WASHINGTON: The Air Force will gather warfighters and technologists together later this month to vet potential technologies at a first-of-its-kind summit, called WARTECH.
The summit is one of a number of initiatives being launched by the newly installed commander of Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, as she seeks to accelerate implementation of the April 2019 Air Force Science and Technology Strategy 2030 (S&T 2030) as her top priority.
That strategy set a goal for AFRL to shift more than 20 percent of its annual budget of $6.3 billion to fund “transformational capabilities,” and resulted in the first set of top-priority Vanguard research programs chosen back in February. The Vanguard projects are designed to pushing high-impact cutting edge research projects over the infamous ‘valley of death’ and into an Air Force program of record.
“I don’t want to wait. I don’t want to go slowly. I want to get there; I want it to be an all-in effort,” Pringle told a small group of reporters in one of her first interviews since her command takeover on June 18.
This will include, she said yesterday, some culling of lower-priority R&D projects in order to beef up those deemed of greater value to the warfighters. To this end, she said, she has program directors currently compiling “heartburn letters” regarding potential cuts.
“It’s gonna hurt a little bit,” she said. “We can’t do everything — we don’t have the budget to do everything under the sun. So, we will be reprioritizing and shaping toward the 20% transformational part of our S&T.”
The WARTECH summit, co-sponsored by AFRL, the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) and the service’s Major Commands (MAJCOMs) is being designed as an annual event. Operators and technologists from across the Air Force will come together (virtually of course) on Aug. 25-26 to prioritize advance research technology projects (6.3 in budgetary lingo) for future funding, and to identify innovative tech with potential multi-domain — air, space and cyber — impacts to serve as “Vanguards.”
As a first step, the Scientific Advisory Board has reviewed AFRL’s portfolio of projects to provide guidance on which might be considered for the next round of Vanguards, Pringle said. “I think they’re in the process of briefing out their findings, so that will help us have a good process for getting Vanguards approved,” she said.
Ultimately, she explained, the winning projects will be chosen by the Air Force Capability Development Council (CDC), co-chaired by the Air Force and Space Force vice chiefs. Realigning AFRL to accommodate the standup of the Space Force is Pringle’s number two priority, she said, a complex process involving five units shifting from the Air Force to the Space Force chain of command comprehensively detailed yesterday by colleague Shaun Waterman.
The service will chose three to five “transformational” budgetary initiatives — “cross cutters, integrative, mega-projects,” according to Pringle — to serve as the second set of Vanguards.
Blue-skying an example of transformational technologies, Pringle raised the concept of a “human digital twin,” modeled after the “digital engineering” method of creating a virtual representation of a physical object for testing purposes championed by Air Force acquisition czar Will Roper.
“What if we had a human digital twin and then we, you know, marry that with autonomy and unmanned systems and wow,” Pringle enthused. “That just covers a lot .. that’s a humungo project!.”
As Breaking D readers know, the first round of the Vanguards effort resulted in three projects being chosen:
- Skyborg, mating a highly autonomous software ‘brain’ developed by AFRL with a low-cost attritable drone body to create a family of unmanned aerial vehicles that can be teamed with manned fighters for a variety of future missions. The service later this month will choose which of four competitors — Boeing, General Atomics, Kratos and Northrop Grumman — will build the prototype drone bodies.
- Golden Horde, designed to build data links that enable semi-autonomous weapons to ‘swarm’ a target. AFRL expects to begin demonstrations late this year using two weapon systems — the Collaborative Small Diameter Bomb I (CSDB-I) and the Collaborative Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (CMALD) — with a “capstone” test in the fall of 2021.
- Navigation Satellite Technology-3 (NTS-3), which will be an experimental position, navigation and timing satellite, the first in 40 years, to “enable experimentation with multiple technologies and development of new concepts of operations.” Expected to launch in 2022, the technologies from NTS-3 are “expected to transition to future generations of GPS and potential augmentations to national PNT capabilities.”
Whereas Vanguards are projects that are “as close as we can get to transition” into a program of record, said Pringle, AFRL also is working at the front end of the process to identify emerging technologies that eventually could enable “integrated, multi-domain capabilities.”
One recently completed initiative is the “S&T Seedlings for Disruptive Capabilities” call, which asked airmen at AFRL to put forward high risk/high payoff, multidisciplinary ideas for seed funding of between $3 million and $5 million. AFRL on July 29 chose seven projects to go forward, that cover “integrated optical systems, multi-function sensors, unmanned systems that autonomously establish airfield infrastructure, a brain-computer interface learning system, a supersonic interceptor missile, additive manufacturing techniques in composites, and fuel cells for spacecraft.”
“AF Explore” is another new process that allows external partners to pitch new technology ideas and applications to the service. AFRL is developing an online platform called “Tech Connect” that will link potential partners in industry and academia pitching concepts to Air Force points of contact.
AFRL staff, Pringle said, are working closely with the service’s innovation hub AFWERX — which formally transitioned to AFRL on May 15 — to gather innovative ideas and create closer relationships with commercial industry and the startup community.
Similarly, the “Blue Sky” process is pulling together cross-functional Air Force teams to come up with potential solutions to various “challenge” problems.
AFRL is also expanding its pool of university “Centers of Excellence (COEs) from the nine currently funded, with two more expected to be launched by the end of the year. These are joint efforts between AFRL and the chosen universities, focused on cutting-edge research in high priority Air Force interest areas.