DSJ sat down on 17 September with U.S. Air Force Major General William T. Cooley, Commander of the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) at the 2019 iteration of the Air Force Association’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference.
DSJ: What, if anything, has changed in AFRL’s mission and focus since you took the job as Commander in late 2016?
General Cooley: Well, the mission is still the same. The mission, in terms of AFRL delivering technology for the warfighter, is to keep the fight unfair. I’d say, though, that the focus has shifted. As you and your readers are probably aware, we developed the Science and Technology Strategy, which was approved by the Air Force and published in April of this year.
That strategy was something that we worked on for eighteen months to get the get it across the finish line. It involved reaching out and engaging with all of the USAF stakeholders and also other technology communities.
And so we’ve used that information, that new strategy, to help us focus on the things that will allow us to accomplish AFRL’s mission more efficiently and effectively. The key objectives – you can look at them – are clear. [Objective I: Develop and Deliver Transformational Strategic Capabilities; Objective II: Reform the Way Science and Technology Is Led and Managed; Objective III: Deepen and Expand the Scientific and Technical Enterprise]
The overall focus? Well, a couple of themes come across.
One is transition. Ensuring that we transitioning and delivering transformational capabilities. And so that means we’ve got to stay focused on what the customers need, what’s going to be useful for our Air Force, and ensure that we’re working with the other the broader acquisition community to do that.
A second theme is competition. I think that the strategic advantage that we have in the United States is competition. We need to leverage competition in the technology space for the military. That means our people competing with industry and academia, everyone bringing their best ideas and allowing them to compete in a level playing field to make optimal choices as to what we ought to invest in, and focus our energy on.
And lastly, a focus on partnerships – by this I really mean people in partnership. We focus on ensuring that we get and keep the right people in our science and technology ecosystem, and we build partnerships across the nation to good effect. An example is how we collaborate and partner across the Department of Defense. After I took this job, I started meeting, on a quarterly basis, with my counterparts in the Army and the Navy, and I’ve included DARPA and the Coast Guard as well, because I really want to capture all of the folks involved within the ecosystem.
The short answer to your question is that not much has changed from a technology perspective. But a longer answer is, there is a shift of strategic necessity, called out in the [January 2018] National Defense Strategy. The fact is that we’re entering into a great power competition with a focus on China and Russia, and that has caused us to look very hard at the potential challenges that those potential adversaries present. That causes us to reevaluate and look at the technologies we need.
DSJ: So what exactly does that emerging Great Power competition mean for defense systems technology from your perspective? Does it mean that long-range strike is more important? Does that mean that cyber is more important? Does that mean that operations in denied environments are more important?
General Cooley: All of the above. Those are the kinds of things that we’ve got to think through because, as you know, it’s no longer the permissive environment that we’ve seen in the Middle East. And to be candid, the Air Force Research Laboratory, over the past decade has been largely focused and very helpful in in that fight, in things like mitigating IED, in wide area sensors and surveillance, the types of things that we have needed for the fight in the Middle East.
The National Defense Strategy reflects a shift to some of the things that you just mentioned. It says: “now we need to develop technologies and systems that are for a different kind of environment.” And so that has become a driver. And as a result, some technologies emerged as potentially being more beneficial.
DSJ: Got it, and that’s a great transition to my next question of you. What are two or three of the highest priority programs under your purview at AFRL right now? Maybe ones that are largest in scope or of greatest urgency?
General Cooley: I’m going to push back giving you two or three highest priority ones, okay, because there really are more than thirty important programs. Two programs, however, that have made some headlines, and that we can talk about are Skyborg, a testbed for our focus on autonomy, and our next-generation GPS.
Regarding Skyborg, the air vehicle model that you saw on the AFA trade show floor – the XQ-58A Valkyrie – is just an air vehicle, a hardware piece. It doesn’t yet have a brain in the form of autonomy software, so it is not yet an autonomous vehicle, which is where we are going.
From a space perspective, an important program that we’ve recently initiated is for the next generation of GPS. Looking beyond GPS 3, we are building and plan to launch NTS-3 – Navigation Technology Satellite 3, an experimental positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) satellite into geostationary orbit. I’m watching this one very closely, and SMC [the USAF’s Space and Missile Systems Center] is very interested as well. What we’d like to do is to make GPS as robust as possible and bring other capabilities to supplement it.
DSJ: It appears that you spend about half of your funding in-house, and about half of it outside of AFRL. Generally speaking, what’s the particular value and unique contribution of AFRL’s in-house, organic activity?
General Cooley: If you look at the total of $5 billion, about 80% of that goes external from AFRL to contracts. So most of the dollars are going external. But I would say that, if you think about a DoD lab as just another lab that provides technology, then you really missed the point. That’s not what the organic capability does. The organic capability brings technologists and airman in the workforce because we understand what the Air Force does, how the Air Force operates, what the operational challenges are, so that we can help solve problems.
In addition to being a supplier of technology, we also answer USAF 911 calls. When the Air Force has a challenge that it doesn’t know how to solve, they pick up the phone and call AFRL. In many cases, in most cases, we have subject matter experts who can help us think through those problems. And so that’s another unique mission that we serve, organically.
DSJ: I see that AFRL has interest and activity in areas of joint Service interest such as cybersecurity, degraded visual environment vision solutions, software defined radios, and unmanned systems. You mentioned earlier that you meet with your counterparts in the other Services, DARPA, and Coast Guard. Does AFRL participate any cooperative, joint programs?
General Cooley: Yes. These are among the areas where DoD activity is carried out through joint champions. We share information with the Army and the Navy via established communities of interest for a variety of technical areas to ensure that there’s coordination and cooperation across the joint community. Beyond R&D, our procurement officials up at Hanscom AFB who are responsible for buying, they have access to what the other Services are buying and we are all engaging with the same contractors.
DSJ: Can I assume that you had a forced march on the exhibit floor this morning? Did you see anything really interesting down there?
General Cooley: It wasn’t quite that bad. In fact, it was amazing for me. I guess I would say that one of the things that’s impressive to me about what I see from industry is the digital engineering and the ability to manufacture quickly. Sometimes it’s additive manufacturing and sometimes it’s not, but the ability to do the digital engineering, model things, and then go directly into a production kind of environment. To build things to sufficient fidelity that the parts can all snap together, that’s impressive. And it is key to both moving faster and controlling costs.
DSJ: Thanks for your time. As a final thought, what do you want DSJ readers to know about what you and your team are doing at AFRL?
General Cooley: AFRL is committed to implementing the AF 2030 S&T Strategy. We are dedicating resources to establish the Transformational Capabilities Office for the AFRL Enterprise. Through immediate and sustained commitment to the objectives of the 2030 S&T Strategy, the Air Force will move to develop and deliver disruptive innovations to ensure our nation’s defense. My team and I understand that some of the best and brightest minds are outside AFRL and that only through partnerships with them can the best technology be brought to the warfighter and keep the fight unfair.