Air Force Research Laboratory Will Realign, Not Split

 In U.S. Air Force, Air, Space, Forces & Capabilities

The new com­man­der of the sto­ried Air Force Research Laboratory will realign — not reor­ga­nize — the labs so it can ably sup­port both the new U.S. Space Force and its tra­di­tion­al Air Force cus­tomers.

“We’ll be one AFRL serv­ing two ser­vices: The Air Force and the Space Force,” said Brig. Gen. Heather L. Pringle, com­man­der of AFRL, in an inter­view with Air Force Magazine. A new deputy tech­ni­cal exec­u­tive offi­cer will be “respon­si­ble for inte­grat­ing our space [sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy] port­fo­lio,” Pringle said, and will report direct­ly to her. The new exec­u­tive will be “the single focal point for the U.S. Space Force,” she added.

Pringle, who took com­mand in June, said the realign­ment is her No. 2 pri­or­i­ty behind imple­ment­ing the Air Force’s 2030 Science and Technology Strategy.

The Space Force “con­trols its own money, and has its own budget, and it will set its own pri­or­i­ties for the [sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy] research that it requires,” Pringle said. “Our job will be to align our force to that and exe­cute it.”

Administratively, some 720 of the AFRL’s 12,700 mil­i­tary, civil­ian, and con­tract per­son­nel, civil­ian staff and con­trac­tors will be “chopped over to the Space Force and then reas­signed back to us,” Pringle said. These will include most of today’s Space Vehicles Directorate, and parts of the Rocket Propulsion and Electro-Optical Divisions.

To per­son­nel on the ground in the far flung AFRL enter­prise — which stretch­es from Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio to Kirtland, N.M., and and as far Maui, Hawaii — the tran­si­tion will be “seam­less,” she pre­dict­ed. “You might have a name tape change, if you’re in the mil­i­tary, but you’re going to have the same report­ing chain.”

It’s impor­tant to keep the AFRL togeth­er, Pringle said, invok­ing Air Force Materiel Command boss Gen. Arnold W. Bunch Jr. who, as AFRL com­man­der, was fond of saying “Technology doesn’t know what it’s for.” What some­thing is invent­ed to do may not be where it proves most valu­able.

“Space S&T is not only hap­pen­ing in the Space Vehicles Directorate [and the other ele­ments being trans­ferred], it occurs all across our lab,” Pringle said, citing mate­ri­als and human effec­tive­ness and infor­ma­tion tech­nol­o­gy that can be applic­a­ble to the Space Force.

“We’ve been sup­port­ing space [sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy] for decades” and con­tin­ue to work on trans­for­ma­tive space tech­nolo­gies.

As an exam­ple, she cited the Navigation Technology Satellite‑3, an AFRL pro­gram designed to pro­vide a more secure, next gen­er­a­tion alter­na­tive to GPS. NTS‑3 is one of a very few Air Force Vanguard pro­grams — high-pri­or­i­ty projects intend­ed to deliv­er strate­gic advan­tages to the U.S. warfight­er.

Col. Eric J. Felt, who leads the Space Vehicles Directorate, said new tech­nolo­gies of inter­est to the Space Force and the Air Force “are not two sep­a­rate cir­cles,” but rather “over­lap a lot” as in a Venn dia­gram. “If you were to just chop off some people and say you’re the people that are work­ing on space, you would miss out on the whole inter­sec­tion of those Venn dia­grams.”

Autonomy is one such exam­ple, Felt said, con­cern­ing devel­op­ment of arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence sys­tems that can con­trol planes and satel­lites. With a single AFRL “We’re able to both work togeth­er on auton­o­my tech­nol­o­gy and apply it in these dif­fer­ent domains.”

Dealing with that kind of over­lap research, Felt said, was the key to suc­cess, and the new deputy tech­ni­cal exec­u­tive officer’s “main job is to iden­ti­fy and make sure that the inter­sec­tion of those two cir­cles is effec­tive­ly man­aged.”
Indeed, noted retired Maj. Gen. Curtis M. Bedke, who com­mand­ed AFRL from 2007-10, this was pre­cise­ly the ratio­nale for cre­at­ing AFRL in 1997 when all the Air Force’s then sep­a­rate labs were fused into a single research enter­prise.

“The real value of the Air Force Research Laboratory is that any­thing that is a really hard project, the projects that are of the most value to the Air Force and to the nation, have been those that require the direc­torates to work with each other to solve a truly impor­tant long range chal­lenge,” Bedke said.

“The nation can’t afford to split up these teams of sci­en­tists that have taken decades of hard work to create and to nur­ture,” said Bedke, now a con­sul­tant and senior fellow at AFA’s Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies. “You don’t want to create an arti­fi­cial bar­ri­er with an orga­ni­za­tion­al split and send them off on their own merry way. “

Yet the devil will be in the details, noted one former senior defense offi­cial, who asked to remain anony­mous because of sen­si­tiv­i­ties with his cur­rent employ­er. “The real issue is who’s going to be direct­ing the research budget and where [AFRL] will be aiming to tran­si­tion suc­cess­ful tech­nolo­gies to … They have to figure out the acqui­si­tion.”

Elements of AFRL being trans­ferred to the U.S. Space Force

  • Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV) — Almost the entire direc­torate is trans­fer­ring (one notable excep­tion is the Atomic Long Range Systems Branch/RVBN); 419 of 441 total posi­tions are moving to Space Force.
  • Rocket Propulsion Division (AFRL/RQR) — Some parts of this divi­sion (part of the Aerospace Systems Directorate) are trans­fer­ring; 74 of 138 posi­tions are moving to Space Force.
  • Electro-Optical Division (AFRL/RDS) — Almost all of this divi­sion (part of the Directed Energy Directorate), mostly based on Maui, Hawaii, is trans­fer­ring; 136 of 139 posi­tions are moving to Space Force.
  • Sensors Directorate (AFRL/RY) – Positions from the Systems Technology Office are the only ones trans­fer­ring from this direc­torate; due to the fact that its work is clas­si­fied, the spe­cif­ic number of posi­tions moving from this orga­ni­za­tion cannot be made avail­able.
  • Additionally, some con­tract­ing sup­port (for mis­sion exe­cu­tion) for the var­i­ous trans­fer­ring orga­ni­za­tions will also trans­fer.

Air Force Magazine source|articles

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