well as international students from Germany, Djibouti, Brazil, and Ukraine, demonstrating the event’s diverse range of perspectives.

A common refrain throughout the symposium was the need to pair technological innovation with people supported to lead through the rapidly changing environment created by those technologies. 

In his remarks, NPS Department of Defense Management chair Ray Jones said that “we have to create an environment in which we continue to educate and train our workforce and our industrial base at the leading edge of technology to be able to meet these challenges.” 

“While the procurement process can lag behind the technological developments if we let it, the reality is we don’t have the luxury to do that,” Jones added. “We must demand that not only are our acquisition warriors technically competent in their tradecraft, but also that everyone in the business of defense understands and is able to influence change throughout this process.” 

Over the years, the Acquisition Research Symposium has evolved into a vital arena for fostering dialogue among scholars, policymakers, and acquisition practitioners on critical procurement and logistics issues. Rothenhaus expressed his appreciation and gratitude for the Acquisition Research Symposium and its role in fostering discussion and collaboration.

"I've always really enjoyed the conference and found it fascinating," he said. "It really is an opportunity for folks from around the nation and our global and international partners as well to spend time thinking about how we do the business of acquisition better to serve the Sailors, Marines, and other service warfighters better."

Research papers and presentations from the symposium can be viewed on the NPS website at!/page/558?c=66

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