The U.S. Air Force released a long-awaited strategy for its science and technology programs last week, outlining plans for reorienting investments toward developing “transformational” capabilities and better drawing on external talent.
The U.S. Air Force released a strategy for reinvigorating its science and technology programs on April 17, outlining its approach to staying ahead of potential adversaries that are pursuing “technological parity.”
The strategy is organized around three main objectives: “develop and deliver transformational strategic capabilities,” “reform the way science and technology is led and managed,” and “deepen and expand the scientific and technical enterprise.”
More broadly, the strategy sets expectations for how S&T programs will support the Air Force’s mission. For instance, it states, “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.”
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson ordered the report shortly after she was confirmed to the position in 2017. She paired the effort with a parallel review undertaken by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, which completed a classified report late last year with an unclassified abstract. Both documents align with the Department of Defense’s broader objective of accelerating the transition of advanced technologies into use and better leveraging capabilities developed outside of the federal government.
The strategy release comes as Wilson is preparing to leave the Air Force. In March, she announced she will resign as secretary on May 31, returning to academia to become president of the University of Texas, El Paso. Prior to joining the service, she was president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Budget target set for pursuit of ‘transformational’ capabilities
In explaining the first objective, the report draws a distinction between the “enabling and enduring” component of the S&T enterprise and a “transformational” component. The former, it states, “focuses on discovering new technology of Air Force relevance, identifying solutions to established Air Force mission gaps, maturing emerging technology into Air Force systems, and responding to urgent needs.” Such programs are funded by the three S&T accounts — Basic Research, Applied Research, Advanced Technology Development — and the Advanced Component Development and Prototypes account.
The strategy observes that this S&T investment portfolio is “organized, funded, and managed using a structure aligned to technical disciplines, specifically the technology directorates comprising the Air Force Research Laboratory.” It then asserts this structure is more suited to developing enabling and enduring technologies than transformational technologies.
To address this shortcoming, the strategy states the Air Force plans to dedicate “at least” 20 percent of its annual S&T budget to the “transformational component” of the portfolio and manage it independently from the rest. The Air Force’s S&T budget currently stands at $3 billion.
New ‘vanguard’ programs to pursue strategic capabilities
The strategy outlines five strategic capabilities around which the transformational component of the S&T enterprise will be structured:
- Global Persistent Awareness, which encompasses R&D on detection technologies such as quantum field sensing, laser and multistatic radar, and small satellites as well as enabling work in microelectronics, photonics, and materials;
- Resilient Information Sharing, which includes communications and navigation technologies ranging from distributed ledgers to quantum-enabled devices such as cold-atom accelerometers and atomic clocks;
- Rapid, Effective Decision-making, which includes artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive data analytics, and human-machine teaming;
- Complexity, Unpredictability, and Mass, which includes low-cost air and space platforms, additive manufacturing, collaborative autonomy, and swarming; and
- Speed and Reach of Disruption and Lethality, which includes hypersonic technology, microwave and laser-directed energy, smart munitions, and cyberwarfare.
In pursuit of transformational technologies in each of these domains, the strategy states the Air Force will create a set of “vanguard” programs. Designed to be high-risk and time-limited, the programs will focus on “advancing emerging weapon systems and warfighting concepts through prototyping and experimentation.”
In doing so, they will primarily build on efforts that fall under the Advanced Technology Development account but may also draw from activities funded through the Basic Research, Applied Research, and Advanced Component Development and Prototypes accounts. The vanguards are also meant to emulate commercial practices in which product managers join “technical expertise” with a “deep understanding of market needs.”
The strategy summarizes, “Vanguards are a return to our roots and the early years of post-World War II innovation in air power. Drawing on a legacy of past successes like X-planes, the Century Series aircraft, early imaging CORONA satellites, and stealth, the Air Force will advance concepts rapidly and build force structure when required.”
Chief Technology Officer position in the works
Under the second objective of reforming S&T leadership and management, the strategy indicates the Air Force intends to appoint a chief technology officer (CTO). While the Air Force currently employs CTOs at lower levels in its organization, the new position would be located within the Air Force headquarters staff and serve as a “singular voice” for the S&T enterprise.
At present, the strategy states, “The heads of Air Force major commands outrank and overrule the most senior scientific and technical leaders, shifting the focus of scientific and technical resources toward near term priorities.” It asserts that the “lack of a coherent, strong voice for science and technology” has led to an “imbalance” between investments that support existing capabilities versus transformational concepts.
Air Force Magazine reports that Wilson has already signed a memorandum directing Will Roper, the assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, to hire a “design agent” that will work out the responsibilities and placement of the new CTO, including whether the individual will be uniformed or civilian. However, the strategy notes the new position may require congressional approval and potentially even a change in the statutory responsibilities of the Air Force’s assistant secretaries.
Air Force aims to tap into external expertise
The strategy’s third objective directs the Air Force to better leverage outside S&T talent while maintaining strong internal expertise centered around the Air Force Research Laboratory. To build up its talent base, the report indicates the Air Force will use improved recruitment mechanisms, including “significantly” expanded competitive grant awards, summer faculty research experiences, and sabbaticals at Air Force laboratories. It further states the Air Force will work to retain talent by implementing new incentive structures and creating a pilot program that embeds scientists in operational activities, among other actions.
The strategy also outlines plans to improve the Air Force’s partnerships with industry, universities, and government research centers. These include a pilot “open campus” program, modeled on an existing program at the Army Research Laboratory, to enable Air Force and civilian scientists to work side-by-side. The Air Force also plans to create a “virtual front door” to facilitate external partnerships and to expand constructs such as the Centers of Excellence, which seek to deepen relationships between the Air Force and other sectors.
To improve technology transfer, the strategy states the Air Force will strengthen connections between its basic research program, which is run by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s technology directorates. It also plans to continue distributing a “high percentage” of the office’s research funds to universities in order to “connect the Air Force to the broader scientific community and ensure access to the most competitive research laboratories.”