Mica Endsley, chief scientist of the Air Force, speaks with members of the Air Force Association in July. She became the first woman in this position on June 3. (Senior Airman Carlin Leslie/Air Force)
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With an aging fleet of planes and a limited budget, the Air Force is finding itself forced to make serious choices on how to spend its money.
As chief scientist of the Air Force, Mica Endsley’s job is to provide top service officials with a road map for what the future should look like. Endsley, who became the first woman in this position when she took office June 3, was president of SA Technologies. In a recent, wide-ranging interview, Endsley talked about cyber, space and working with industry on research and development.
Q. Has anything surprised you in your two months on the job?
A. I don’t know about surprise. But what I am finding is there’s a lot of really interesting work going on.
As I go around and visit many of the different Air Force research lab directorates, I’m really impressed with what I’ve seen in terms of people who are doing some very interesting research and focused on a lot of very useful objectives in terms of creating future capabilities, in terms of meeting new threats that have risen, and in terms of doing things that are going to reduce the costs for the Air Force.
Q. Can you give examples?
A. In the cost area, we’re looking at improved engines that reduce fuel usage. That’s a win for the environment and it’s a big win for our pocketbook.
We’re also looking at standardizing weapons. So instead of having hundreds and hundreds of different weapons that are expensive to buy and maintain, we can have a more modular approach that can give us a lot of capabilities for lower costs in the future. Things like that are smart.
There’s work going on at Wright-Patterson looking at ways to better integrate the command-and-control system so that we have systems that can provide the integrated information people need to be able to make decisions more rapidly. Those are smart things that we can do that reduce our cost as well as improve our performance.
Q. When budgets get tight, the first thing to go is often research and development. How do you defend against that?
A. Unfortunately, it can appear to be an easy target in that regard, and when you cannot afford to fly airplanes, or you are having to cut what you see as critical programs, that’s very hard.
What we have to do is make it obvious and tangible as to what these research programs are really developing, the ways in which they are addressing critical needs for the Air Force and the ways in which they are helping to solve the budget problem by reducing the costs. The real answers have to come from science and technology.
The other thing that helps is the president and Secretary [of Defense Chuck] Hagel have really put forth statements that R&D is important, that we shouldn’t be cutting it. And having that high-level support helps.
Q. Is the shift to the Pacific driving where you focus your research?
A. I think that’s a potential environment. We have to think about what are those possibilities.
I think getting a good perspective on what those potential environments are — if we’re in a contested environment versus a non-contested environment — that really needs to change how we operate. That certainly has that kind of effect. We have to deal with big distances and we have to be able to deal with A2AD [anti-access area denial], and that certainly is a key consideration in some of the technologies we’re looking at.
Q. Do you feel everyone is working on the same page when it comes to R&D?
A. I’ve been really impressed with the amount of interservice collaboration going on. Everyone knows we don’t have the budgets to do what we need to do, and haven’t for a long time. So they’re doing a lot of collaboration at the detailed program level to make sure we’re pooling results. We’re looking at different parts of the problem space and sharing that information, so we can get the whole set of tests we need in order to get the technology forward.
Q. Is coming from outside DoD helpful when you are looking at what needs to be changed?
A. It is, because I’ve seen how systems get developed throughout my career because I’ve worked in academia, research, small business, large business — I’ve seen it from all sides. I know people who are in industry see a lot of the inefficiencies as well. For me, it’s an opportunity to say [to DoD] “the people out there, they want to create good systems too, they really want to see their technologies get into practice and they don’t want to get stuck in bureaucratic stuff.” Nor do our people in the labs.
We’re all part of the same system, and we all want the same thing, which is an Air Force that is going to be successful and healthy in the future. One thing I’ve been very pleased with since I came on board is the large degree of agreement on fixing these kinds of problems.
Q. Why do you think DoD has struggled with establishing efficiencies?
A. Sometimes there’s organizational inertia, but more than anything, when you’re dealing with any large organization in government or business, it’s a large organization to move. So getting your arms around the problem and finding the leverage points to change it can be very difficult. You have to involve a lot of people, you have to get everyone moving in a new direction.
Q. Would it help industry to do R&D if you provided guidance on what programs to focus on?
A. I think industry is very interested in that.
They are having to cut back their portfolios as well with budget cuts, so they want to be very strategic about where they invest, and to do that they need to know what the Air Force’s priorities are.
So one of the things we’re doing is prioritizing: Where do we see our real needs in the future? What are the emerging risks we need to be ready for? What are the emerging opportunities we need to take advantage of? We’re looking at reduced budgets going into the future so we’re going to have to be very strategic about that.
Q. Will that be a report?
A. More of a framework, but it’s at least some internal guidance.
I always worry because I think there are a lot more opportunities out there and we don’t want to miss the boat on something, but we’re working that very hard. We’re working it currently, so over the next few months it should be done.
Q. Should DoD look at the commercial sector for new technologies?
A. I think there’s been a consistent move to make sure we are looking at the entire technology space for some of those solutions. I think we do have to look at what the avenues are for getting the technologies we need in a reasonable time frame at a reasonable cost, and how we need to be laying out our requirements [so] that happens.
Q. How can international partners play a role in R&D?
A. A lot of what we’ve done with regard to international partners is looking at where they are making key developments that we can leverage. [The material] graphene, for example, is a key technology development going on in Europe that we can really take and leverage.
There are different areas of excellence in different countries, and that is where you really want to get your advantages from collaborating.
Q. Cyber has been identified as an area the U.S. needs to focus on. Where does it rank as a priority?
A. There are organizations doing a lot of active research there. It’s one of our highest priorities. Certainly in the defense realm, it’s a big area.
There are a lot of aspects to cyber, — it’s one of those [areas] where there is a constantly evolving threat, so if I said we need to focus on the X aspect, it would be Y tomorrow.
It’s very clear we need to really get stronger in how we are developing our systems and the kinds of defenses we are putting in place to deal with that constantly evolving cyber threat.
Q. What about space?
A. We can’t just do business as usual. We have to look at the solutions that are novel, that are going to get us there, that are lower in cost so that we can continue to do the operations we need to do.
Disaggregated architectures have a lot of potential advantages. Clearly that has to go through testing, but I think it’s one of the things that could help. We’re looking at launches of small satellites, which can significantly reduce our costs in that area and probably has some other advantages, as well. So I think everything’s open. I think there are a lot of technological advances that are pretty close to ready for improving our operations in space.
Q. If you had an unlimited budget, what technologies would you focus on developing?
A. I don’t think the answer is in a specific technology — and there are some great technologies out there, so don’t get me wrong. But I think the real advantage right now is looking at how we combine and integrate these technologies as a system. We have lots of sensors that can produce all kinds of data; we have lots of individual platforms that can do all kinds of things. But if we want to really have a force multiplier, it’s in bringing all that together and integrating it in ways that allow the commanders to make very rapid decisions.
It really has to do with transferring data into quality information and making that useable in a very quick time frame.
We need to be able to bring the information from space, we need to be able to share that information with people on the ground and on the sea.
It’s being able to use our information smartly that matters.