Indian Head energetics lab boosts Md. economy and U.S. firepower

America has two imperatives. It must innovate faster to maintain its technological superiority, especially in U.S. firepower. The other imperative is economic development. The two are related. Faster innovation means connecting labs to businesses and helping people meet both their needs. That potential exists in Southern Maryland.

The work we do at the newly established Velocity Lab within the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Indian Head Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division in Charles County is critical to maintaining the technological superiority of our weapons through constant innovation. The Velocity Lab allows scientists to rapidly develop prototypes throughout the year, rather than tying them to annual budget cycles, to help accelerate development times while meeting unique warfighter needs.

We research and develop "energetics" — propellants, explosives and associated energy storage and release systems — which are to firepower as micro-processing is to computing power. Energetics enable weapons to go faster, fly farther and hit harder. This technical expertise is learned primarily from mentoring and direct development experience. This military installation is unique, being the only U.S. entity that does research and development for all warfighting domains — undersea, sea, land, expeditionary and air weapons — while simultaneously running critical industrial scale manufacturing and a full spectrum of explosive ordnance disposal.

R&D is only a portion of innovation, though. "Innovation starts with government support for the research labs," Bill Gates has said, "the public sector's investments unlock the private sector's ingenuity."

In other words, innovation happens through collaboration, and collaboration happens through supported partnerships. We believe in this community first approach, but need continued local and state support. For example, a technology company may have an advanced robot, software program or other advanced capability, likely of interest to our Explosive Ordnance Disposal and Munition developers. Yet today such technology and personnel cannot readily partner and access our lab.

Technology scouting is best done with minimal barriers to entry. Establishing off-base centers and partnerships has proven successful at other DoD labs and in their communities. To accelerate such innovation, establishing an off-base Velocity Lab could help foster closer relationships between the Navy, industry and academia.

Those relationships are needed to:

•Brainstorm concepts and designs;

•Synergize defense and industry R&D resources;

•Rapidly translate ideas into prototypes;

•Educate personnel on new technologies;

•Quickly transfer technologies to industry for production;

•And recruit and challenge new personnel.

Such off-base labs help meet national security needs faster. They also maximize the local economic impact of federal research funding as a 2016 Brookings Institute report stated. It recommends "off-campus micro-labs" to help federal labs "cultivate key strategic alliances with regional innovation clusters." Additionally, it noted a "continuous cycle of development well positions the [Defense] department's R&D to impact the broader economy in general and regional clusters."

An example is the non-profit Griffiss Institute, an intermediary between the Air Force Research Laboratory and private companies in Rome, N.Y. Under the 20-year guidance of Griffiss Local Development Corp., its business park grew to 5,800 employees and 75 businesses by 2016.

An off-base Velocity Lab intermediary fits with Maryland's project for Economic Diversification of Defense Industries — which seeks to mitigate risks to the economy caused by DoD budget fluctuations — especially in Southern Maryland. Developing commercial products and partnerships "can help diversify the economic strength of the region," the project notes.

It can also keep us safer. The U.S. needs "weapons systems of increased lethality that go faster, farther and are more survivable," Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said last year, referring to the threats posed to U.S. ships by China's long-range missiles.

That's what we develop. But we can do it better with the proper support and partnerships.

Daniel Pines (daniel.pines@navy.mil) is the director of the Velocity Lab at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Indian Head Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division.

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