R&D Special Report: Air Force Labs

By National Defense Staff

Image: iStock

National Defense magazine asked research laboratories involved in national security programs: “What is your organization’s number one R&D ‘big bet,’ (in other words: a high-risk, high-reward technology investment) that you believe will have the biggest payoff for those in the military or national security realm? Why? And in what ways do you think it will benefit the end users?”

Today, the responses we received from Air Force labs.



Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office
By Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics

The dominance of today’s Air Force is the product of past investments in leap-ahead technologies like microprocessors, satellites and stealth.

Technology was primarily developed with government sponsorship and took decades to mature; consequently, placing big bets strategically delineated future-shapers from the future-shaped. Fortunately for us, our predecessors were the former.

Today’s technology landscape is much different. Technology is primarily developed worldwide by commercial companies in timescales measured in years — even months.

Software, not hardware, is now the lynchpin. “Seismic readings” from fields like artificial intelligence, quantum systems, synthetic biology and advanced manufacturing indicate a potential explosion of breakthroughs that could render many of today’s Air Force systems operationally extinct on the future battlefield.

Given this, the Air Force can ill afford to maintain its historical technology development strategy. Instead, we must bet on identifying, adapting and updating technologies faster than all enemies.

Acquisition speed and agility must be — and is — our big bet for the future. If we cannot shape the future ourselves, we must position to ride the external waves that will.

Consequently, we have implemented a new Air Force-wide rapid acquisition process that has already removed decades of schedule from our portfolio, but we must do more. We have accelerated hypersonic weapons, survivable satellites, cyber capabilities and artificially intelligent systems as pathfinders with good results. What remains is scale. Though it is unclear which technology will be the ultimate deciding factor in future warfare, being able to build or adapt it the fastest is likely a winning strategy for our future.



Space and Missile Systems Center 
By Air Force Col. Charles S. Galbreath, deputy director, advanced systems and development directorate

One of the key advantages of having an advanced systems and development directorate like SMC/AD is we can rapidly pursue multiple, relatively small, prototyping and demonstration efforts. These “small bets” enable us to explore diverse options, potentially deliver residual capabilities and accept the consequences if they fail. Additionally, this approach increases the number of mission partners and results in increased opportunities to transition successes to operational communities. 
One example of a “big bet” is our Space Enterprise Consortium. This is a mechanism to rapidly contract for activities, eliminating the often-lengthy process and opening a door for companies who don’t normally contract with the Air Force.
We have used the Space Enterprise Consortium in multiple ways. One example is to provide on-orbit testing of space sensors and payloads on the international space station and other host spacecraft. Another example is our ability to support mission partner activities such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program, a demonstration of large number, low-Earth orbit satellite constellations. In the end, efforts like the Space Enterprise Consortium are changing the culture of the Space and Missile Systems Center by demonstrating rapid contract efforts to go after key items for our warfighters. 


Part 1: Federally Funded Research Labs and IARPA
Part 2: Maritime Security Domain
Part 4: Army Labs

Read all the responses in the August issue of National Defense magazine and learn more about R&D priorities at NDIA’s Army Science and Technology Symposium and Showcase, Aug. 21-23 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, D.C.

Topics: Air Force News, Research and Development, Space