Air Force Institute of Technology Aspiring to Become the Go-To Lab

By Grace V. Jean
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio — The interconnected buildings on this hilltop campus may not have the mystique of Area 51, but they arguably contain one of the Air Force’s best-kept secrets.

Long known as the service’s graduate-level educator, the Air Force Institute of Technology in recent years has gained notoriety — and funding — for its research efforts.

“We’ve had significant growth in the last 10 years in our sponsored research program,” said Heidi Ries, dean for research at AFIT’s graduate school of engineering and management.
This year, external funding for research projects totaled $17.9 million, compared to $13.7 million last year and only $2.6 million in 2000.

“This is evidence of the growth and relevance of what we do, and the fact that people recognize the value of what we do because they’re willing to pay for it,” said Ries.  

From writing algorithms to control space satellites and ground robots to defending networks from would-be cyberattackers, the officer and enlisted students participate in a variety of projects that are tied to real world problems.

“We’re not doing research on how many ear mites are on a sled dog in Alaska,” said Brig. Gen. Walter “Waldo” Givhan, commandant of the Air Force Institute of Technology. “What we are doing research on — and education — is completely focused on the Department of Defense and the nation’s needs.”

The school’s 68 laboratories sit within a stone’s throw from many facilities housing Air Force Research Laboratory programs.

“This is not just people reading books and talking about things or writing papers. This is hands-on educational research,” said Givhan.

The Air Force Research Laboratory sponsors the majority of the basic science investigations underway at AFIT. But officials increasingly are being approached by companies, universities and government agencies eager to sign off on collaborative efforts. At any given time, AFIT has 10 to 15 of these so-called cooperative research and development agreements under way, said Ries. That number has been increasing.

“We’re very interested in partnering with people and are open to that when opportunities arise,” Ries said. “We’ve tried to diversify and serve the larger defense enterprise, inclusive of homeland security and the intelligence arena. So across the board, if it’s part of national defense that the Air Force touches in some way, then we try to contribute to that through our research programs.”

Part of the draw is the responsiveness of the faculty and student research corps. “We can do it with incredible speed and flexibility,” said Givhan. The other factor is that the faculty, equal parts military and civilian, is plugged into the operational force, he added.

The school hires technical experts who have an interest and focus on Defense Department challenges. One of the best examples is the director of the advanced navigation technology center, John Raquet. With a military background, Raquet recently returned from a Fulbright scholarship in England and remains a sought-after scientist by organizations including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Givhan said that he is looking to increase both international and sister service participation in AFIT’s educational and research efforts. “If you don’t know we’re out there, it’s hard to take advantage of it,” he said.  

During times of national economic difficulty, research and education often take a hit. Though the Obama administration is a strong supporter of science education and research, resources are never guaranteed. AFIT in the past has been threatened by budget cuts and the Defense Department’s own base realignment and closure procedures before.

“In times when resources are tight, there’s a temptation to cut education, or to cut the future because you don’t feel it right away. I tell people that they will feel it much sooner, and the recovery will be more difficult and more expensive,” said Givhan.

Congress has allowed the institute’s sister organization, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., to matriculate a certain number of defense industry-sponsored students on a space-available basis. Givhan told National Defense that AFIT might receive the same authorization in the future, which would help to provide the necessary critical mass and stability in the classroom.

“We’d be a better force if we produced more, but it’s partly a resource question,” he said. “It’s not just about producing the student that comes out the other end  — they’re useful right now here at AFIT.”

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology

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