Video Above: Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander
The Air Force is accelerating efforts to break new ground and implement various directives related to its formal Science & Technology 2030 Strategy. The document was first signed in 2019 by former Secretary Heather Wilson, and has been steadily pursued by Air Force weapons developers, scientists and researchers looking for paradigm-changing new technologies.
Air Force Science & Technology 2030 Strategy
The document, supported and refined by subsequent and current Air Force leadership, seeks to optimize areas of scientific focus to ensure the service is prepared and in front as the global threat environment continues to evolve and become more dangerous.
Key areas of emphasis within the strategy pertain to explorations of a number of fast-evolving areas such as hypersonics, AI, manned-unmanned teaming, composite materials, stealth technologies, networking and weapons guidance. With hypersonics, one key area of focus, which is now achieving measurable progress, is in an area called “boundary layer phenomenology,” which pertains to the study of “air flow” surrounding a hypersonic projectile.
Air War in 2050 - Air Force Research Lab Commander on Hypersonics
Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, Commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory, told Warrior about recent breakthrough progress in testing and collaboration regarding boundary layer dynamics. In March of this year, the AFRL conducted an experiment with NASA at Wallops Flight Facility in what Pringle referred to as a “boundary layer bulk flight experiment.” The test was successful, Pringle said, and helped scientists and weapons developers better understand how to help sustain the sought after “trajectory” of a hypersonic weapon in flight in a much more “turbulent” high speed environment.
“We were looking at some complex geometries that are different from the systems that we have today. By doing these kinds of experiments, by partnering in these ways, and basic research, then we're informing the shapes of the weapons and the aircraft and the flight systems that we have in the future. So basic research is near and dear to our hearts and something that we have invested in for a long time,” Pringle said.
Naturally AI was also cited in the S&T 2030 strategy as a critical area of focus, something Pringle talked about in terms of increasing “reliability” for future operations. She also talked about the value of AI as it operates in tandem with human decision making. Pringle, for example, talked about the crucial role human input can play when it comes to informing or properly directing AI-enabled systems.
“One of the most important underlying tenets of a human machine relationship is the trust that the human places in the machine and the actions that the machine takes, and is it being transparent enough with a human that to enable that trust and to so that the human knows what actions that machine is going to take,” Pringle said.
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As part of the effort to accelerate these ambitions and build upon progress thus far, the Air Force is intensely expanding its reach into academic and small business communities to conduct cutting edge research and help uncover novel or “breakthrough” technologies in position to inform future weapons and war-fighting.
In describing this effort, which includes a vigorous pursuit and exploration of new studies and collaborative research partners with universities, seeks to identify sometimes difficult to find innovators working with small businesses. Part of the effort, accelerated in recent years, evolved out of the Air Force Science & Technology 2030 Strategy paper signed in 2019.
“It (S&T Strategy) was a call to action for the AFRL to up its game in so many areas to accelerate science and technology and deepen our relationships with the external world. It was a recognition that the government isn't the only the government isn't the only institution that innovates and creates the next generation technology,” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, Commander, Air Force Research Laboratory, told Warrior in an interview.
Pringle specifically pointed to the critical need to expand and deepen relationships with universities and with industry. In many instances, some cutting edge innovations can emerge from small companies or startups which uncover breakthrough weapons guidance systems, software, materials or AI-enabled applications, among other things.
“One of the most successful statistics that I like to quote about AF works is that 75% of the industry that they have partnered with are new entrants to the DoD realm, that is fantastic. That means we've really opened our aperture beyond our consistent great performers to include so many more. What does that do? It opens our eyes to new ideas, new ways of doing business and enables technology to accelerate even more,” Pringle said.
Part of this mission, Pringle explained, includes the addition of a special Air Force innovation unit specifically dedicated to finding and supporting new innovators.
“We have AFWERX as part of our team now. And they're doing a lot of exciting things with small businesses with entrepreneurs and companies that had not traditionally partnered with the Department of Defense,” Pringle explained
Certainly “out of the box” kinds of thinking, when it comes to future threats and future weapons innovations, can emerge from larger companies who have their own internal R&D funds to help anticipate emerging military requirements. Yet at the same time, there are also many innovations and potential breakthroughs emerging from smaller companies less likely to be on DoD’s radar. For this reason, partnerships with universities such as Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADA) can often yield findings able to inspire weapons developers to explore new avenues of development.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Warrior Maven and the Center for Military Modernization support the US Military and the need for continued US Modernization. However, Warrior Maven and the Center for Military Modernization do not speak for the US military or any US government entity. The Center is an independent entity intended to be a useful and value added publication for thought leadership and important discussion about modernization. Warrior Maven discusses and explores technologies, strategies and concepts of operation related to modernization and the need for deterrence and continued US military readiness, training and preparation for future conflict in a fast-changing threat environment. Warrior Maven does receive some support from private industry but all thoughts are those of the authors.