WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force is considering establishing a new program office inside its research laboratory to run pathbreaking “vanguard programs,” the head of Air Force Materiel Command told Defense News in an exclusive interview.

In April, the service released a new science and technology strategy that called for about 20 percent of Air Force Research Laboratory efforts to be restructured as vanguard programs that would bring together promising leap-ahead technologies from across the organization and push them forward using prototyping and experimentation.

But five months later, the lab, know as AFRL, hasn’t identified the programs that will become vanguards. Gen. Arnold Bunch, head of Air Force Materiel Command, which operates AFRL, told Defense News on Sept. 16 that he’s in no rush.

“I don’t want to drive it to: ‘I’ve got to have it by X day,’ ” he said, adding that AFRL is still working out how to select and manage the vanguard programs.

One idea under deliberation is the formation of a program office specifically for vanguard projects — a departure from how AFRL currently runs its technology development efforts. Instead of having program offices, AFRL is split into seven directorates charged with overseeing technologies such as air vehicles, directed energy or munitions. But because vanguard programs could draw in science and technology projects from multiple directorates, it may make sense to administer them from a program office with the ability to look across the AFRL enterprise.

“I view it as: [If] you establish an office to manage the vanguards, that office gets the knowledge from the tech directors, but it’s not isolated within the tech directorates,” Bunch said. “So we make sure that it’s not stovepiped within an organization.”

Bunch is also considering embedding Air Force acquisition officials working in other program offices inside the vanguard program office, which will help give the the science and tech community more feedback on how to move technology from early development to a level of maturity where it can be turned into a product, he said.

Although the vanguard programs have not been named, the Air Force’s science and technology strategy laid out five technology areas with the potential for “transformational” growth: autonomy; next-generation weapons like hypersonics and directed energy; resilient information sharing; distributed sensing; and machine learning that can speed up decision-making.

Aside from identifying the vanguard programs and solidifying their management process, Bunch said he wants to see a greater sense of competition inside AFRL, with science and technology efforts striving to progress more quickly.

“We’re competing with an adversary, but also internally we’re competing as we execute our projects to make sure that they’re making the progress that we want them to,” he said, adding that AFRL is assessing its review process for science and tech programs.

“They have to show progress, they have to hit milestones, they have to continue to be focused on what the war fighter wants,” Bunch said. And if they’re not, he added, the Air Force needs to take its science and technology funding elsewhere.

Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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