JUST IN: Air Force Reveals Details on S&T ‘Vanguard’ Programs

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
Skyborg rendering

Photo: Air Force

Earlier this year, the Air Force released its much-anticipated science-and-technology strategy which called for the establishment of special programs targeted at gamechanging capabilities. The service is now revealing details about what those foundational programs will include.

The “Science and Technology Strategy: Strengthening USAF Science and Technology for 2030 and Beyond” document — released in April — emphasized the development of transformational technologies in the areas of: global persistent awareness; resilient information sharing; rapid, effective decision-making; complexity, unpredictability and mass; and speed and reach of disruption and lethality. The service pledged to spend 20 percent of its annual S&T budget on these efforts.

Under those focus areas are a handful of “vanguard programs” that could yield revolutionary capabilities, said Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., commander of Air Force Materiel Command.

“We believe they can dramatically change the way that we fight and the way that we employ air power,” he said Nov. 21 during a meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C.

The Air Force has now identified three efforts that will be part of the vanguard initiative: Golden Horde, Navigation Technology Satellite 3 and Skyborg.

Golden Horde is meant to connect precision-guided munitions together to be employed in a teaming fashion. The Navigation Technology Satellite 3 is a spacecraft that will be in geosynchronous orbit and provide position, navigation and timing capabilities. Skyborg is an unmanned combat aircraft which is envisioned as a low cost and attritable platform that can be employed in large numbers in future fights. The system will take advantage of advancements in artificial intelligence.

“We've funded those for the next couple of years to make sure we've got all the efforts for the prototyping and experimentation that we want to move forward,” Bunch said. Those efforts could become programs of record in the future based on their progress, he added.

Each of the efforts were evaluated on their own merits but fit a common theme of being potentially gamechanging technologies, Bunch said.

“We're not looking for … an incremental increase” in capability, he said. “The way that we see these, if we get these to work and … function in the way we expect, then it'll be a leap ahead.”

The service is working to ensure it can afford the projects, realigning its program portfolio so that it has the flexibility to put 20 percent of its S&T budget toward the strategy's focus areas, Bunch noted.

Bunch said he is trying to create a “sense of competition” for every S&T dollar.

“If you're doing a program, if it's not performing [well] and you're not doing a really good job, then maybe we don't need to do that program and we need to … off-ramp it and we need to look at other areas" to invest in, he said.

Bunch noted that hypersonics technology is not part of the vanguard programs because the Air Force is already making significant progress in that area. The service currently is working on two efforts known as the hypersonic conventional strike weapon and the air-launched rapid response weapon, he said. The Air Force anticipates having an early operational capability for at least one of those two systems by fiscal year 2022.

With hypersonics, “I'm already there, I'm already doing it,” he said. The vanguard programs are more about “artificial intelligence, linking and pairing things together and having them operate together," he explained.

Bunch noted that investments for the vanguard programs will come from prototyping and experimentation funding from fiscal years 2019 and 2020, which will move the efforts forward until the service can make a final decision about which technologies to pursue further.

Topics: Air Force News, Aviation

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