WASHINGTON — Over the course of her 40-year career with the U.S. Air Force, Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski has worn many hats, going from the manager of the service’s airborne laser program to its chief buyer of space technology to — finally — the head of Air Force Materiel Command.

Through it all she was a proud and self-described nerd: an avid science and technology proponent happy to talk about anything from trends in military satellites to how the Air Force was tackling the problem of hypoxia.

Pawlikowski officially retired from the Air Force in early September and is now transitioning to a career in the private sector, having already accepted a place on Raytheon’s board of directors. She spoke with Defense News on Sept. 10 about some of AFMC’s biggest prospective challenges.

As you look at Air Force Materiel Command now, what advice would you give your successor?

The first thing is to just remember — and I know everybody says this — but there are just amazing airmen at AFMC, and you have to really trust them to get the job done. They care so much about what we do that that makes the job easy.

But I think my advice is you have to recognize just how massive the responsibility is. There’s really nothing that goes on in the Air Force that Air Force Materiel Command isn’t involved with in some way. And I know I did not have an appreciation for that when I first took command. I was obviously very much aware of the technology side of things and the acquisition side of things, but everything from the Civil Engineering Center that’s responsible for all of the milcon projects in the Air Force to the services agency which runs things like all of the dining facilities.

It’s a huge job with a wide breadth of impact. All of us come into these jobs with our background in one particular area, and that’s our area where you have a tendency to migrate to, but you have to recognize that AFMC has such vast responsibilities that you have to really make sure that you don’t get yourself involved in one area that you don’t have the time to really take on and cover everything that needs to be done.

When I look at where the Air Force is and the future of the Air Force, there’s just tremendous opportunities for AFMC to be helping the Air Force, and in many cases leading the Air Force in these transformations that we’re trying to do. The whole focus on multidomain for Air Force, for example: AFMC has to play a critical role in that as we cut across all of the different aspects of what the Air Force does.

The drive to promote and encourage more innovation and what I consider creativity among our airmen — that is something that AFMC has got to help to facilitate. Because there is such opportunities to make sure that we’re successful in doing that, but also doing no harm.

What role do you see AFMC having in multidomain?

I think the place that really hits the most is in the Life Cycle Management Center. The Life Cycle Management Center is really structured to be aligned under the program executive officers, and the program executive officers are all aligned by platforms. We’ve got fighter, bomber, mobility, tanker. So within the Life Cycle Management Center, those things don’t come together until you’re above the PEO.

So the challenge and opportunity for the Life Cycle Management Center is to be able to still deliver on all those individual products, but [also] to be able to provide the connectivity between those different programs so that we get the interoperability, the connectiveness between the different platforms while they are in development, not after it happens and then we try to figure out how we’re going to put them together.

But we have neither really thought about and structured ourselves to do it that way. We’ve always been structured as the platform as the center of attention. So I think there is a huge opportunity for the Life Cycle Management Center to be the key facilitator for establishing that connectivity, but that’s going to take a lot of work, and to a degree some cultural change — and maybe even some change in the way the Air Force programs and budgets [its] dollars.

What specifically could the Life Cycle Management Center do to become that connective tissue between programs?

They’re going to have to be the ones that — using, maybe some oldspeak — establish the standards, establish the interfaces, establish the architecture, establish the data structure that is going to enable us to connect things. They have to, to a degree, be the Microsoft and the Apple when it comes to things being able to just connect and work.

The Air Force recently started doing some of the depot maintenance work on its legacy E-8C JSTARS fleet after a couple of problems with the Northrop Grumman depot, which has been struggling with quality control issues. How is the work currently divided?

Right now we’re in the crawl phase when it comes to the organic side of things. We have inducted, as you know, one airplane down at Warner Robins [Air Force Base]. That happened just before I left. My last day on active duty was the 9th of August, so I haven’t had an update on the progress … but what we’re trying to do is to make sure that we have other options other than just the one facility to be able to maintain these aircraft.

Based on the latest defense authorization for 2019, there’s a requirement in there that we keep these, so we need to be able to have the capacity to bring them in. And what we’ve found through the work with Northrop was that, as hard they were trying, we just couldn’t seem to get over the hump of being able to consistently deliver them in a timely manner. And we just needed to have some other options. So what we’ve done at Robins is to bring in one that doesn’t require a lot of the major work, but is something we believe that the Robins workforce can do.

We were kind of pleasantly surprised when we first started to look at this, in the fact that — we kind of looked across the workforce to see how much experience we have on JSTARS, and not an insignificant number of our civilian workforce down there whose part-time job is the Air National Guard on the other side of the runway. So we actually have a fair amount of knowledge of the airplane right down there on the Air Force base.

So what I see happening in the future, as the Air Force works through what we’re going to do to maintain those planes as we move forward on Air Battle Management, is going to be probably a split between the two. I don’t think you’re ever going to see the Air Force completely — well, never say never — but I would be surprised if, in the near future, that the Air Force would completely walk away from the Northrop facility because there is tooling and things like that that the Air Force just doesn’t have, at least right now, at Robins.

You recently said in another interview that the light-attack aircraft program of record could be as small as 20 planes. Could you explain why the Air Force is considering such a small buy?

I would see a model there where we would buy 20 or so per year, and then when they got to the point where they were not sustainable anymore — just like your telephone or microwave (who gets a microwave repaired these days?) — we would not invest in a huge organic [maintenance] capability. I don’t want to be in the position with light attack that I am with JSTARS.

And so what my point was is that we wouldn’t buy massive numbers of these in a big chunk. We would buy them on a regular basis and then when they became unsupportable because of their age, we wouldn’t try to maintain them. We would either sell them or put them in the boneyard — probably sell them since there will probably be a good market for them. But that was my point. The number of 20, when I was talking about it, had more to do with how many we might buy in a given year as opposed to the total number.

The discussion is still out there as to how many light-attack versus high-performance aircraft [you need] because there’s only so much money, right? The money we spend on light attack may buy more airplanes, but you have to look at capability and what capability we need. So how many we totally actually buy.

I leave that up to folks like [Air Force Chief of Staff] Gen. [Dave] Goldfein and [Air Combat Command head] Gen. [Mike] Holmes, who are the ones who need to make that assessment of what airplanes they need to perform the mission. My point only was that we shouldn’t go out and buy 300 of these in one year and then spend 25, 30 years trying to maintain old airplanes.

The Air Force recently has been using 3D printing to solve a lot of problems it’s been having with spare parts for older airframes, like printing a toilet seat cover for the C-5 Galaxy, which would have taken more than $10,000 to otherwise replicate. But are there still barriers to using 3D printing for certain applications where you think it would be useful?

I do believe that you will see more and more 3D printing done, particularly for some of these older airplanes, as we have to figure out how to reverse engineer parts in order to keep them flying. The challenges that we’ve found as we’ve gone forward on this is, first of all, we have to make sure that we don’t get wrapped up in what I call the hype of 3D printing. 3D printing can be a tremendous tool, but it’s not for everything.

Certain materials are harder to 3D print than others, and so we’re going to need some more science to figure out how to 3D print certain kinds of metals, but what I think we have found and the tremendous work that both the Air Force Research Lab and the Life Cycle Management Center have been doing is, first, the Air Force Research Lab is making sure that we understand the science behind it.

Because in 3D printing in some cases you’re using these powders that are created from metals. And those powders have certain characteristics. And it’s just like when we order a part, we have to make sure we know how to order the materials for 3D printing and, if you will, the specs, the standards for 3D printing that will enable us to consistently get the same thing.

So there’s a lot of hard work that needs to be done to make 3D printing something that we do on a daily basis. And that’s what Air Force Materiel Command has focused on.

So what’s next for you? I see you’ve accepted a place on Raytheon’s board of directors.

My objective is to first and foremost to be able to spend more time with my family, which has been a challenge for me over the years, as these jobs are not easy. As my dad used to say: “You have a 24/7 job.” I don’t know if he realized how true that is, especially as you get more senior in rank.

I plan to probably get involved in a couple other boards and do some advising and consulting. I still consider myself part of what I call the American Geek Squad. I’m a member of the National Academy of Engineering. So I will hopefully get an opportunity to continue to contribute in different forms where I can advise as opposed to the person that’s doing everything.