​—Rachel S. Cohen

​Air Force Research Laboratory Commander Maj. Gen. William Cooley delivers remarks during a press conference inside the National Museum of the United States Air Force, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, on April 18, 2019. Air Force photo by Wesley Farnsworth.

Air Force Research Laboratory Commander Maj. Gen. William Cooley spoke with Air Force Magazine Senior Editor Rachel S. Cohen on Sept. 17 about the lab’s ideas for “vanguard” programs, the service’s attempt to take on more risk, and how AFRL could support the new “Century Series” of aircraft development. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What’s the latest on the idea for “vanguard” development programs that would pull resources from across AFRL to be delivered faster?

A. There are lots of discussions on vanguard programs. We have some … of what I’ve been calling vanguard candidates, the things that make sense, really trying to ensure we’re all on the same page for what a vanguard is and is not. I go back to Webster’s definition of “vanguard”: it’s the lead element in a military formation. So it’s something that will likely challenge our, our [concepts of operation] and the way in which we potentially prosecute conflict in the future, and deterrence options that will be very different than some of the things that our potential adversaries expect from us. But it’s also, importantly, as one of the criteria … something that we, as an Air Force, are committed to seeing through.

As you know, one of the biggest challenges we have developing technologies is getting it out into the field. And so we want to ensure that we’ve done analysis and thought through anything that we initiate as a vanguard program and say, “yep, this is something that would be meaningful, and that the Air Force is willing to resource,” and although it’s not guaranteed to turn into a program of record, we want to have a high likelihood that it would become something that would get into the inventory. So we’re we’re thinking those things through.

My hope is that within the coming months, we’ll make a decision about, I’ll say, the initial vanguard or vanguards for the Air Force, but making sure that we have a clear understanding of what the process is, what it means to designate something as a vanguard—all those discussions are engaged on the fourth floor [of the Pentagon] right within the Air Staff to ensure that we’re all on the same page.

Q. What options are on the table?

A. Skyborg is clearly something that is of interest, sort of the next step of what we’ve done with [the] low-cost attritable vehicle. But there’s really two pieces to that that are really important. One is the software side, to ensure that what we’d like to have is, I sometimes call it the brain that could fly virtually any vehicle, and write apps and add different capabilities within that software. The other is the other piece of this is the hardware side. There’s lots of options on the hardware side.

The Valkyrie is one option, but there’s other potential options that we want to keep in play. It really depends on what mission are we trying to perform? And, frankly, that’s one of the other broad discussions relative to Skyborg, is there’s a number of missions that different organizations within the Air Force would like to see us pursue. We’re in the process of trying to sort through. We can’t do all of them, but which one do we want to do first? …

I’ll just mention one other and that is on space, we’re very focused on space. … One of the programs that the demand signals that we’ve had robustly from [Air Force] Space Command and from [the Space and Missile Systems Center] is sort of that next-generation GPS, so the [Navigation Technology Satellite 3] is currently on contract with L3Harris and sort of that geostationary, digital … great flexibility relative to the waveforms that we can generate on orbit. And so that’s, that’s another potential candidate as we look to the future. … There are others. …

One of the challenges that we have is, after folks read the [Science and Technology 2030] strategy, a lot of folks are saying, “Well, gee, I want to be a vanguard, too, and this sounds great,” as though it’s a conveyor belt to fielding. In fact, that’s one of the challenges that we have is, we really want to think through and do the analysis to ensure that, when we do select something as a vanguard, and say we’re going to resource this thing, that we’re actually going to follow through on that.

Q. Who will manage the vanguard programs?

A. We talked about potentially establishing an office to house these that would be cross-cutting, versus within one of the technology directorates. So right now, if not [the Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office], something akin to that. …

One of the other … important aspects of a vanguard is that we identify a [program executive officer] who will be very much involved in the acquisition strategy and decision-making for vanguards to ensure that we don’t get to the end of a vanguard program and say, “OK, now we’ve got to go start over and recompete a program and those kinds of things. So we’re trying to think ahead by dragging the PEOs into the mix early.

Q. Are you improving at getting technology through the “valley of death” between development and fielding?

A. I’m inclined to say yes. … But it’s very modest steps that we’re making in the aggregate relative to history. …  The challenge that we have had, has been as much cultural as it has anything else, in that our program offices, and the incentives that we put in for program offices, if you will, is to be low-risk. And as a result, they are very much driven by on-time delivery. …

We had scar tissue from the early 2000s time period. If you recall, we went through a series of Nunn-McCurdy [breaches] and cost overruns and schedule overruns … and so the result coming out of that was, we put a premium on certainty. … To do that, you take less risk. …

You saw the Nunn-McCurdy frequency drop to almost none. We really got those things under control. … It was at the cost of eliminating risk, and making it much harder for new technologies to get transitioned. So this is a broad shift that we’ve seen.

The other piece is the dynamic within the Air Force between program offices and [major commands] of saying, OK, who’s setting the requirements and the resources and those kinds of things. And so when we incentivize our program offices to simply to take low-risk to have cost and schedule certainty, and to tell them, no, you’ve got to live within this box of “deliver these requirements and nothing more,” then there’s really no incentive for them to take on new technologies. I will credit [Air Force acquisition chief Will] Roper for, you know, he is leaning into technology, and he’s leaning onto the PEOs and to the MAJCOMs and saying, we’ve got to take greater risk and we’ve got to increase the transition opportunity. …

It’s an ecosystem challenge. It’s not just a supply side, it’s also a demand side. I think that we’re shifting both of those for the good, and by really focusing on transition. …

The real challenge that we have is major programs of record, things like Skyborg or NTS-3. … It’s something that’s going to be fundamentally different coming directly out of the labs. There’s lots of technology that we transition. In fact, I think our transition rate is pretty good. There’s lots of ways to transition technology, right? It could be something that goes directly from the lab into a program office, it could be something that a contractor comes back and bids to a program. And it could be pieces of a particular effort that went on in the lab. So the complexity increases, which makes it really hard to pin down metrics. But what we’re trying to do with the notion of vanguards is to change the dynamic to say, what are those things that are going to fundamentally change the way we think about prosecuting conflict in the future?

Q. Is AFRL ready to support the “Century Series” idea of new fighter jets and other systems every five years?

A. I think we are in a position to support that. We’re making some shifts to digital engineering and some of the latest manufacturing approaches to ensure that we can support that. But frankly, I think when Dr. Roper’s talking about Century Series aircraft, he’s thinking about that, I’ll say, the more advanced, the prototyping and the program office kinds of things that we might spin off. So we’re postured to support that. I think that things like the Valkyrie, for example, are along the lines of saying, OK, how can we spin out different types of platforms. In fact, one of the efforts that our aerospace systems directorate is doing really fits nicely into that. …  How can you take these standards-type approach and configure aircraft differently, at least in a series of configurations, if you will, to meet different missions. So that’s one of the things that our team is looking at on the hardware side to say, how can we bring that kind of flexibility, which fits right into the Century Series? … It’s an ecosystem involved in making something like that happen.