You’ve been in this position for eight weeks now. Stepping into such an interesting time, especially when all of our attention has been shifted over to being competitive and innovative and the Air Force has gone through all these challenges to make their Airmen innovative, what’s it like for you to be stepping into that role for the first time?
It’s like being home again. This is what it was like in the early days of missile defense, in the SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) days. Only there, let’s say that reality was at times the last refuge of a scoundrel. There were some pretty wild ideas, such as 20-meter mirrors in space and 25 megawatt lasers floating around in space and dozens of them. It turns out that when you raise your sights and you try to do the truly impossible, you really can accomplish more than you otherwise would have. For years after the SDI experience I saw examples of great advances in technology. Then I’d say, “Where did this come from?” And they’d say, “That was an SDI program”. It went for a few years and then it got cancelled, but we got these things out of it. So coming into this situation is thrilling, but it also gives me the sense that we really need to move on this because right now the system from the congress, the White House, the Defense Department and the Air Force is fully behind innovation and taking risks. But if we don’t produce and if we don’t make some real gains that may go away.
No, it’s ideas from everywhere. I think we take ideas from research that’s going on everywhere, examine it, analyze it and decide whether we can make some gains by using it. So, AFRL is certainly where our technology is focused but there are lots of other places that are important, including the operational forces. If they can tell us this is how this technology at this stage of development can be useful to us that’s important for the technologists to know. So the operators are key in all of this. The other thing is, the other systems, contracting and acquisitions have to understand that they have an extremely important role to play in this and that is to get these things at a faster pace. Some will argue that the law doesn’t allow us to do it. Well, actually, if you read the federal acquisition regulations they really are pretty open to doing things in an expeditious fashion — if the taxpayer benefits from it.
Can you think of anything that has surprised you within science over the years?
I’m really marveling at quantum computing because it’s not something that I see as obvious. I remember hearing Richard Feynman give a talk on this at the 40th anniversary of Los Alamos in 1982 and I don’t think there were many people in the audience who understood this. In fact, I ran into him later outside I said, “Nice talk, but I’m not sure I really understand what you said.” He said, “That’s OK. You’re probably not alone.”
I hate to make predictions of things that won’t happen, but I think autonomous vehicles are a long way in the future. I’m going to say that the liability issues associated with this are really enormous. I also think that it’s going to be very difficult to have systems that are foolproof. I think that having systems that are truly autonomous, driving vehicles on roads with a mixture of other autonomous vehicles and autonomous humans who are distracted, is going to be a tough nut to crack.
Having worked on the Star Wars program, were you impressed at the first ICBM [we] shot down about eight months ago?
No, I’m not surprised at that. I will always say I’m surprised it took so long, but it’s a hard problem. They chose to go down a route that was very difficult and they really weren’t shooting an ICBM. They were actually shooting the reentry vehicles and that’s much harder than a bright object like a rocket.
Do you think conflicts push us forward scientifically?
Fear is a powerful thing. I think there are areas of science that operate independently of that but there seems to be a development path for research. We do things for a number of years and we make a lot of improvements, then the improvements get smaller and smaller and we sort of reached this asymptote. It usually means that our scientific knowledge is sort of maxed out or technology has maxed out and we as a nation put those things away for awhile, and they still are going on, but at a much lower level. Then the science and technology gets better and we see opportunities pick up again. We did this in energy. In the ‘70s we had an energy program. We did solar, geothermal, wind and we looked at all different forms as well as conservation. We got to a point where we had made great strides, but then the price of oil came down and there was no longer such a need to do things differently. That happened when the technologies were just sort of leveling off and we put it away for a number of years and then we came back to it about 10 years ago. We’ve found that solar cells were much more efficient than they had been 40 years earlier and we found similar things in other technology areas so it’s just the way we do things. You might say that missile defense went into a period where they were working a very hard problem. They were working it carefully and we’ve reached another point where now we need to see what’s out there that we can grab and use to go after a ballistic missile. The whole idea is to devalue the ballistic missiles. Countries don’t buy more of things that have less and less value every day — hopefully no one does.
What drives you in science?
Curiosity, it’s the desire to know why something works and that’s one of the things I look for when I look at research programs. One of your questions was, so what are your favorite research programs? I don’t have any favorites. I haven’t been here long enough to make these big decisions about them, but I look for characteristics. Is this being pursued with curiosity — the desire to know what we don’t know? Is it being tackled with integrity? Are we willing to report results the way they come in? Not the way someone else might want them to be.
Traceability is, can we look back and see that the fundamental science that this technology, for instance, has come from and can we look ahead to see where it is we want it to go? So it’s looking in both directions back in time and forward in time.
Value is, do we know what value this would have for the Air Force or beyond the Air Force to the national security standing of the U.S. because part of our mission is to support the other services. We support the State Department and other parts of the national security enterprise.
And last, validation, and this is a big one. Are we doing demonstrations and experiments to actually see whether nature agrees with us? So, we think something ought to do something. Every once in awhile it’s important to pull everything together and do a big experiment with as many of the pieces as we can practically use and see what happens. I have to tell you from developing systems in the past, when you do that you learn so much because they’re sometimes very simple things that don’t work together. So those are the things I look for in the programs I’m looking at.
What would you like to see while you’re here? What developments would you like to see in the Air Force?
That’s part of that value question. Where is the value in all of what we’re doing? I’m not here for long. This has historically been a two-year assignment, so I’m realistic about what you can see in that timeframe, but I would like to see an understanding of this multi-domain command and control. I would like to see that fleshed out in terms of an operational view. I think the chief does a great job of explaining it and now there has to be some meat put on the bones. I would like to see some of these technologies become very dynamic in terms of the progress. I would like to see our supporting systems like our acquisition process and our procurement systems that our personnel systems respond and understand how important they are to this progress. You know you’re not important if you can just slow something down. If that’s your only way you can be important you need to go home at night ashamed of yourself. Rather how do you make something happen? I told the chief on Friday, and I told Col. Ewy just a little while ago that we need people who want to do something, not people who want something to do. And I think we have a lot of really good people. It takes a combination of leadership and commitment. Right now we have the leadership and we have the commitment at the top level and that part in the center needs to get over their fear and get with it. I really hope to see that happen because they will establish a culture for the younger people who are following them and hopefully we’ll retain more of the really dynamic young people that we have now and they won’t feel like the model is, when you get to the middle you got to clamp down on anything that might embarrass you.
Sitting in your position and seeing the long history of the Air Force, you’ve seen a lot of changes. How can you look back at the Air Force culture and the way you described it as traceability? How has that affected science technology?
Well, I think for the most part it’s been good. For most of the history of the Air Force we’ve had leadership that recognizes the key to future readiness is largely in technology and some of the operating practices that brings in. There has always been a spirit of adventure and at some point I’m not sure what happened. So, we were talking about the industrial age before, people will tell you we’re in the information age today, but I think we are in an age of what I would call optimization. We think we’re going to build perfect things. We don’t realize that nothing is effective for very long and that you have to keep moving. When we decide we’re going to build a system we seem to want to design the perfect system the way we see it. Then it takes us so long to realize that system to make it real that generally by the time we put it in place it only has a few years of validity left. Then it’s obsolete or it’s approaching obsolescence and we have to start on the next one. If we can shorten that development time, we will get more ideas and we will move faster with those ideas. At some point your adversaries decide that this is not going to work, that we are going to move faster. No matter what we say about resources, we have more resources than most of our adversaries. So I think when it comes to the Air Force we have this heritage of exploration and dynamic technology development.
When I worked with NASA one of my favorite places to go was Dryden, which was out at Edwards Air Force Base, and that’s where they did the aeronautical development and testing and I met a man named, Milt Thompson. Milt was a former F-15 Eagle pilot. Milt was probably in his sixties or seventies, but he was the most gung ho, forward leaning, technology guy that I had been around in a long time. It just demonstrates that that was part of our past and it can be part of our future because we have a lot of people in the Air Force today who are excited about what they do. I saw them in the technology area at AFRL out at Wright Patterson AFB and at Kirtland AFB. These people really know why they’re doing this and they’re excited about it. If we can harness that excitement, enthusiasm and intelligence, we can do great things.