The Air Force’s top leaders meet with Air Force Research Laboratory officials twice a year, putting high level attention to the work of researchers at Wright-Patterson directorates, according to the agency’s incoming executive director.
C. Douglas Ebersole, 56, will take over the post Monday, in an era when the agency will pursue five key “game changing” technologies, has placed a priority on taking technology out of the lab and into the commercial market, and spends more with small businesses.
Ebersole will help oversee a $4 billion budget and about 10,000 employees, with about half of them at Wright-Patterson. The aerospace engineer is currently the director of the Aerospace System Directorate.
AFRL leaders at Wright-Patterson had pushed for a meeting with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James to show new technologies the lab developed, which caught the service branch’s top leaders’ attention and led to regular meetings, Ebersole said.
“They are extremely engaged,” Ebersole said. “They are asking very good questions and they’re actually now driving the agenda” by asking for updates on specific technologies, he said.
“We’ve got the benefit of a chief and secretary that are visionary,” he said. “They’ve given us the vector for us to execute on.”
Loren B. Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, said the Air Force has cut other areas to put an emphasis on technology.
“The Air Force is the most high tech of the services and it owes its existence to the revolutionary potential of air power,” Thompson said. “It has made a decision to accept cuts in other areas so it can push forward with a technology agenda.”
For AFRL, the “game-changing” highest priorities technologies have targeted autonomy, or the teaming of human and machines; hypersonic weapons development; directed energy research; nanotechnologies and unmanned aerial systems.
In autonomy, the agency has explored building “thinking” machines that act as a “loyal wing man” to manned aircraft, Ebersole said.
“Imagine a future where you’ve got an F-22 or an F-35 in flight (and) where you’ve got smaller, cheaper, surrogate aircraft, unmanned, acting as that quote ‘loyal wing man,’” he said. “… That’s an initiative that’s on the horizon, it’s not fully vetted, but that’s probably one really good example of where we are going in autonomy.”
In hypersonics, the agency is exploring creating a combined turbine and scramjet engine that could power an aircraft from take-off on the ground and reach hypersonic speeds once airborne, he said.
Air Force hypersonic testing has historically relied on a B-52 bomber to carry under its wing a hypersonic test vehicle launched from the air. The X-51 Waverider, a record-breaking AFRL test project, conducted those types of test flights over Pacific Ocean in recent years.
AFRL is big business for several area defense contractors who have landed lucrative research contracts. Of the $2 billion the agency spends on Air Force-funded research a year, $898 million was spent with small businesses. Of that, $198 million went to Ohio companies, AFRL figures indicate.
Most of the money in Ohio was concentrated in the Dayton region around Wright Patterson and in the Cleveland area near the NASA Glenn Research Center, Ebersole said.
Small businesses have secured a higher percentage of Air Force dollars spent on research, rising from around the mid 20 percent range to 40 percent within the last few years, he said.
Government agencies, corporations and other organizations pay for about half of AFRL’s spending.
In other priorities, Ebersole said workforce development is crucial. For the first time, the agency hired “learning officers” to explore employees’ training needs, he said.
Under his tenure, Ebersole also said he will continued to push partnerships with local organizations, such as the University of Dayton Research Institute, Wright State Research Institute, Sinclair Community College, and The Entrepreneur’s Center, among others.
AFRL also will focus on “agility,” or find speedier ways to improve efficiency and the agency’s direction, he said.