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Profile Spawar’s Rear Adm. Ken Slaght brings to the job an intimate knowledge of the fighting sailor’s needs



Title:

Commander, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command


Education:

Bachelor’s degree, U.S. Naval Academy; master’s degree, computer systems management, Naval Postgraduate School


Age:

53


Residence:

Point Loma


Birthplace:

Chicago


Family:

Wife, Susan


Hobbies:

Golf, automobiles


Spawar’s Rear Adm. Ken Slaght Brings to the Job an Intimate Knowledge of the Fighting Sailor’s Needs

Rear Adm. Ken Slaght remembers what it feels like to be out at sea, and out of the loop.

It was the late ’80s or early ’90s, he recalled, when he had command of the USS Flint, which was deployed with a battle group.

At the time the ships had a new radio system that let their top brass communicate , often all at once , over a secure channel. Every ship had it. That is, every ship except Slaght’s. The Flint did not get the system before it deployed.

As a result, Slaght was not kept up to the minute on what his peers were discussing and could not contribute to the give-and-take himself.

Today at age 53, Slaght wears two admiral’s stars and has an office on Pacific Highway. He oversees electronics acquisition for the Navy as commander of the San Diego-based Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, or Spawar. He took the top job there in May.

Among the things he brought to the job is his memory of that deployment and the desire to avoid putting a junior officer through the same experience.

Slaght describes himself as “a warrior first.” The first 20 years of his 31-year Navy career were spent driving ships and preparing for surface warfare.

Still fresh in his mind is an experience as a young officer on a frigate. His ship was low on fuel and needed to rendezvous with a NATO oiler in the North Sea.

Navy ships refuel while under way. The oiler and the ship that needs replenishing travel together at 15 knots, separated by about 150 feet, while hoses transfer the fuel. The trick is to do it without colliding, particularly while dealing with heavy wind and waves.

Under ideal conditions, the process can take as little as 30 minutes.


Making The Impossible Happen

But conditions that day were not ideal. “We were all out there covered in icicles and sea frost,” Slaght recalls.

It was an instance where young sailors , “young kids” , did something that seemed impossible, he says.

“They make things happen,” Slaght says, adding that is not the only time he has seen such a thing. Sometimes, he says, sailors make things happen in spite of the systems they are asked to operate.

Slaght is very familiar with environments where sailors are asked to repair things, where components are jammed into spaces so tight that “a snake couldn’t get back there.”

With this knowledge of his customer, Slaght works to make systems easy to maintain.

“He brings a lot of fleet perspective, which is great, because that’s what we really need,” said Robert J. Martin, the civilian deputy commander of Spawar, who has been with the command 33 years.

The command develops, acquires, then manages various Navy electronic systems , including computers , throughout their life cycle.

Slaght held the vice commander’s job at Spawar before relieving Rear Adm. John Gauss of the commander’s job May 25. Gauss retired from the Navy that day.


Gauss’ Legacy

While Gauss could quickly grasp the technical details of the electronics that Spawar processed, Slaght admits he is “not quite as quick a study.” He added he is fortunate to surround himself with technicians like Frank Perry, Spawar’s technical director and “one of the great things (Gauss) left behind.”

Slaght added he learned a lot from Gauss, and that he worked with his predecessor closely to develop a technical blueprint for Spawar, which he will now implement.

Slaght’s Navy career has taken him back and forth between the East Coast to the West Coast. It began at Annapolis.

Born in Chicago, Slaght grew up in the city’s southern suburbs.

He participated in team sports during high school. The time on the playing field taught him the very definition of teamwork. That’s what the self-effacing Slaght recalls thinking before he entered the U.S. Naval Academy.

His experience as a plebe at Annapolis , where a midshipman cannot survive by himself and “you live or die based on your shipmates” , revised his definition of teamwork.

That experience also gave him friendships that have lasted through his 30th class reunion. What’s more, it gave him a message he preaches to his work force today.


Slaght’s Rules

Teamwork is Rule No. 3 in Slaght’s 11 “Rules of the Net,” which he introduced on the day he took command.

Rule No. 10 is “Have a passion for excellence,” which has a subsection that reads: “Hate bureaucracy (challenge rules or processes that slow execution or fail to add value).”

Slaght’s early Navy work was aboard ships. He served as combat information center officer aboard the frigate USS Garcia, operations officer aboard the frigate USS Edward McDonnell, engineer officer aboard the amphibious ship USS Tulare and executive officer aboard the guided missile cruiser USS Gridley, then based in San Diego.

Following that he commanded the Flint, an ammunition ship.

Slaght has held various posts at Spawar over the past 10 years, including those of chief engineer and program manager for the joint maritime communications system program office.

Spawar work eventually took Slaght and his wife, Susan, from their home in Virginia to San Diego. That happened in the mid-1990s, when Spawar headquarters moved as part of a Base Realignment and Closure round. Slaght’s mother eventually followed her son and daughter-in-law to San Diego.

“We like it here,” Slaght said. “We want to stay as long as we can.”

Martin, who has known Slaght professionally for 10 years, recalled rising in the Spawar organization with him. He said Slaght is not a typical “flag,” or admiral.

“He’s very down to earth,” Martin said. “He would never ask anybody to do anything like get him a cup of coffee or drive him somewhere.” Slaght would probably not want to give up driving anyway. He owns a 1992 Porsche 911 and is a member of the Porsche Club. Martin, who has the parking space next to Slaght’s, said with a laugh that in the interest of appearance, he has offered to get a car cover for his Toyota.

The admiral is also fond of golf.

At work, Slaght has many of the worries that a civilian executive has, such as recruiting and retaining talent.

Some 90 percent of Spawar’s work force is civilian. And that work force is graying. Spawar is actually doing better than the Department of Defense as a whole. Overall, the department will see half of its staff become eligible to retire in five years. Spawar will see about 30 percent of its staff become eligible within the same period.


Personnel Issues

Nevertheless, Spawar will have to face that challenge by competing with other high-tech businesses for talent.

Slaght also knows he will have to recruit workers from a generation that views three years as a long time to stay with one employer.

Though Spawar cannot pay its employees as much as the private sector, Slaght says, it can provide other enticements: like work hours with enough time off for family or personal pursuits.

Spawar’s core business, procuring military electronics, has challenges all its own. There are budget headaches. There is the tendency for computers to advance faster than the processes that put them in place.

There are the times when the contractor designs one thing and the end user needs another. Neither knows what the other is thinking, which would make some direct give-and-take between a software writer and a sailor very useful.

“Boy, it would be neat if it would do that.” Slaght says the phrase in the voice of an enlisted man.

And he says it in a way that makes that conversation sound just as valuable as the fattest satellite data link, or the fastest computer in the Spawar inventory.

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