Email this Article Email   

CHIPS Articles: Talking with Capt. Paul C. Stewart, Commanding Officer, Naval Research Laboratory

Talking with Capt. Paul C. Stewart, Commanding Officer, Naval Research Laboratory
NRL — 85 years of innovation
By CHIPS Magazine - July-September 2011
NRL helps make the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps the most formidable naval fighting force in the world with a record of technical excellence that has a profound importance to national security. NRL is the corporate research laboratory for the Navy and Marine Corps and conducts a broad program of scientific research, technology and advanced development. NRL has served the Navy and the nation for more than 85 years and continues to meet the complex technological challenges of today.

It was Thomas Edison, commenting in 1915 on the war raging in Europe, who argued that we should look to science to keep the nation safe. "The government," he proposed, "should maintain a great research laboratory." NRL became that laboratory, opening its doors in 1923.

NRL's research programs span the scientific spectrum, including studies in biomolecular engineering, remote sensing, virtual reality, superconductivity, nanoscience, and solar corona monitoring. NRL is the Navy's lead laboratory in space systems research, fire research, tactical electronic warfare, microelectronic devices, artificial intelligence, and research in ocean and atmospheric sciences. NRL shines as the Navy's corporate laboratory and as one of the federal government's leading in-house centers for innovative research in the national interest. CHIPS spoke with Capt. Stewart in June.

CHIPS: What single NRL-developed technology has the largest and most far-reaching effect on the fleet and industry?

Stewart: It is very hard to put your finger on one certain technology that has made the laboratory great. It is a collaboration of many different investments in basic research over many years since the ‘20s. Clearly, sonar is one of those big inventions that led back from the ‘20s all the way forward to many different investments and many different technological breakthroughs.

Radar was invented here and first discovered on the Potomac River. Two communicators were talking across the Potomac River when a ship passed between them, and they got radio wave reflections. That was the first discovery of the phenomenology of radio wave reflection. Since then, NRL has had about 90 years of investment in radar technology, and that includes the full spectrum of surface ships, aviation, and all types of basic research that feed into radar. That is one that was a game-changer.

When we look across the spectrum of naval assets today, many people and many flag officers point toward nuclear power as one of those game-changing technologies brought forth by the NRL back in the ‘30s that has changed the nature of warfare and warfare at sea. Without nuclear-powered submarines and carriers, we would be fighting a completely different type of battle. The first successful uranium-235 isotope separation was done at the laboratory and then moved off [to DOE]. There are many years of history with DOE (Department of Energy) and Adm. Rickover (Adm. Hyman G. Rickover).

Without Adm. Rickover's push forward, we wouldn't be where we are today. The concept of a nuclear-powered submarine was first on the drawing board in the mid-30s by Dr. (Ross) Gunn at the laboratory. He was the one who put together the concept and took it to the Bureau of Engineering, which we know today as NAVSEA, or Naval Sea Systems Command. It was that concept of a nuclear-powered sub that brought forth what we have today. The Bureau of Engineering gave Dr. Gunn about $2,000 and sent him back to the NRL to work on his concept. The Bureau of Engineering later sent a young naval officer named Hyman Rickover to see what the scientists down at the laboratory were working on.

We have nuclear power today because of that collaborative relationship between the Bureau of Engineering and the researchers. That is where you see the great news stories across the laboratories and across the Navy; it is that collaborative relationship between the warfighters, the operators and the researchers. The NRL does not ever want to be known as scientists that are in their laboratory simply doing work for the sake of scientific research. We're there to support our customers, whether they be Navy, Marine Corps — or any of the services — we want to be on the cutting edge of pushing technology forward.

There are other great examples besides nuclear power. The space program in the United States, the birthplace is really here at the NRL. It started with the rocket technology that the Germans invested in back in World War II and with captured German V-2 rockets. In the United States, in 1946, the Army took the rockets and weaponized them, and that's where the ballistic missile program came from.

The NRL took V-2 rockets, and we used them to put sensors outside of the atmosphere to look back at the ionosphere to understand how radio wave reflections are affected by the ionosphere. When we were kids and turned on the AM radio in New England, we could hear radio stations from Georgia and Alabama, and you knew that there was something going on with the radio waves certain times of the day. It was the HF (high frequency) propagation [transmission] off the atmosphere. A technology discovered at NRL in the 1920s, known as the 'Skip Distance' effect, [is caused by reflection and refraction of radio waves from the ionosphere].

It wasn't until we brought rockets into this country in 1946 that scientists had an opportunity to use those platforms and study the phenomenology to understand what was going on in our atmosphere. We put sensors up, and we looked at the ionosphere to understand it, and that was essentially where the space program and space exploration began here in the United States.

It was years later, in the 1950s, with the successful launch of the Vanguard satellite, shortly after Sputnik, we spun off about 250 scientists to form the space side of NASA. Prior to that NASA was a different organization, mostly focused on aeronautics and aviation. President [Dwight] Eisenhower stood up that organization [Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.].

There is a whole other area of space and exploration that we don't talk about much, which is spy satellites. The world's first signals intelligence satellite came from NRL. It was declassified about 15 years ago. It is called GRAB (Galactic Radiation and Background) and is the birthplace of the National Reconnaissance Office. The NRO and the NRL worked together very closely back in those days before the NRO actually had a name.

The intelligence community for many years relied on the very smart people here at the laboratory, who were trying to use space as an enabling media, to fight the next generation of war. We wouldn't be able to fly our jet engines the way we do today without the chemistry department at the laboratory, which focused on the 'Navy after Next,' always looking for what is the next great [game-changer].

The chemistry department has been working in nanotechnology for 35 years — well before it was ever a buzzword in the press. We see nanotechnology as an enabling capability of science that is going to change the way that we live in the next 10 to 15 to 20 years.

We do more work with the material known as graphene than probably any facility in the country. We see graphene as an enabling material to change the way we fight in the future. That could be anything from armor to computers, to power generation, and electronic warfare systems.

GPS is another example of one of those systems that has touched every American and everybody in the world. The Global Positioning System in your phone was invented here by Roger Easton. The program was called Timed Navigation (TIMe/navigATION or TIMATION), and it used the atomic clock based in space and time-distance navigation on the Earth. That clearly resonates with everybody under 25. All of my kids know what GPS is, and everybody 'speaks GPS.' Back in the 1960s, the people here at the laboratory had a good idea; it was great engineering, and they pushed the idea forward.

We are working on the improvements to the next generation of GPS. The next generation will be more reliable and support our warfighters. iGPS, Improved GPS, will be one of those systems that will be coming out in the next three years, and it will change the way we fight.

There are many 'firsts' at the laboratory — radar, sonar, GPS and electronic warfare. Then there are areas that we don't talk about a lot like fracture mechanics, the way things fail, and the way we engineer and test materials. The father of fracture mechanics, George Irwin, was at the laboratory for many years.

Back in the 1940s, the issue at hand for the Navy was Liberty ships [massproduced cargo ships] that were coming back from World War II and were cracking. We put together a huge program at the laboratory to understand why the structures were failing. Analyzing structures, and not just ships, vehicles, cars, buildings, bridges, and everything that is structural — there isn't a structural engineer in the country that does not fully understand the impact of fracture mechanics.

There are areas of science that we do not talk about that are behind the scenes [in fracture mechanics] and people take for granted. [For example, to ensure] their cars will crumple in the right way when they get into a car accident, or if a building collapses that it will collapse in the right direction [to minimize injuries], or that it won't collapse.

CHIPS: What recent technology has the most immediate impact on the fleet?

Stewart: When you say recent, I like to look in the last 10 years. What has transitioned to the fleet that has made a big financial or a big operational impact? There are some that have made an operational impact that we can't talk about because of their classification level.

Corrosion is a $6 billion problem in the Navy. It is amazing how much money and time our Sailors spend scraping, painting, scraping, painting and doing maintenance on our vessels and our aircraft. This is a very big issue, and it is not just the rust that is on the surface, there are lots of other [corrosion] issues.

The chemistry department at the lab has been concerned about corrosion for about 50 years. They have been investing in all different types [of coatings] and trying to find new coatings and new applications. The [commander of] Naval Sea Systems Command, Vice Adm. [Kevin] McCoy said that NRL coating systems and single coat systems save the Navy between $250 and $300 million a year. That's cost avoidance. That's significant savings, and that money can be used elsewhere, but $250 million of a $6 billion problem is just a drop in the bucket. We have many other investments that we are pushing forward to reduce maintenance. We are looking to do away with paint, and in the future, we are changing the way we put ships together and how we weld.

Power and energy is the key topic. The Secretary of the Navy's goals set some very high standards for the Navy and Marine Corps, and we are working hard to meet those standards. One of the areas we have tested in the laboratory, and we think will be out soon, is the next generations of fuel and power.

Battery technology is a very big investment. The next generation of batteries will surpass our modern day lithium ion. Other systems that have been tested in the fleet, but are not on ships, are some of our autonomous fuel cell UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles). A fuel cell powered UAV that is very quiet and can carry a payload is a game-changer. It depends on what type of platform it might be launched off, but UAVs will be able to be launched off any platform.

Autonomy is a big area of investment. Here at the laboratory, we broke ground last year on the Autonomous Systems Research Laboratory, the ASRL. It is a 50,000-square-foot facility that is going to change the way we work on autonomy. It takes about 20 different areas of autonomous investments in science and puts it all into one building. That is the beauty of the laboratory, it is a collaborative environment.

As an oceanographer, I am always concerned about the weather. The Navy's NOGAPS (Navy Operational Global Atmospheric Prediction System) was one of the best in the world, but today it is about middle of the road compared to some of the other models. We are working on the next generation of global models that will revolutionize how weather models, oceanographic models and space weather models are all interconnected.

Modeling and understanding the atmosphere affects all of us. Weather touches all of us. In the Navy, we have always been concerned about how the weather affected our ships, aircraft and submarines, underwater weather, or oceanography. For years we have enjoyed the position of being one of the global leaders in prediction, and we are pushing the envelope on where we are going in the future with that.

People who have not been out on a ship or a submarine scratch their heads and say why is firefighting such a big concern for the Navy. You can't get off the ship, and you can't get off the submarine, you have to fight it. You have to be able to survive a fire if it occurs when you are out at sea, so NRL has many years of investment [in firefighting and damage control].

AFFF (aqueous film-forming foam) was invented here, PKP (Purple-K-Powder) was invented here, high pressure water mist systems were invented here, and many of the communications systems that we use in our damage control systems on board ships were developed here at the laboratory. Every commercial airport in the world uses AFFF. We are working on the next generation of environmentally friendly AFFF. We are testing new chemistries and how those firefighting agents will fight fires, such as biofuel fires. We are bringing biofuels into the fleet in the next five years. How are we going to fight those fires? Are they going to be fought in the same way? Is the chemistry the same in a biofuel as it is in a hydrocarbon-based fuel?

Firefighting research and protection of our Sailors and Marines at sea is a critical area. Nine of the firefighting systems on the Littoral Combat Ship class were born here and tested at the laboratory.

CHIPS: Could you talk about the transfer of technologies developed at NRL to industry?

Stewart: Science doesn't do anybody any good if it sits on the shelf of a laboratory. Every scientist here at NRL has the goal to do world-class research, but then they want to see it out there. We transition a great deal of our research into the commercial world; we partner with industry. The first CRADA, or Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, was signed at the NRL in the 1970s. Those CRADAs are important to the way we work together with industry as partners.

Basic research, or 6.1 [funds], and applied research, 6.2 [funds], are spent here at the laboratory, and then we want to find a transition partner. Sometimes those transition partners are the warfare centers, sometimes industry or other partners, but industry always has a key interest. They are always looking at the products coming out of 6.2 or 6.3 spending inside the Navy to see if there is a business opportunity.

If you look across the history of our investments, and that includes sonar, radar and electronic warfare, you will see that many of our concepts and ideas transitioned to a prime contractor who then brought them out into the fleet. You are not going to see NRL stickers on any of them, but what you will see is the patent law and the intellectual property tracking behind those. Companies, such as L-3 (Communications), Raytheon, Lockheed (Martin), and all of the big primes that you are familiar with, they know where the great research is done, and they watch our work very carefully.

The Office of Naval Research, our parent organization, hosts the Naval Science and Technology Partnership Conference, which is tentatively scheduled for the summer of 2012. The conference is filled with industry partners across all of the spectrums of naval warfare. Over the history of NRL, we have signed about 250 CRADAs with industry, universities and nonprofit organizations. We also partner with other government organizations and agencies. We do a lot of work for a lot of customers at the laboratory.

When you look at the spending profile at the laboratory, we don't have a budget. People are shocked by that, but the NRL is a 'coin-operated' laboratory. Every dollar that comes into the laboratory comes through a scientific proposal, including my salary. We do not have appropriated funds; we don't get money from Congress directly. The funding model at the laboratory is interesting. We operate everything including the buildings and the maintenance of the buildings, the salary and all the research through scientific proposals.

To leverage those dollars, we work with a lot of different organizations and a lot of different countries. We work with anybody that is interested in an area of investment that we are. About 60 percent of my budget, of our spending, comes in from Navy and Marine Corps sponsors, across the full spectrum, from operators to scientific organizations. Forty percent of my budget comes from non-Navy sponsors, and a lot of that work is dual-use. For instance, much of the work that I do for the Air Force is in satellite programs, and many of those satellites are the same ones [the Navy uses].

Many of the agreements and sponsorships that we enjoy, we put together after years of collaborative work together. We try to leverage research dollars. The operators and the Pentagon are primarily looking at the next two or three years, and the NRL is looking 15, 20 or 25 years down the road. With research money, you spend a couple of dollars today, and who knows what you might get 20 years from now. GPS is an example of that.

The Navy didn't want to invest any money in it in the 1960s. They didn't see it as a scientific endeavor that they wanted to fund, so it was done with other sponsors. That is one of the major reasons that the Air Force picked up GPS and was the transition partner from the laboratory.

The licenses and agreements that we have are broad spectrum. We have the largest patent office inside the Department of Defense. We have quite a few patent lawyers to protect the intellectual property of our scientists. Our scientists own the intellectual property, and the royalties go to the scientists, as well as to the laboratory. We put that money back into the science program so the money is reinvested in the lab.

There are some areas of investments that are not going to transition next year or the year after. They may transition after 10 years of investments and science. Those are things that we track. We have a lot of metrics to talk about, the number of agreements, CRADAs and licenses, but I won't go into great detail. What you need to look at is the much broader spectrum of how we partner with all of these organizations to leverage the great science to get it out to the operators or to whomever those sponsors might be.

CHIPS: Do you have any suggestions to streamline the acquisition process for new technologies developed by NRL?

Stewart: That's a touchy topic, and I have to be very careful about what I say. We work with some organizations that seed great research, and they want to transition it, and we work very closely with them to get it out there. Many of those [transitions] are done through CRADAs; many of those are worked with industry partners. When we build a system that has many years of 6.1, 6.2 and 6.3 spending, it gets into an [industry] transition and out to the fleet.

We are not a factory at the NRL. We like to build 'one-of' systems, or maybe two or three, and then bring industry in and let them build the rest. When they have to go through the rigorous process of the [DoD] acquisition world, sometimes it slows down that process. Many times the research that was great 10 years ago is now passé or is now the standard throughout the world. If we are not able to streamline it, and put it into a process and move it out there quickly, that is one of the risks that we run.

The leaders of the acquisition community throughout the Navy are aware of the concerns. You have to take pieces of the acquisition process and streamline that. The CNO has a new program that we are working on with N00X called 'Speed to Fleet.' The concept for that is that we get things out of technology quicker and get them out to the fleet quickly, and we test them.

One of the risks of getting science out there (every ship driver or every guy in an aircraft that has ever experienced this knows), the scientist shows up on the pier with some new box, he brings it on your ship, he walks away and leaves it — and it doesn't really work. That's the last thing the research community ever wants. We want to bring something out to the fleet, to be there with the fleet the whole time while we operate these things, and get their feedback and tailor it to fit their needs exactly. When we do that, we get a great relationship.

We work closely with the Special Operations Forces. SOF streamlined their process so we can build them systems and get them out there very quickly so that they can take care of the very sensitive nature of their business. They need the best programs out there. We have been able to streamline the acquisition process with certain customers. The CNO is focused on Speed to Fleet and he is making a brief this afternoon [June 1] at ONR on this topic.

The acquisition community writ large needs to take a big round turn and figure out how we can pull apart certain aspects and processes of acquisition today to make it more efficient and also to protect our laws. It is a very challenging problem. [Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition] Sean Stackley has a lot on his plate to take that topic on, but clearly it is something that he is concerned about. We, at the bottom of the scientific food chain, are very concerned because my scientists are passionate, and they want to get their systems out there as quickly as possible and save lives.

I will give you two examples. A couple of times in recent history, the Pentagon came to the lab, and said, 'We have a real need. We have young men and women that are getting wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq by low velocity projectiles from IEDs (improvised explosive device). What do you have on your shelf that you can turn around quickly and get out to us?' We came up with a program in 2003 called QuadGuard, a lightweight body armor. In about 16 months we had the first versions out in the fleet. We worked with an industry partner, and in a short time, we had lightweight body armors that augmented the body armor [they already had] and at a low cost.

IEDs were another threat to our Sailors, Soldiers and Marines that we needed to combat very quickly. We worked hard behind the scenes to get things out there to save lives. One of the issues is that some of the technologies that we have are not going to transition into a direct program of record.

CHIPS: During your Navy career which is your most rewarding or interesting assignment?

Stewart: Hands down the NRL. I am a kid in a candy store. You see that kind of passion here at the laboratory in young college adults in their 20s to 80-year-old researchers who have been at the lab for 50 or 60 years. There is a passion and a love of working on science that is able to save lives, change the way we live, change the way the world lives, and the way the world fuels itself.

There are all kinds of different areas to talk about. The Naval Research Laboratory is one of the Navy's, if not one of the nation's, best kept secrets. We have a rich history here, and it is just a lot of fun.

I am an oceanographer and my passion is oceanography, and I get to do a little bit of that every now and then, but it is the broad investment and spectrum of the lab that I love so dearly.

It's rare that you get to wake up every single morning, excited to go to work and enjoy what you do. It's just a fun, fun place to be. I feel very privileged. I feel honored to be here working with some of the best scientists in our country to solve the problems of the future for the Navy and the Marine Corps and the other DoD services.

For more information about NRL, go to, or follow the NRL on Facebook and Twitter. Contact NRL's public affairs office at (202) 767-2541 or

Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics
NRL Student Program

The NRL encourages broad knowledge in all scientific disciplines to help ensure that cutting-edge scientific capabilities exist in the future. Successful candidates at the graduate and postdoctorate levels can expand career goals by participating in research activities; interacting with scientists from NRL, other laboratories and academia; participating in scientific conferences and seminars; and publishing research results. CHIPS asked Capt. Stewart to discuss how NRL engages students at all age levels to foster interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

I can't talk about the NRL program without first talking about the much broader program in the United States. The scientific education of our kids is a major problem, and it is recognized by leadership in our country. A National Academy of Sciences book, written about five years ago by Dr. Norm Abramson, 'Rising Above the Gathering Storm,' talks about the problem and how we can mentor and educate our kids [to have an interest in science and math careers].

When I look at the NRL, and our future staffing, we are concerned about that because we want the best people, the smartest people to be working on the next generation of problems that affect U.S. citizens. We have many STEM programs at the lab and throughout the entire Navy. I would argue that the NRL has one of the best STEM programs for outreach. Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition Sean Stackley asked Rear Adm. Nevin Carr, the Chief of Naval Research, to be the STEM coordinator for the U.S. Navy. Rear Adm. Carr and I talk on a daily basis, and he sees our program as a model program as well.

We start at a very young age. We go out and lecture at schools, and our scientists participate at all of the local schools. When I look across our workforce, about 3,200 employees at the laboratory worldwide, all of those people are very passionate about science. They are very passionate about the mission of the laboratory and what science can produce. You simply have to look at the history of the lab to realize the wonderful work. When those people do outreach, whether they are scoutmasters, or assistant teachers, or they are just visiting schools, they influence a lot of kids, from age four all the way up. That type of outreach is very important. We judge at science fairs. We work at middle schools, high schools, and there is a lot of local outreach in the Washington, D.C., area to some of the less privileged schools. We have career programs where we bring students on, and they will work as technicians in a laboratory. They are doing real work in a lab, and are mentored by some of the best scientists in our country.

Maybe, if we as Americans are fortunate, that seed will be planted in their mind, and students will realize the wonder and beauty and future and the excitement of discovery and invention. There are a lot of examples across the lab of young people that got their start here 20, 30 or 40 years ago in high school, or maybe in college.

Mentoring is a person-to-person exchange, and we have lots of wonderful scientists here that realize what a key issue this is for our laboratory. We are very concerned when we look at our graduate school population, and estimates are that 50 to 60 percent of the graduate students in U.S. schools are foreign nationals. That doesn't help me here at the lab because you have to be a U.S. citizen, and you need to hold a secret clearance to work here. There are a lot of foreign national young adults that come here, are mentored, and eventually become a U.S. citizen and work here. That is a good news story. We wish that more of our foreign national graduate students stayed in our country and realized the opportunities here.

STEM [outreach] is a big priority for the Navy, and at the NRL, we have the model program inside the Navy for that outreach with a workforce to support it.

For more information about NRL student and postdoctoral programs visit: For information about other student programs, go to:

Graphene is a relatively new carbonbased material with high potential for new fundamental science and technological applications. Graphene is a single sheet of graphite, which is either exfoliated from bulk graphite onto a substrate or "grown" by desorbing Si at high temperature from a SiC substrate. Our research is initially focusing on achieving wafer-scale growth of high quality graphene followed by the pursuit of new science and electronic/sensor applications.
Capt. Paul C. Stewart
Capt. Paul C. Stewart

The three-pound, grapefruit-sized Vanguard satellite launched on March 17, 1958.
The three-pound, grapefruit-sized Vanguard satellite launched on March 17, 1958.

A team of Vanguard I scientists mount the satellite in the rocket. Photos courtesy of the NRL.
A team of Vanguard I scientists mount the satellite in the rocket. Photos courtesy of the NRL.
Related CHIPS Articles
Related DON CIO News
Related DON CIO Policy

CHIPS is an official U.S. Navy website sponsored by the Department of the Navy (DON) Chief Information Officer, the Department of Defense Enterprise Software Initiative (ESI) and the DON's ESI Software Product Manager Team at Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific.

Online ISSN 2154-1779; Print ISSN 1047-9988
Hyperlink Disclaimer