Air Force head's focus on innovation could open path for greater R&D investments


WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s new civilian head wants the service to retake its claim as the military’s innovation pioneer. To do that, it will have to renew investments in basic and applied research that in the past have enabled massive gains in stealth, computing technologies and composite materials, she said Tuesday. 

Since taking office May 16, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has reaffirmed longtime Air Force goals such as improving readiness, protecting ongoing modernization programs and growing the size of the force. However, during an exclusive June 13 interview with Defense News, Wilson acknowledged her first unique priority: a focus on innovation, particularly in early-stage research that could bear fruit from 15 to 20 years down the road.

“What kind of an Air Force do we need in 2030, and how do we start ourselves on the process of getting there? We are a service whose roots and history are very deep in innovation, and I want to make sure that we’re not losing that,” she said. “Early stage research and development has been flat or declining, and I think we need to refresh and revitalize the innovative spirit of the Air Force.”

While the Air Force’s fiscal 2018 budget request boosts research and development from $20.2 billion in 2017 to $25.4 billion, most of those added funds will be directed toward latter stage development, particularly for testing emerging weapons systems. Early stage research and applied research remained at roughly the same levels, with the request for applied research practically equivalent at $1.3 billion in both FY17 and FY18 and basic research increasing slightly from $500 million to $505 million.

At this point, Wilson said, she isn’t sure how much the basic and applied research budget lines should be increased in the future to support innovation efforts. However, she stressed the overall importance of that funding.

“It’s a fairly small part of the Air Force budget, but it’s the part of the budget that has the potential to lead to very big things 20 years down the line,” she said.

Although Air Force leaders have championed innovation over the past several years, the service has focused more on near-term efforts to save money on weapons systems and speeding new technologies to the field. For instance, the service stood up the Office of Transformational Innovation in 2014 to introduce changes to the acquisition system that allow it to get products faster and cheaper. The service also works closely with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, which modifies existing technologies and uses them in groundbreaking ways.

But Wilson said she wants to see more than just incremental growth.

“I’m not talking about version 2.0 of what we already have,” she said. “I’m talking about what is the early stage, path-breaking research that the people who are scientists and engineers say are likely to lead to new ways of doing things for the Air Force?”

At this point, it’s not 100 percent clear how Wilson plans to pursue this priority. The service has begun “preliminary discussions” about how to spur massive gains in its early stage research and development  portfolio, and she expects those conversations to continue, eventually roping in industry and academia. Asked whether new organizational structures would be needed to spearhead change, Wilson replied that the focus will be “more about a process than it is about the organization.”

The new Air Force secretary was also reticent to describe potential focus areas like hypersonics, unmanned systems or data analytics where the service intends to drive growth.

“The important thing is for me to not proscribe the answer. It’s to frame the question and to get a lot of people engaged in what might be,” she said. “In a large bureaucracy, most things will continue on their current course, unless somebody like me says, ‘Why don’t we just scan the horizon for a second and see how we might manage innovation?’ That alone causes people to blink for a second and say, “Well, there’s something we haven’t thought about,’ and put ideas on the table.”

Andrew Hunter, who worked in the Pentagon’s acquisition wing before joining the Center for Strategic and International Studies as a senior fellow, said he was surprised that Wilson chose to focus on early stage R&D. Although the Air Force’s research and development budget line has fallen by “large amounts” since 2011, and there is value in recovering that funding, latter stage R&D took the bigger hit.

“Early stage R&D actually fared much better than late stage R&D during the drawdown,” he said. “In addition, the Air Force is the primary service that has a modernization bow wave confronting it that will require substantially increased investment in later stage R&D in the coming years. So I’m a bit surprised that she is not emphasizing the need to invest in the development programs coming forward in the bow wave.” 

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