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Slow and steady wins the Air Force’s science and technology race

For Dr. Victoria Coleman, her new role as Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force is certainly an interesting one. For the majority of her 35-year career in computer science and technology, she has worked in private industry and academia. In fact, her role prior to joining the Air Force was her very first government position, where she served as Director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Without hesitation, she openly admits that she wasn’t hired as Chief Scientist for her government experience, but rather her expertise in the private sector.

In her current role as the scientific advisor to the Air Force Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Air Force, she stands at the intersection of where government and industry meet, and she is ready to get after identifying and analyzing the technical challenges facing the Air Force today.

On May 18, 2021, Dr. Coleman sat down for a one-on-one interview during the Mitchell Institute’s Aerospace Nation to discuss the Air Force’s science and technology landscape, how the current microelectronic shortage is impacting the Air Force, and the importance of protecting the branch’s digital infrastructure in light of recent cyberattacks.

Dr. Coleman opened the forum by discussing the critical challenges her team is facing, as well as her top priorities going into the future. Throughout her entire computer science and technology career, Dr. Coleman has been trying to inch closer to fusing research into practice. When she started out in academia, she would become frustrated that the work that was being done in the lab would never see the light of day.

Because of this, she thinks a lot about the context and the technology environment within which the Air Force pursues its mission, which has changed in subtle ways over the years. Dr. Coleman commented that most of the innovation that the Air Force depended on used to come from the Defense Industrial Base (DIB). But today, the Air Force’s technology landscape operates differently.

Dr. Coleman explained that today’s Air Force is heavily influenced and shaped by retail and consumer technology. As a result, the branch has trouble satisfying its needs with the science and technology that comes from the private sector. And Dr. Coleman believes that it’s twice as difficult if the technology comes from consumer marketplace.

U.S. competitors on the world stage do not have this problem, Dr. Coleman explained. For instance, China has the Military Civil Fusion (MCF) which Chinese President Xi Jinping personally oversees. MCF’s objective is to make sure that every single innovation that happens in the private sector is harnessed to support China’s drive to become the premier military power in the world.

This baked-in partnership between industry and military doesn’t exist in the same form within the United States. This has created a challenge for Dr. Coleman and her department. However, during her remarks, she made it clear that this is a struggle that she anxious to overcome, looking forward to bridging that gap in absorbing technology into her department’s mission.

When speaking about the Air Force’s Science and Technology (S&T) strategy, she proudly boasts that it’s the most well-structured strategy that she’s seen in a long time. To her, the S&T strategy that the department put forward in 2018 is an exemplar of what a strategy should be, and that it goes beyond just simply listing accepted technologies.

Dr. Coleman believes that the strategy does a fantastic job of putting the technology in context of how it is used in the Air Force. And when there isn’t a technology that is available, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) will build out the necessary capabilities. Dr. Coleman explained that the S&T strategy plays a critical role as the Air Force aligns its resources and efforts to make innovation happen and matter.

When asked about the Air Force’s main technological opportunities and hurdles that it needs to overcome, Dr. Coleman said that they are hoping to achieve change in five different domains:

  • Global persistence awareness
  • Resilient information sharing
  • Rapid effective decision-making
  • Complexity, unpredictability, and mass
  • Speed and reach of disruption and lethality.

She said that she thinks about the “how” behind executing those goals quite often. She believes the answer is that they can achieve it by building out transformational cross-cutting capabilities.

Now that she’s on the inside, Dr. Coleman is encouraged to see how much change has already taken place, and how mindful and deliberate the change has been on behalf of the “how” component. She explained that the Air Force has a massive mission. They have to train, organize, and equip for today and for tomorrow with a massive set of missions. And they must be smart in how they can effectively approach all of the needs that they have.

When asked how the current microelectronic manufacturing crisis is impacting the Air Force, Dr. Coleman responded by saying that microelectronics are the driving force behind the execution of Air Force missions. She explained that the Air Force needs advanced components that are available, performant, trustworthy, and affordable.

“We can’t execute the missions that we need to execute without high-end microelectronics in those systems,” she said. “We really don’t have an option. We can’t operate with antique parts and expect the levels of performance or support the missions that we know we need to fight, without making those components available.”

She said that in order to secure these components for the Air Force, it takes partnerships within the Department of Defense (DoD). The Under Secretary for Research and Engineering (R&E) and his counterparts in Acquisition and Sustainment (A&S) have made microelectronics their number one priority. In the past three or four years, they’ve put together a significant roadmap to produce mission-critical parts in order to secure, grow, and revitalize the domestic fabrication capability.

When asked if the Air Force is ready to begin fielding the technologies to enable human-machine teams, Dr. Coleman responded by saying that—in many ways—the Air Force has been operating human-machine teams for many years. Her personal assessment is that the way to deploy more human-machine teams is through more experimentation.

She said, “When we think about how we form human teams, how do we do that? …We form teams by building trust in each other. And we build trust in each other… by working together. By watching each other in action.”

She believes that human-machine teams will be no different, and that trust will be built in the machines once they see them in execution. And that the team that deploys, experiments, and learns more about each other will be the teams that succeeds. She explained that she has a cast iron belief that in order to produce big, transformational systems, one must “build a little, test a little, and field a little.”

When the conversation turned to the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), she admitted that she is hardly an expert on the subject. She did say that she doesn’t think that within the Air Force, the ABMS meets the standard requirements of what a program is. She believes that it’s a very advanced concept, but that it’s not a program.

She described ABMS as a very ambitious effort, and though she hopes it will succeed, she doesn’t know if it will. Returning to her motto, she said that having grand visions is important, but they must also deliver capability incrementally.

When asked about the importance of protecting the Air Force’s network infrastructure in light of recent cyberattacks, Dr. Coleman said, “I think that a lot of the infrastructure that we use will eventually need to come out from the commercial sector. From the world out there that has built it, has deployed it, has scaled it, has operated it, and has learned what works and what doesn’t work.”

She explained that if the approach is to custom-build it for themselves and avoid the pitfalls the private sector has encountered, then “we are kidding ourselves.”

According to Dr. Coleman, one of the worst aspects of the inability to field new science and technology in the department is that when they deploy it, it can take years to close vulnerability gaps and loopholes. She said that there are no systems that have zero vulnerabilities, and the longer they have it out there without addressing exposures, the more time the adversary has to find all of those vulnerabilities and exploit them.

To hear more from Dr. Coleman watch the Aerospace Nation forum on-demand here!

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