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NPS President, WEST Panelists Emphasize Education, Innovation As Paths to Decision Advantage

Retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, president of the Naval Postgraduate School, moderates a panel at the WEST 2024 Conference in San Diego on Feb. 14.

Retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, president of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), moderates a panel at the WEST 2024 Conference in San Diego on Feb. 14. The panel, “Neurons and Networks: Educating and Innovating Our Way to Decision Advantage,” featured U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Matthew Glavy, U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Doug Small, Navy Lt. Zachary Vrtis, and Justin Norman of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU).

One of the U.S. Navy’s six Force Design Imperatives identified in the Chief of Naval Operations Navigation Plan (CNO NAVPLAN) is decision advantage – gaining an edge over potential adversaries by accelerating the Navy’s decision-making cycles using accurate data, resilient networks and artificial intelligence.

At the WEST 2024 Conference in San Diego, a diverse group of panelists joined retired Vice Adm. Ann Rondeau, president of the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), on Feb. 14 to discuss the importance of decision advantage and the clearest way to achieve it: through education, research, and ultimately innovation.

The panel, titled “Neurons and Networks: Educating and Innovating Our Way to Decision Advantage,” sought to explore how the Navy and Marine Corps can leverage their learning and technical institutions more purposefully and work with industry partners to accelerate “concepts to capability” at greater speed and scale.

“Neurons and networks, they both require interconnectivity. They both require a relationship, whether or not it is with neurons or with others in a network,” said Rondeau, who served as the panel’s moderator. “What we are after is understanding the neurons and the networks that will keep us not only alive, but also fighting the fight and winning the fight.”

During the free-flowing, hour-long discussion, which featured panelists asking questions of each other, Rondeau was joined by two senior Department of the Navy leaders – U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Matthew Glavy, Deputy Commandant for Information, and U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Doug Small, commander of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command (NAVWAR).

The other panelists were Ph.D. students – Navy Lt. Zachary Vrtis, an NPS student pursuing his doctorate in mechanical engineering, and Justin Norman, Acting Portfolio Director/Technical Director for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning at the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and a Marine Corps Reserve officer.

As the Marines’ top officer on Information Environment matters, Glavy offered his perspective on information as a function of warfighting, as well as using information to gain decision advantage – part of what Glavy describes as helping Marines “make their own luck.”

“All the people in uniform know this, but information is one of the seven joint warfighting functions,” said Glavy. “So it's important that we truly understand why that is important – that commanders and staffs, if they don't plan to how they're going to use information and then execute to it, they're not going to be successful.”

Glavy also talked about the importance of command and control in achieving decision advantage.

“Command and control, really the essence of it, gets to decision making, right? I mean, that is the core piece of how commanders ultimately command and control,” said Glavy. “Command and control is, how does one gain that decision advantage in a timely fashion - combining with experience to ultimately gain that advantage.”

Small picked up on Glavy’s comments and talked about how decision advantage can be enabled through high-priority projects such as Project Overmatch, a Department of the Navy effort to deliver a more lethal, better-connected fleet of the future.

“From the systems command perspective and Overmatch, what we've been trying to do is, how do you measure decision advantage?” said Small. “We throw that term around, but how do we measure it? Some of that is getting into, how do commanders make decisions? 

“The whole idea is to take a lot of the grind work out of the decision-making process to allow humans to have the space to analyze and whatnot. And I'm thinking that probably puts a premium on education of those commanders and of the people that are part of that process.”

While Small talked about the process of developing Overmatch and other technology warfighters need, Rondeau spoke from her perspective on how NPS and other Department of Defense educational institutions develop the talent required by the Navy, Marine Corps and joint force.

“There’s an assumption that when people come into NPS, they have in some manner a mastery of their proficiency in their craft,” Rondeau responded. “What we then do is then expand knowledge, and the knowledge is what we are trying to not only understand in a more sophisticated way, the mastery, but also then to apply it. So I look at NPS as a sandbox for really testing what you know and testing what you don't know and to understanding where you fail, succeed, try again, reset, understand, and to do it quickly. And so there is an alacrity of application that the graduate experience should be giving to the warfighter.”

After an exchange of thoughts from the two senior leaders on the panel, Rondeau turned to Norman and Vrtis, both of whom are currently pursuing their doctorate studies – Vrtis at NPS, Norman at the University of California, Berkeley.

Norman brought both military and industry experience and perspective to the panel. A Naval Academy graduate, Norman worked for companies ranging from Booz Allen Hamilton to Cisco and Yelp before transitioning to DIU. And he spoke at length about innovation – more specifically, about how the process of innovation is just as important, if not more so, than the results.

“I think what's important to keep in mind is that innovation is, by definition, uncomfortable,” said Norman. “If we were doing things well or to the degree of intensity that we expected for the outcome we wanted, we wouldn't need to go through an innovation process.

“As we think about what mindset we're looking for as we look through DOD, look how we're going to grow, we're now facing challenges that are quite frankly, when I think about them, some of the most difficult things that the government, that the DOD and that our civilian industrial base have ever undertook,” Norman added. “So we can't go into it with the same mindset, we can't use the same tools, and we can't use the same innovation processes.”

As a Ph.D. student at NPS, Vrtis is experiencing innovation firsthand. His research focuses on applications of additive manufacturing (AM) technology and how it can better support fleet needs – a subject of interest to Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet (PACFLT), who visited NPS before traveling to WEST 2024.

“What I briefed Admiral Paparo about, and what he cares about as the Pacific Fleet commander, is how are we bringing metal additive manufacturing to help the fleet,” said Vrtis, who also serves as the student lead for NPS’ Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research and Education (CAMRE), as well as the Naval Innovation Center’s Additive Manufacturing Team. “We’re working to increase the operational availability of fleet units by identifying and producing parts that are suitable for additive manufacturing. … we have the students at NPS that can help with that effort, and together we can innovate together to fix these (issues) and make this better now.”

In turn, Norman noted the efforts of Vrtis and other NPS students to push the boundaries of innovation.

“I would encourage, especially as you go back to the fleet, for you to be the advocate for the investment, be the advocate for the scale, be the advocate for the partnership between industry and between the Department of Defense, because you're actually uniquely situated between all three,” said Norman.

Likewise, Glavy also expressed appreciation for the contributions of NPS students and graduates to the Marine Corps.

“As we go through force design, which is very information-centric, all these epicenters of greatness where we see breakthroughs – I'll be honest with you, there's an NPS grad in the middle of it,” said Glavy.

The Naval Postgraduate School provides defense-focused graduate education, including classified studies and interdisciplinary research, to advance the operational effectiveness, technological leadership and warfighting advantage of the Naval service. For additional information, visit NPS online at

Watch the full “Neurons and Networks” panel from WEST 2024, click here.

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