AF discusses game-changing technologies during defense innovation hearing

  • Published
  • By Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Science, Technology and Engineering
The Air Force’s pursuit of game-changing technologies and the need to attract and retain talented science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals were at the center of discussions during a hearing on defense innovation before the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on Capitol Hill Feb. 24.

Dr. David Walker, the Air Force deputy assistant secretary of science, technology and engineering, joined colleagues from throughout the Defense Department’s science and technology enterprise to testify on efforts to maintain – and grow – the technological advantage of the U.S.

“We’re at a critical juncture in history,” he said. “The relentless pace of change continues to increase complexity and decrease predictability in warfare.”

Walker said the Air Force is committed to investment in S&T and embracing new paradigms in capability development.
The Air Force’s fiscal year 2017 President’s Budget request for S&T is approximately $2.5 billion which is an increase of approximately 4.5 percent over the Air Force’s fiscal 2016 President’s Budget request. The Air Force S&T program supports the DOD’s efforts in the Long Range Research and Development Planning Program and Third Offset Strategy.

He highlighted the continued emphasis on the game-changing technologies of directed energy, nanotechnology, autonomous systems, unmanned systems, and hypersonics. As outlined in the Air Force Strategy, “America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future,” these technologies amplify many of the enduring attributes of airpower – speed, range, flexibility, and precision.

In terms of directed energy, Walker discussed the Air Force efforts to integrate lasers on aircraft for both defensive and offensive purposes.

“The Air Force is flying every day with lasers under our large aircraft with preventive countermeasures systems,” he said. “We have spun out low power lasers that protect our aircraft flying in theater today. The goal is to build off the experiences we have there, as we get larger power outputs, better thermal management out of smaller package lasers to be able to transition these to other aircraft besides our large transport aircraft.”

Walker briefly discussed two Air Force efforts in this area. Air Combat Command has commissioned the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHIELD) Advanced Technology Demonstration which will be focused on developing and integrating a more compact, medium-power laser weapon system onto a fighter-compatible pod for self-defense against ground-to-air and air-to-air weapons. Air Force Special Operations Command has commissioned both Air Force Research Laboratory and the Naval Support Facility Dahlgren to examine placing a laser on an AC-130U gunship to provide an offensive capability.

Another promising area according to Walker is the “science of the small,” or nanotechnology.

“How do we take advantage of nano materials, quantum effects, metamaterials and then how do we link that with biological agents to help us manufacture those materials in a very effective way?” he said. “There’s a lot of promise in that area that I think we’ll see in the future that it will move us into being able to build materials that we don’t even conceive of at this time.”

Walker also told the subcommittee that none of the Air Force S&T efforts would be possible without world-class scientists and engineers. He said the Air Force has emphasized funding in attracting and inspiring people to STEM careers, as well as recruiting, retaining and developing the current STEM workforce.

Walker identified the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation scholarship for service program as valuable in attracting top talent to the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“One of the keys to retaining talent is getting them into the laboratory and getting them an opportunity to operate in the laboratory and the freedom and magnitude of responsibility they get within government laboratories,” he said. “The SMART program is a way to bring them in and then continue to educate them as they move forward. That’s one of the ways we’ve been able to bring in top talent and so far we’ve been retaining about 87 percent after their mandated service is up.”