BREAKING: Air Force Unveils Long-Awaited S&T Strategy (UPDATED)

By Jon Harper

Concept: Defense Dept.

The Air Force’s new science-and-technology strategy, released April 17, calls for sweeping changes to the way the service pursues next-generation capabilities.

The review has been in the works since 2017 when Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein initiated the effort to improve the way the service develops and acquires future systems.

The S&T enterprise has been more shortsighted in recent years than it needs to be going forward, the document said.

“Within the past two decades, the Air Force primarily supported military operations against non-state adversaries armed with relatively unsophisticated technologies,” it noted. “During this time, the Air Force continued to develop and leverage science and technology to modernize the force. However, the primary focus supported existing warfighting concepts to address near-term capability gaps and enhance operational effectiveness.”

While evolutionary technological improvements sufficiently maintained military superiority, that will not be the case in the coming decades as the United States competes with great power adversaries such as China and Russia, said the document, which looks out to 2030 and beyond to assess capability needs.

Those competitors are “aggressively modernizing and expanding their offensive and defensive capabilities in every domain, and in ways specifically designed to threaten key components of Air Force power projection,” the study said.

Emerging technology will enable adversaries to beef up their integrated air defenses, mobile missile systems, long-range weapons, nuclear capabilities, anti-satellite systems, cyber, and concealment and deception capabilities, the review noted.

To maintain military superiority, the strategy calls for the Air Force’s S&T enterprise to deliver “transformational” capabilities.

“Rather than reacting to others’ advances, the Air Force will set an unmatched pace,” it said. “Instead of looking at where potential adversaries are heading, the Air Force scientific and technical enterprise will predict where adversaries cannot easily go and then ensure the Air Force gets there first.”

The service plans to restructure its S&T enterprise to deliver these leap-ahead systems, with a transformational technology component focused on five key capability sets: global persistent awareness; resilient information sharing; rapid, effective decision-making; complexity, unpredictability and mass; and speed and reach of disruption and lethality.

Research programs known as “vanguards” will be designed to advance emerging weapon systems and warfighting concepts through prototyping and experimentation.

“Vanguard programs aim for significant technical achievements, not only of component technologies but also integrated systems and systems-of-systems that demonstrate the viability of leap-ahead capabilities to warfighters,” the study explained. “High risk by design, their goal answers specific questions and informs future decisions by including the direction of future acquisition programs and identifying gaps where more research is still needed.”

Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, military deputy in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said the service has not yet selected any specific vanguard programs.

"We’re establishing a process to ... look at what those projects and ideas may be," he told reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon.

During a teleconference with reporters April 18, Air Force Research Laboratory Commander Maj. Gen. William Cooley said he expects the first vanguard programs to be initiated in the next several months after consultations with industry and other stakeholders.

The size of the programs will vary depending on what is being pursued, Bunch noted. There is no cost threshold at this point.

"It could be a big project that we align a lot of dollars to and then we influence the [program objective memorandum] in the future so that as that vanguard project gets to the point that it’s ready to transition, the dollars are there and the management is there to be able to move it forward," he said. "For the bigger ones, we’re really looking for game-changers."

The new strategy will help shape the fiscal year 2021 budget request for the service's science-and-technology initiatives, Cooley said.

The transformational component of the S&T portfolio will be managed independently from the existing technical discipline-oriented bureaucratic structure, the strategy said.

“An enterprise-level, cross-organization construct will support the impartiality needed to promote solution-oriented thinking and free competition for resources," it added. “Portfolio managers or management teams will chart the course for each strategic capability, manage execution of each vanguard program, and set the competitive environment to identify, select and manage the research activities."

Government research organizations, industry and academia will compete for proposals for the new vanguard programs. Selection will be based on defined criteria emphasizing potential operational relevance and scientific quality, according to the strategy.

Global persistent awareness is a critical capability, the report noted.

“Warfare is becoming increasingly complex due to contested communications, maneuvering targets and 
rapidly changing threats,” it said. “To achieve information 
superiority, the Air Force must gather decision-quality intelligence and act on it faster than adversaries can react.”

New technology is needed because existing assets may become vulnerable in conflicts against advanced adversaries. They are also expensive and sometimes lack persistence, while data processing and analysis are manpower-intensive, slow, and are often overwhelmed with raw sensor data, the study noted.

Research-and-development areas of interest for the global persistent awareness capability set include: lower-cost sensors; new sensing modalities; small satellites and low-cost launch; cyber intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and enabling microelectronics, photonics and materials.

Information sharing affects the U.S. military’s ability to coordinate actions across multiple domains. It requires the linkage of computers and manned and unmanned systems of different types and generations, as well as precise position navigation and timing data, the strategy noted.

“The Air Force must pursue new, highly flexible and resilient battle network technology that moves away from previous generation, hub-and-spoke connectivity toward highly redundant mesh networks where systems of different types can connect flexibly and automatically,” the report said.

R&D areas of interest for the resilient information-sharing capability set include: software-defined systems with real-time spectrum awareness; mesh networking and topology management; distributed ledgers and robust encryption; alternative navigation systems to include vision-based, celestial and magnetic; and quantum science tools such as cold-atom accelerometers, atomic clocks and quantum entanglement.

Once information is shared, the Air Force needs to make rapid decisions for warfighting success, the strategy noted.

“Increasing complexity and speed of the battlespace means that the demands on combat decision-makers are outstripping the cognitive capacity of the unaided human,” it said. “From the cockpit to the headquarters, supporting technology is increasingly vital to process information, separate what is important from what is not, and present it in ways that can be quickly understood and acted upon.”

S&T areas of interest for the rapid, effective decision-making capability set include: artificial intelligence and machine learning; predictive data analytics; data fusion and visualization; autonomous electronic and cyber warfare agents; and cognitive integration and human-machine teaming.

To add complexity, unpredictability and mass to its operating capabilities, the Air Force needs to increase capacity, the review said.

“The current force structure relies on relatively small numbers of very valuable assets designed to penetrate highly contested operating environments and sustain operations at forward bases,” it said. “This creates vulnerabilities for U.S. forces and limits the courses of action available to U.S. warfighters in complex and unpredictable battlespaces.”

To provide more flexibility, the Air Force must augment its high-end platforms with larger numbers of inexpensive, low-end systems, the study noted.

Technology areas of interest for the complexity, unpredictability and mass capability set include: low-cost air and space platforms; digital and additive manufacturing; AI, collaborative autonomy and swarming; risk-based certification; and multi-domain command and control.

The service also needs to enhance the speed and reach of its weapon systems to stay ahead of its adversaries, the study said. This will include developing more advanced “penetrating kinetic weapons combined with new effects from the electromagnetic spectrum and the space and cyberspace domains to create new offensive and defensive options.”

Weapon systems of interest for the speed and reach of disruption and lethality capability set include: hypersonic missiles with enabling technologies such as scramjet propulsion, high-temperature materials, controls and experimentation; low-cost, networked cruise missiles and smart munitions; directed energy systems; and cyber tools.

The Air Force intends to allocate at least 20 percent of its S&T budget to the transformational capability portfolio, which would be managed independently of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s existing technology directorates. The service currently spends about $2.8 billion per year on science-and-technology projects, Wilson said during the press briefing.

To oversee the beefed-up S&T enterprise, the strategy proposes creating a new chief technology officer position.

“Prioritizing, planning and budgeting Air Force scientific and technical activities is a complicated, constantly-evolving endeavor that requires input from senior Air Force leadership, major commands and acquisition centers,” the report noted. “Currently, no one, clear, singular voice represents the scientific and technical enterprise in this process.”

A chief technology officer “would provide a strong voice within Air Force headquarters and could prioritize and coordinate science and technology across the service to support the mission, from early-stage research, through developing new concepts, through experimenting and prototyping, to transitioning mature technologies into the Air Force acquisition system,” it added.

Wilson said she has already signed a memo ordering the creation of the CTO position, but she does not know when the job will be filled.

Details regarding the authorities and responsibilities of the chief technology officer and his or her relationship to existing organizations within the service will be determined during the strategy’s implementation phase, the report said.

Another pillar of the new S&T paradigm is leveraging national and international technical expertise. Government research organizations, industry and academia will compete for proposals for the vanguard programs. Selection will be based on defined criteria emphasizing potential operational relevance and scientific quality, according to the strategy.

“The Air Force will look widely for the best scientific and technical talent and research as innovation arises from new perspectives,” the strategy said.

“Partnerships will expand and strengthen to draw technology out of government, university and industry laboratories and mature it into transformational operational capabilities,” it added. “In particular, this includes better leveraging promising basic research discoveries by forming deeper university partnerships in applied research.”

Wilson said that in the wake of sequestration, the Air Force turned inward when it came to S&T work.

"The real strength of America’s scientific and technical enterprise is outside of the national security space," she said. "There is more research and development going on in universities and corporate America today than there is inside or sponsored by the Pentagon, and we need to be connected to that ecosystem."

The service has planned a number of steps to this end, including: placing personnel in tech hubs; creating a virtual “front door” to make it more convenient for new partners — including those from the commercial sector — to engage with Air Force S&T officials; establishing visiting professor or research faculty positions for Air Force scientists at research universities; and expanding upon the Army Research Laboratory’s Open Campus concept to enable service scientists and engineers to work side-by-side with visiting researchers in collaborative facilities. 

The service will also hold more "pitch days" like the recent one in New York City where nontraditional partners came in, met with officials, pitched technologies that might be useful to the Air Force, and were put on contract within minutes, Wilson said.

Efforts will also be made to bolster the service’s own technical workforce, she noted.

Update: Comments from Maj. Gen. William Cooley have been added to this story.

Topics: Air Force News, Science and Engineering Technology

Comments (1)

Re: BREAKING: Air Force Unveils Long-Awaited S&T Strategy

How do intrduce new technologies to the correct stakeholder is areas of AI to address autonomous electronic and cyber warfare agents; and cognitive integration and human-machine teaming.

Reginald Richardson at 10:26 AM
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