Air Force Opens SOFWERX-Like Facility Near Las Vegas

By Vivienne Machi

Photo: NDIA

The Air Force is taking a page out of Special Operations Command's rapid acquisition book to launch its own technology accelerator program, as it works to find cutting-edge and affordable solutions to various technology challenges, the service secretary said Sept. 27.

"We just set up our first AFwerX" between Nellis Air Force Base and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with plans to mimic SOCOM's SOFWERX facility in Tampa, Florida, said Heather Wilson at the Women in Defense's National Conference in Washington, D.C. 

SOCOM set up SOFWERX in 2016 to engage entrepreneurs and innovators, set up small competitions and projects to take advantage of new and innovative technologies.

One of AFwerX's first competitions will be a partnership with SOFWERX called ThunderDrone, Wilson said. Unmanned aerial vehicles will battle each other in a large warehouse in Tampa while service officials gather data, she previously said at an August media event at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

"The challenge is, bring your drones; last drone flying wins," she said at the Women in Defense Conference. Women in Defense is an affiliate of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Developing new relationships with small entrepreneurs and non-traditional partners should help drive innovative solutions for the service "because they are way outside the box," Wilson noted. "Even the most flexible acquisition authorities we have are not good enough for small entrepreneur companies."

The service is looking for companies to apply for an AFwerX-related accelerator program focused on autonomous technologies, according to an Air Force press release. The Air Force Research Laboratory contracted PBTS, LLC, a Boston-based technology and entrepreneur accelerator, to run the program with Air Force participation. 

"Companies specializing in detection and tracking sensor technology, multimodal sensor integration, computer vision and machine learning algorithms, defensive and offensive counter drone systems, drone operations and management, data visualization/aggregation and human-system interfaces, among others, are encouraged to apply," the release said. Registration is now open on the Techstars website.

The Air Force has also worked in the last few months to delegate more authorities down to the program manager-level, she said. The fiscal year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act allowed many programs that were previously held at the Office of the Secretary of Defense level, such as the space domain, to be handed down to the Air Force, she noted.

"I have delegated all of those down to the assistant secretary of acquisition, and she has delegated many of them down to the program managers," she added, noting that previously, "there were multiple layers of approval, and if it comes to me, I’m not really adding value on most of this, let’s be honest."

For example, if a contract is being drawn up for a new capability for a satellite, "I’m not going to evaluate those program plans and say … I really think you should expand the aperture on this sensor; that’s not what I should be doing," she said. "We've got to find well-prepared people and give them authority to run their programs."

The Air Force is also taking advantage of congressional leeway on experimentation and prototyping, with the key example being the service's light attack experiment conducted in August at Holloman Air Force Base, Wilson said. 

In March, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein signed a memo "saying he’d like to look at light attack aircraft, [a] one-page letter," she said. Less than five months later, the service had four commercial aircraft on the tarmac in New Mexico ready to be evaluated for light attack and close-air support missions. 

It’s a different way of doing things for the service, she noted. "We’re trying to do that systematically across the board and not try to second-guess our program managers," she said.

The Air Force hopes to gain a better understanding of where and how it should invest its future research-and-development dollars in a year-long science and technology strategy, Wilson said.

The review will be guided by the Air Force Research Laboratory but will reach out to industry, universities and organizations including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, she announced at the Air Force Association's annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference earlier this month.

The service's R&D budget is driving the need for the review, she said.

"Our budget for research is less than 2 percent of the Air Force budget, but in that 2 percent, it really leans heavily towards testing and evaluation … and not really research," she said. Another big portion goes to laboratory infrastructure, she added.

Wilson also provided further explanation of the service's plans to consider other options to buying a next-generation Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.

The Air Force is preparing to begin an analysis of alternatives on the subject, service leaders said at the Air Force Association conference. Wilson emphasized that the service is not looking to scrap its battlefield command and control systems.

The current JSTARS fleet was first fielded during the first Gulf War, she noted. Right now, those aircraft meet "about 5 percent" of the requirements put forth by the combatant commanders.

"And the current plan is to say, we have this aircraft and let’s build version 2.0 of that aircraft and get no more capability to meet that commander requirements," she said. "So the question is, "Is there something that has changed that would allow us to do that mission in a new way?'"

A lot of the technology the Air Force needs to do the job is already out there, she said, noting Boeing's E-3 Sentry airborne early warning and control aircraft, or AWACS. And technology developments now allow for much better sensor integration than in 1991, when JSTARS was fielded. The Air Force expects the evaluation to conclude by October, Wilson said.

"We’ve got a lot of different things out there, the question is can we fuse it, can we do it fast enough and does it give us more capability if we do it that way, rather than just do version 2.0 of what we designed in 2001?" she said.

Topics: Acquistion Reform, Defense Innovation

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