The Air Force wants to stand up a new civilian chief technology officer position whose role would be to oversee science and technology S&T efforts across the service, and have direct responsibility over the Air Force Research Laboratory (ARFL), according to a new report released April 17.
The rapid technological innovations of Russia, China and other adversaries has prompted the Defense Department to take a sharp look at its own capability development processes. Two years in the making, the Air Force’s 2030 Science and Technology Strategy reveals the service’s goals for fielding specific capabilities more quickly, injecting more talent into the science and technology workforce and restructuring the leadership and management of the S&T portfolio.
A new chief technology officer (CTO) position would “guide strategic scientific and technical decisions, prioritize activities, and coordinate across the Service to effectively convert scientific and technical investments into new disruptive capabilities,” the report said.
No senior individual currently has primary responsibility for Air Force science and technology, said Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in a media roundtable Wednesday at the Pentagon. The main roles and responsibilities are dispersed within the Air Force Secretariat, the Air Staff and Air Force Materiel Command, including at AFRL.
Wilson, who is slated to leave the Air Force at the end of May before becoming the next president of the University of Texas at El Paso, said she has signed off on a memorandum of intent to direct the service’s acquisition chief, Will Roper, to hire a civilian “design agent” who will develop the plan for creating the new chief technology officer position.
It is likely that this position would require congressional approval. If approved, the individual would be in charge of the Air Force Research Laboratory, and ensure cooperation on science and technology efforts across Air Force agencies including the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC), the report said.
“This lack of a coherent, strong voice for science and technology lies at the core of the imbalance between science and technology that supports existing needs and concepts and science and technology that advances transformational warfighting concepts that can deliver substantial leaps in dominating, time, space, and complexity,” it said. “While mechanisms such as the Capability Development Council have aimed to address parts of this gap, more must be done.”
The report noted that the current process does work; however, a CTO could improve and accelerate S&T efforts by providing more coherent and focused leadership; supporting the development of cross-domain solutions and in maintaining a centralized authority to unify strategic direction in areas such as the Air Force budget.
A CTO could also engage more thoroughly with U.S. S&T stakeholders, and provide more input and feedback for new operational concepts.
AFWIC – a year-old effort meant to help the Air Force develop multi-domain solutions for modern warfighting – is expected to take on a larger role in the service’s S&T community. It will establish its own new senior scientist position and rotate additional scientists in and out as needed to advise in “future-force design efforts,” per the report. It will also participate in more prototyping and experimentation efforts to provide feedback on new technologies.
The Air Force plans to focus on honing five strategic capabilities that will allow the service to dominate time, space and complexity across all domains. Those capabilities include: global persistent awareness; resilient information sharing; rapid, effective decision-making; “complexity, unpredictability, and mass;” and speed and reach of disruption and lethality.
“Focusing on these capabilities instead of individual technologies will drive a competitive environment where research competes to develop solutions to the most challenging Air Force problems,” the report said. It listed about five different technological opportunity areas for each strategic capability, which run the gamut of advanced technology areas including edge computing; directed energy; additive manufacturing; scramjet technology; artificial intelligence and machine-learning; cyberwarfare; alternative navigation; and low-cost launch.
These capabilities areas will be developed via programs the Air Force calls “vanguards:” “focused research programs” that will quickly demonstrate the viability of leap-ahead capabilities. These vanguard programs will represent about 20 percent of the Air Force’s $2.8 billion S&T budget, Wilson said.
The service has not yet selected any specific technologies or efforts to become vanguards, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the service’s military deputy for acquisition, told reporters Wednesday. There is no cost threshold set yet, and the service wants to see a variety of technology solutions to the capabilities listed, he added.
Wilson noted: “The answer’s aren’t in the back of the book, and that’s intentional.”
Wilson first announced in 2017 that the service would undergo a year-long S&T initiative, and would be seeking insight from industry, academia and national laboratories. That effort was coupled with a top-down analysis of the main capabilities the Air Force needed to meet the requirements laid out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, and the S&T efforts needed to enable those capabilities.