SecAF explores history, future of aerospace nation at AFA

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Amaani Lyle
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs
In her remarks at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference and Technology Exposition Sept. 14, the Air Force’s top civilian said the service will need to reduce bureaucracy, enhance innovation and invest in its people to successfully expand, advance and reinvent the aerospace nation.

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James cited advances throughout aviation history and interwove them with current and future endeavors to illustrate how the service will integrate air, space and cyberspace in new ways.

In defining the aerospace nation, which she called an air-minded community that engages in, with and through air, space and cyberspace, James reflected on her own experience last month when she got to peer through a U-2 canopy high above Earth at more than 70,000 feet.

“As the spherical blue unfolded beneath me, I couldn’t help but think about some of the early aviation pioneers and the expansive growth and achievements of the aerospace nation,” James said. “Humans have always sought to slip the surly bonds of Earth, from the wax wings of Icarus, to (Leonardo) DaVinci’s 15th century ornithopter sketches, to Sir George Cayley’s plans for a glider.”

The dream of flying, James recounted, has remained “tantalizingly close” for centuries, but seemingly unattainable.

From flight’s nascence with the Wright Brothers at Kittyhawk, North Carolina, to World War I-era militaries eyeing the plane as a warfare instrument, to pioneers such as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, whose transatlantic endeavors carried the zeal of aviation into post-war years, to Neil Armstrong’s steps on the moon, air power has been a linear theme throughout American history.

Aerospace nation’s new era

Today, the aerospace industry, James asserted, is the cornerstone of the U.S. economy, and the nation relies on international partnerships, pioneering discovery and innovation that deliver results for decades.

And while these core elements are not new, other aspects of aerospace very much are, the secretary noted.

“We now live in an age where an individual at a keyboard can deliver air power effects through cyberspace, where the global commons and global commerce depend on our capabilities that are delivered from space, and where remotely-piloted aircraft are breaking new ground in an environment that was once dominated solely by individuals in cockpits,” James said.

Challenges of evolving

Although the United States, as part of the aerospace nation, has demonstrated unprecedented leadership and success, challenges such as budget constraints, narrowing technological gaps among competitors, and dwindling comparative advantages persist.

“A brand new graduate out of college may well set their sights more on a job in the Silicon Valley than they would looking to work for the U.S. government or for a large aerospace firm,” James said.

Moreover, time, risks and cost associated with government and the aerospace industry might also discourage innovation and otherwise willing participation from small businesses, the secretary acknowledged.

Still, James expressed confidence in the Air Force’s arsenal of raw material in air, space, and cyberspace to rival the advances of the 1920s and 1930s in the aerospace nation.

“We have the technology, we have the know-how, we have the talent to take the next great leap to bring on a new golden age of aerospace,” she said.

The reinvention of the aerospace nation germinates within a three-fold strategic framework: the 30-year plan “America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future,” which explains why the Air Force must change; the “Strategic Master Plan,” which indicates what the Air Force’s goals and development objectives are; and the soon-to-come “Future Operating Concept,” which will lay out how the service intends to leverage operational agility as a way to suitably and swiftly adapt to any situation or any action.

“Integrated multi-domain operations -- cyber, space and air will be central to this future operating concept,” James said.

A futuristic scenario

The secretary used a futuristic example scenario to better illustrate the concepts.

“Imagine some years in the future a sprawling megacity of 12 million residents in a remote corner of the globe … is struck by a massive earthquake,” James said.

In just a few hours, she explained, air-launched small satellites are sent into orbit from the back of an Air Force mobility transport. Sliding into orbit over the disaster area, these low-cost space vehicles immediately tap into the broader space-based architecture, giving first responders access to global communications and near real-time images of the devastated city, James said.

“A usable airfield is then identified with the newly-established overhead (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and an Air Force air traffic control team already en route to the region is vectored onto it,” the secretary said.

By the next day, flights begin flowing in and a launch and recovery team launches dozens of small, unmanned aerial vehicles, controlled remotely via a responsive satellite network.

“The (remotely piloted aircraft) then fan out to place broad area wireless Internet and cutting-edge sensors in the hands of rescue crews,” James explained. “The rescuers can now see places that they could not access and can deliver supplies to areas that they cannot reach.”

At the same time, a cyber team in San Antonio, Texas, uncovers a cell of violent extremists who are planning to attack rescue crews and take some aid workers hostage, James related. The cyber team then relays surveillance of the wireless router in the nearby town to the theater operations center to locate the terrorist cell leader and thwart his actions.

“Some may say this is science fiction; I say scenarios like this are precisely how our Air Force needs to work in the future -- blending cyber, space and air in new and creative ways.”

Air Force top priorities

As a result, according to James, the Air Force’s top priorities include taking care of people, striking the right balance between current readiness and future modernization needs while making every dollar count.

To remain the best Air Force, the service must remain strategically agile in the recruitment, retention and development of its people, the secretary stressed.

“We need (people) in the right job at the right time, and we need to draw from the best of America’s diversity in terms of experience, gender, race, ethnicity, background and training,” she said.

Of readiness and modernization, James acknowledged that the service has the “oldest fleet in history,” with more responsibility than ever before.

“We’re simultaneously trying to procure new aircraft while fighting relentlessly in a half dozen different places around the world … at the same time struggling to recapture higher levels of readiness for a high-end fight.”

James subsequently called on Congress to permanently lift sequestration and avoid a continuing resolution altogether.

“We have to send sequestration to the bone yard once and for all,” she said.

The power of industry partnerships

In matters of stewardship, James said forging partnerships with industry is more important than ever to keep programs more on budget and on schedule. Of acquisitions, the secretary said the Air Force has made good progress in employing many of the principles of former Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ash Carter’s and current Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall’s Better Buying Power, a cost-saving initiative.

“Our costs as a general proposition are trending downward … and we’re meeting our key performance parameters for our major programs at a rate above 90 percent,” James said.

But the Air Force must remain vigilant and open to new ideas and innovative thinking, according to James.

As such, under what James calls the “should cost” approach, the Air Force challenges its program offices and industry partners to beat the independent cost estimate once a program is under way.

“After the savings are realized and validated, the funding is then available to us that we can pump it back into that program and portfolio,” she said.

To target delivery time, “should cost” leads to “should schedule,” which incentivizes solutions to accelerate successful, independently validated engineering, manufacturing and development, giving a business or program office a competitive advantage for an award. “We’ll reward and incentivize speed-to-ramp.”

Many challenges lie ahead to reinvent the aerospace nation, but the secretary said she sees more opportunities than challenges.

“We won’t get this done overnight; this effort will take time but it starts today, it starts here and now, it starts with all of your help,” James said.