Today’s sailors have grown up with smart phones for most of their formidable years and often have a deep familiarity with complex gaming systems.

Then they go to work on a Navy ship.

There they use hardware in which “they see the world through a very small soda straw,” said Kevin Hays, the operating unit director for surface electronic warfare in Northrop Grumman’s Maritime Systems Business Unit. After growing up with the virtual world at their fingertips, the systems aboard, by comparison “don’t tell them anything. The sailor has to do so much work to get that juice out of the orange.”

And while there has long been a chasm between commercial capabilities and the technologies offered for end users in the military, a new generation of sailors has brought a new set of expectations. As a result, the gap between those expectations and military systems is evident.

During this year’s West 2018 conference in San Diego, one of the themes from Department of Defense senior leaders was the need to speed up acquisition practices and to more quickly bring legacy systems up to date.

In order to best reach such lofty goals and accelerate capabilities, Hays said the Defense Department needs to continue migrating to agile and DevOps practices. Such a transition would mean that when industry releases a new product capability, the Navy can push out that product more quickly to its fleet and sailors can take advantage of the new technology faster.

Agile development and project management is often described as an approach where requirements and solutions evolve through collaborative cross-functional teams consisting of both customers and users.

Northrop Grumman is using agile practice in developing capabilities for the Navy’s surface electronic warfare improvement program, often referred to as SEWIP Block 3. The third block of the program, in which Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor, is expected to bring electronic attack capability improvements and will be used to jam or confuse incoming missiles.

In the contract announcement, the Navy stressed the design would follow a “modular, open system approach.”

For agile to ultimately become successful throughout the Defense Department and reduce risk in high dollar programs, the project management method requires true collaboration between partners, in this case, government and industry.

“How do you really, really make that happen? Not just words. Part of it has got to be trust. You’ve got to have a trusting relationship between the different parties,” Hays said. “Instead of the government wagging the tail, it’s that partnership of industry and the government saying ‘here’s what’s out here.’”

In recent development programs, the Navy has built discussion periods with industry into the acquisition process. Such a gesture shows that government leaders “ want to talk. They want to develop this relationship,” Hays said.

Another philosophy Hays would like to see win wider adoption is DevOps, which calls for shorter development cycles, increased deployment frequency and more dependable releases.

Northrop Grumman is turning to a DevOps environment for information operations equipment that can be reconfigured to meet the proper scale and capabilities for a mission. Using its own research and development funding, the company hopes to prove out the rapid insertion of third party applications into the equipment.

This kind of incremental approach can help move technology to sailors faster.

“Give me the first rung of the ladder,” Hays said. “I don’t need the whole ladder. We can climb so much faster if we don’t have to wait for the whole thing.”

Northrop Grumman is the underwriter of C4ISRNET’s West 2018 show reporter.