Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley, USAF, the commander of the US Air Force Research Laboratory, discusses Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s Science & Technology 2030 plan, game-changing capabilities, hypersonic weapons and innovation with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian. The interview was conducted at the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando where our coverage was sponsored by L3 Technologies and Leonardo DRS.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here in Orlando, Florida at the Air Force Association’s Annual Air Warfare Symposium, the number one winter gathering of the service’s leadership, industry executives, thought leaders, analysts, reporters and more, down here in Florida. Our coverage is sponsored by Leonardo DRS and L3 Technologies.
And we’re honored to have with us United States Air Force Major General Bill Cooley, who is the Commander of the Air Force Research Lab.
Sir, you’ve got one of the best jobs in the whole U.S. Air Force. Thanks very much, and congratulations on the second star.
Maj. Gen. Bill Cooley: I do, thank you. This is my dream job. I do believe it’s the best job in the Air Force. I’m a technologist. A little unique in our Air Force in that sense. I’ve had a number of laboratory assignments and acquisition type experience, but I couldn’t be happier to be leading the men and women of the Air Force Research Laboratory. It’s a great, great job.
It’s also a very interesting time to be leading this organization, given the attention and importance of the science and technology enterprise going forward.
Mr. Muradian: Absolutely. Innovation, a lot of it is about how to do things differently and cultural, but it’s about the raw technological piece of that. You guys have extraordinary horsepower across the enterprise.
Secretary Wilson discussed the Science and Technology 23 plan. She launched that a couple of years ago. You guys have been playing a leading role in shaping that.
What are going to be some of the core elements of this from your perspective to try to achieve those five areas that she talks about? Because her whole focus is be disruptive, be where the enemy isn’t, take advantage of our strengths and sort of push on the weaknesses of potential adversaries, stuff that they’re trying to do to us in this great power competition.
Maj. Gen. Cooley: Thanks for the question. And let me just step back for a second and say that she initiated the study at an AFA in September of ’17 and that AFRL, the Air Force Research Laboratory, was to lead this effort, which we did. As part of that activity, over 12 months we listened broadly. We had university events. We had industry engagements. We looked at how other businesses do this, run their research enterprise. We took input from anyone who would submit, and there were over a thousand ideas that were submitted, both on technology as well as how to do business differently.
So all of that studying and looking is what culminated in the Research Lab, sometimes I like to say turning in my homework to the Secretary in September of this past year.
Since that time, not surprising to anyone, it’s been looked at and reviewed and modified. I think the core content is intact and part of that core content, the Secretary talked about this morning.
Let me just importantly say that the strategy is not yet delivered. It is coming soon. I’m anxious to get that out on the street. But she announced today some of the key elements, if you will, of that strategy. Let me just highlight a couple.
The first is, it does not include a technology list. One of the things that we started off doing in this strategy was to look at all the science and technology strategies that had been put together really since the ‘40s. Since the initial strategy that was put together by Hap Arnold and von Kármán in 1945.
Mr. Muradian: The Scientific Advisory Board.
Maj. Gen. Cooley: The early Scientific Advisory Board, and that was a brilliant document. It was a very interesting time and opportunity to sort of capture the technologies that had been coming out of, in development in part of World War II.
Since that time we basically, every decade there’s been some sort of science and technology strategy but if you look at — some of them have been very impactful and some less so. So we analyzed what are some of the elements that would make an impactful, meaningful S&T strategy that’s going to make a difference. Took that into account.
We also noticed that many of the strategies included a list of technologies, and that’s not particularly surprising, but when you go back and you look starting from about the mid ‘80s, I believe, and the strategy since that time, the technologies, you can find a common thread among the technologies. Directed energy. Hypersonics. Autonomy. Some of those technologies have been on that short list, if you will. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, it just means that we asked ourselves what benefit do we believe we’re going to achieve by coming out with another technology list?
So we took a different approach. We decided that it would be better off to look at what are the key capabilities that the broad industry and the technologies need to deliver? And the use the energy and dynamism of our system that is in my view what gives us the greatest advantage in our economy and in our industry and innovation, and that is competition. We want to compete the technologies that may be able to achieve those capabilities.
So we thought long and hard, working with the Air Staff, the Air Force Warfighter Integration Capability Team as part of the A5, to identify what are those key capabilities that we need to ensure our science and technology enterprise is focused to achieve? And so rather than publishing a technology list we’re taking an approach focusing on what are those capabilities and then let’s see what technologies can actually achieve those.
Mr. Muradian: So we have heard quite a lot about, so let’s go a little bit across the [inaudible]. You mentioned hypersonics. There’s great opportunity there. The U.S. was leading in that field. We took a little bit of a pause. We obviously have been investing heavily in that capability, but so are our adversaries.
So as you look at each one of these pieces, give us sort of a quick rundown. Where on hypersonics? Where on artificial intelligence? Man/machine teaming is seen as something critical. The wingman concept, for example, to try to be a force multiplier, where a manned aircraft can command multiple unmanned systems in its space or even across time and space. Block change. 5G. Each one of these potentially changes warfare in very dynamic ways.
So as you look across these pieces, give us sort of a rundown on where each one of these pieces is going to fit into this future kind of capabilities mix given that there are also some real misunderstandings about what AI exactly is or isn’t or block chain is or isn’t, and what it can provide.
Maj. Gen. Cooley: Let me take a stab at this. You asked a very broad question. I’ll give you the insights that I can about some of those technologies, but maybe more importantly, how are we going to assess the role that these technologies, the potential benefit that each of these technologies might have.
So one of the things that I’ve been spending a fair amount of time and effort, energy, and we have resources going towards is modeling, simulation and analysis to be able to smartly assess if we are successful with various hypersonics weapons, what difference does it make? How does that impact the warfighter’s calculus in terms of how they might prosecute a potential conflict? Answering those questions isn’t simply done with modeling, simulation and analysis. We certainly know that. We’ve got to include wargaming, because we have thinking adversaries.
Additionally, we’ve got to go do prototyping to prove out whether or not these technologies are even possible. If we’ve modeled them correctly.
So there’s a series of activities we’ve got to do. But when we are in the early stages and looking broadly at all of these technologies, it’s important to do some level of modeling, simulation and analysis, because quite frankly, the human brain is not well adept to solve the problem that you just asked which is okay, given all of these things — electromagnetic warfare, and hypersonics, and artificial intelligence — when you roll all these things together and say how do you sort through this, the human brain has a challenge doing that. We all come in somewhat inherently biased based on our background and we’ve got to use advanced computing and some analysis to help us think through that. It doesn’t stop there, but that’s one of the key pieces we’re doing.
So with that as a backdrop, let me start to address some of the questions.
With respect to hypersonics, as you know there’s a lot of activity going on in hypersonics. We are partnered with DARPA, so DARPA is the program manager but the Air Force is, it’s pretty much a 50/50 investment, so all of those programs that DARPA is doing are really Air Force/DARPA programs which is a great partnership. That’s how the ecosystem is healthy and works.
In addition to that, we’re working with a PEO down in Eglin in this case to look at what are the early potential systems that we might deploy in a prototyping type environment. So they are directly engaged in that.
We are supporting all of the above, but one of the other things the lab is doing is we’re looking at what’s the next generation of capabilities. So those are capabilities we hope to deliver in the near term. The question is what about larger platforms, scram jets? There’s a variety of activities and sustained flight at hypersonic speeds. Those are all extremely challenging technological problems that we’re in the process of addressing, which is what you would expect of your laboratory within the hypersonics portfolio.
Let me talk about directed energy as another one. A significant amount of time and attention on directed energy, both high power microwave and lasers. We’re working across the joint community with our Navy and Army counterparts to identify what are the types of systems that we could actually deploy and ruggedizing them to make that happen. So we’re not where we want to be, but we’re continuing to work that. I’m a laser guy from the past, so I very much am anxious to see us get some laser capabilities on the battlefield, but it’s really hard.
Mr. Muradian: It’s been like a mirage, right? Every year, this is going to be the year of the laser. And I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and it’s like it’s just around the corner. Is it around the corner?
Maj. Gen. Cooley: I like one of Yogi Berra’s sayings is, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.” So I’m not going to get into the prediction or whatever. What I am going to tell you is we have the right team and technologies and efforts in place to advance that, and so we’re very hopeful, but we’ll see where that goes.
I also would mention that artificial intelligence is one of the other big areas, and we have an effort that I’m very excited about, to deploy a platform that the Air Force, we’ve been working on within the Air Force Research Laboratory that will, I hope, enable warfighters or our airmen to bring airman innovation, couple that with artificial intelligence for what we are calling the “do it yourself artificial intelligence”. So we’ve made great progress over the past year under the direction and leadership of Dr. Steve Rogers. His call sign is Captain America, which shouldn’t surprise anybody. But Cap and his team have made some great progress advancing that. And we have a number of pilot programs that we’re in the process of advancing. But more to come on that.
Mr. Muradian: Things I would like for you to just talk quickly, rattle off like here are the things that have been successes; and the last question is, what’s the key, as somebody who’s spent a life in innovation, we have all of this talk about innovation, what are the cores and keys? Because honestly, there are a lot of people who are like yes, I’ve got to get the goatee cat-shit drinking guy to tell me what it is, and this room probably has more people who are innovative, and I may that, if you don’t mind me using the word cat-shit.
Maj. Gen. Cooley: It’s your show.
Mr. Muradian: You guys have had some real successes that you’ve racked up in a row, so talk to us a little bit about what some of those recent highs have been.
Maj. Gen. Cooley: Okay, let me step back a little bit. Something that I had some personal engagement with last spring, we launched the Eagle spacecraft which is basically an adapter ring that sits between the payload and the launch vehicle. It’s called an ESPA Ring and we’ve turned that into a spacecraft. It separated out. It’s now in geostationary orbit, and I would argue fundamentally changing the way we’re viewing space and space access and giving us space access for various experimentations. So it has a number of different space payloads on that. A very exciting program that’s been on-orbit for, well coming up on a year now and doing very, very well, so I’m particularly excited about that.
We just had a successful demonstration of the live virtual construct capability that we have, SLATE, which I’m struggling to remember the acronym, but it’s secure. I know the S is secure. The key piece here is to enable our warfighters, the fighter community, to actually train with the full capabilities of their weapon systems and not necessarily be constrained in the same range mark.
So someone flying in a live jet gets to benefit and see all of the other things that are done virtually from a simulator back in the shop or in a constructive environment that the computer has just generated that. So that can stress systems far more than we can in simple live training. And importantly, at a much lower cost.
We have advocacy within Air Combat Command and are very excited about that as a program, and we’re working with them to figure out what’s the next step.
Mr. Muradian: Last question. Innovation. You’ve spent more time on innovation than almost anybody else in this room if not anybody else in this room or even at this conference. And there’s this perception that innovation is about getting guys in goatees and black turtlenecks to come in and tell you about this as opposed to you doing it organically. You’ve studied this.
What are the keys to innovation from your standpoint? Because the Air Force has always prided itself on being, the entire U.S. military, of constantly problem-solving. What are the keys from your standpoint?
Maj. Gen. Cooley: That’s a great question and I am thrilled to answer that.
Let me just say that, I’m going to parse this apart a little bit. There’s innovation and there’s invention.
So innovation is figuring out maybe a new application for an existing technology. And we see that all the time, and there are people around the Air Force, around the DoD who do that.
Invention is really where the science comes in. The science and the physics and the phenomenology to figure out what are the ways in which we can actually develop new technologies?
Now the Air Force Research Laboratory or the science and technology community does not have a monopoly on that, but that’s what we specialize in, is to try and bring to bear new physical phenomenology as new technologies that can then be applied to a variety of problems. So technology doesn’t know its application until we tell it. So that’s where innovation can come in.
I guess what I would add with respect to innovation writ large is a lot of times what we see is, we need to have the cross-fertilization of ideas, and that could be from different disciplines — chemist, physics, IT type systems, cyber folks — trying to solve a problem and they will all come at it with a different perspective.
So ensuring that we have diversity to face and address problems is central to what we need to do in innovation. Which is one of the reasons why I am convinced that one of the most important things we can do as an Air Force, and more broadly across the military, is to bring the warfighter and the technologist into the same ecosystems such that they can innovate. Because they both bring great insight.
I have seen too many times where a warfighter may want to do something that physics will not allow, and where our scientists want to do something that is missing the point. And so we’ve got to make sure that we bring them into a problem-solving and get more of an interaction and dynamic, and I think that will increase our innovation capabilities.
Mr. Muradian: Major General Bill Cooley, the Commander of the United States Air Force Research Lab. Sir, thanks very much. Real pleasure. And I look forward to having this conversation in the future. Really enjoyed our talk.
Maj. Gen. Cooley: Thank you. Really appreciate it.