The Air Force Chief Scientist has a simple yet urgent message to the force … and it centers upon new weapons, speed and preparing for war with major rivals by fast-tracking promising new technologies to war through prototyping and operational integration. Citing the recently released Air Force Science & Technology strategy, Dr. Victoria Coleman says the service has correctly placed a heavy and quite pressing emphasis upon leveraging, delivering and preparing nearer-term “transformational” technologies to war.
This has been the case with the Air Force at large in recent years, as the service has creating things like fast-tracked 804 budget funding to accelerate prototyping or the use of digital engineering to ensure new systems such as next-gen ICBMs, hypersonics and even a 6th-Generation aircraft arrive well-ahead of schedule. Now, the services’ science and technology division wants to more fully incorporate the research, laboratory and new innovation process into this approach to an even greater degree. This is for a simple purpose … to stay ahead of very serious adversaries committed to rapid, new weapons developments specifically intended to counter or rival U.S. systems.
Coleman had a number of ideas regarding how the U.S. can best get there by drawing upon what the Air Force Science and Technology strategy calls “transformational” technologies. She pointed to a key breakdown articulated in the S&T strategy to include a key distinction between longer-term payoff efforts and nearer terms projects likely to quickly bring new systems to war. In many cases, such as with lasers, AI or Quantum computing, there may be both long and short term applications and research able to both envision future advancements yet still generate earlier deployable break-off components.
“The goal of the strategy and what has been implemented is that 20-percent of the S&T budget is dedicated to transformational efforts,” she added, explaining that the service is hoping to achieve change in five different domains, to include information sharing, rapid decision making, speed and reach of destruction and lethality,” Coleman told the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in an interview.
She described it as achieving an optimal balance of sorts between the importance of having a “grand vision” while also making sure to “deliver capability incrementally.”
Consistent experimentation, she argued, is a way to best expedite this process as new innovations can be “put into the hands of an operator” in small increments to find near-term spin-off possibilities and bring much needed advanced weapons and technologies to war on the fastest possible way.
“If technology stays in my office it robs everybody of the opportunity to see the potential. We want to think ambitiously and deliver incrementally,” Coleman said.
While of course the Air Force Research Lab has for many years had successes migrating technologies into operational use, and it is something which has definitely been receiving new pushes in recent years, Coleman’s point seems to be that there is substantial room for growth and that there may indeed be extremely impactful AFRL technologies, potentially able to deliver near term benefits, which might be being missed.
“We hope to have a Space Force and an Air Force that dominate time, space and complexity across all operating domains,” Coleman said.
The U.S. Air Force needs to act quickly, decisively and somewhat urgently to better integrate its internal scientific innovations with commercial sector developments to stay in front of Chinese technological development, senior service officials said.
“The Chinese president ensures that every innovation that happens in the private sector is connected to its military. For us it is a struggle and we need to be mindful and bridge that gap. What we struggle with is translating our innovations into fieldable technology,” Air Force Chief Scientist Victoria Coleman told The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Time in some cases, or remaining too static when it comes to rapid integration of new innovations can of course not only set back developmental pace and delay a new technologies’ successful transition to operational service, but can also compromise security by potentially leaving new technologies more vulnerable to attack. Aligning development with commercial-sector innovations might be one way to mitigate this risk, Coleman said.
“The longer they are out there, the longer the adversary has to find vulnerability. The only way to change that is to change all the time. If it is not one of our core competencies, how do we do that?” Coleman explained.
Government-only programs, while of course often generating unparalleled innovation and expertise themselves, could certainly stand to benefit from considering and potentially incorporating commercial systems and technological development more fully into the process to ensure a new system stays current and maximizes rapid development. One idea Coleman had was to potentially align government innovators with private sector experts to create a temporary “spin-off” company which might temporarily move to the commercial sector before subsequently re-entering a purely government program to ensure the fastest and best discoveries and innovations are incorporated.
This kind of approach, it is clear from Coleman’s thinking, is a crucial way the U.S. can stay in front of China’s developmental pace. Part of the equation is to also move quickly to actually deploy new technologies quickly, once they are determined to be ready and secure. Security, Coleman explained, can be improved by “changing” and updating all the time.
One of the ways the Air Force has been working to address some of these challenges is through the creation several years ago of a special unit called CROWS, Cyber Resilience Office of Weapons Systems. The entire purpose of the unit is to find promising weapons programs early in the developmental process and test them for vulnerabilities, essentially “red team” them thinking like a potential enemy would in terms of working to identify likely methods of enemy attack.
Through this approach, the thinking is, CROWS then works with scientists, engineers and weapons developers to build safeguards and protections into the weapons systems to anticipate and counter attacks before they happen. Over the years, senior Air Force leaders have described this as “baking in” cyber resiliency. This is a crucial approach, given the growing extent to which weapons system functionality, targeting and multi-node information share increasingly leveral cyber-reliant or computer-integrated processes.
Hardening new technologies from the beginning or even at their inception, is entirely aligned with Coleman’s strategic emphasis when it comes to “securely” developing and integrating promising commercial systems, to take advantage of fast-emerging innovations and stay connected to the pace of rapid technological change. Ensuring greater security certainly can be described as a U.S. military core competency, as it is therefore are area the Air Force can bring to bear as it seeks to harvest new commercially generated technologies and upgrades.
“We can take that into account with how our mission is propagated, and figure out the best method to use that technology. We want to find vulnerabilities before others do and be smart about how we bring new competencies into defense systems,” Coleman explained.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. 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 Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.