Experiments Take Root Across the Air Force

When the Air Force Research Laboratory’s experimentation office was chartered in 2016, the idea of ‘try before you buy’ hadn’t picked up much speed. Nearly four years later, the office is using momentum and top cover from leadership to institutionalize experiments as regular practice in the Air Force.

The Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office, or SDPE, was established to bring to life the ideas explored in the Air Force’s enterprise studies of big topics like multi-domain command and control and electronic warfare.

SDPE has been a key piece of the Air Force’s push to shrink the time it takes to move from developing a technology to getting it out into the field, aiding efforts including the light-attack experiment and overseeing new pushes into directed energy and the “Skyborg” drone.

Now it’s looking for new ways to collaborate across the service, getting involved in the Pentagon’s joint all-domain command and control vision, funding side projects like prototype landing strips, and launching inquiries into electronic warfare and bulk munitions.

The office is evolving into more of a partner to the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability—a headquarters-level group tasked with finding cross-functional solutions to the Air Force’s most widespread combat issues.

“The initial responsibility we had was to sort of provide the infrastructure and to execute these annual [Enterprise Capability Collaboration Teams] for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force,” SDPE Director Chris Ristich said in a Jan. 27 interview. “Those have gone away now and they’ve really been replaced by AFWIC. … As they’re starting to reach critical mass, we’re working with AFWIC to establish where the priority focus is going to be in the future.”

That relationship is shaping where SDPE’s ongoing experimentation campaigns could go next. For example, Ristich said, an effort to protect bases from incoming threats like cruise missiles is expanding from considering only directed energy to include kinetic defenses like munitions as well.

AFWIC isn’t the only group that wants to tap into experiments, which proponents argue are a cost-effective way of narrowing down what industry has to offer and quickly seeing if they meet real-world needs. Major commands and combatant commands are advising SDPE more often now on how the office could help their large organizations, and some are launching their own experimentation groups.

“You see experimentation activities, in general, starting to pop up in more and more places,” Ristich said. “I think all aspects of the Air Force are understanding that experimentation can help us learn and frame the sort of ‘realm of the possible’ before we start turning them into specific requirements for programs of record.”

The office’s flagship efforts haven’t yet delivered any major weapons or networks that Airmen can use in everyday life, but officials are optimistic that those wins could be coming in the next year or so.

One area that could soon bear fruit is SDPE’s program to find laser and microwave weapons that can protect bases from threatening drones. Three systems are heading to an undisclosed location overseas to spend a year downing unmanned aircraft that could be spying on US troops or carrying explosives.

The demonstration “very much has the ability not just to be a 12-month operational overseas assessment, and [instead turn] into something that could be routine operations,” Ristich said.

“Global Lightning,” an experimentation campaign to hook up military aircraft to commercial Internet, is another good bet. Ristich said the office is eyeing a satellite communications lease contract within the next two years. SDPE believes that would take longer using a more traditional approach.

“We’re not putting out contracts to buy satellites and launch satellites and design architectures. … Instead we’ve been able to focus our resources on very quickly putting terminals in the field and testing with these different Internet services that are going up,” Global Lightning Program Manager Brian Beal said. “We’re working very closely with the … Space Force commercial SATCOM office, who will put the business mechanisms in place to use that capability operationally.”

SDPE’s ideas can reach warfighters through other avenues as well. The office is partnering with similar experimentation campaigns—notably, the Advanced Battle Management System project championed by Air Force acquisition boss Will Roper.

The Global Lightning team lent one of its test sorties to the first ABMS experiment in December, where it connected an AC-130 to the Internet using SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. That enabled the plane to share data with other assets in the experiment in ways it couldn’t before, and gave researchers feedback on using government encryption on commercial systems.

“They have ongoing plans and we’ll be testing different aspects quite frequently,” Beal said of ABMS. “Where there’s a good linkage between what we’re doing on Global Lightning and what ABMS needs, I expect that we’ll continue to test together.”

SDPE researchers are also jumping into ABMS to figure out how to protect the US from enemy cruise missiles. The December test worked with US Northern Command on a scenario involving a cruise missile threat to the homeland, and SDPE will bring kinetic weapons, such as munitions, to an ABMS experiment this spring to address that problem.

The ABMS experiment could look at different ways of sending intelligence data to that counter-cruise missile system so a human operator knows when to fire.

Michael Jirjis, who runs SDPE’s directed energy projects, said the Air Force is considering at least 10 kinetic and non-kinetic weapons to defend against cruise missiles. Some of those will be vetted as part of ABMS experimentation this year, while the office will test others in a separate event in 2021.

“For the ’21 experiment, … we have both laser and high-power microwave systems that we’re looking at,” Jirjis said. “They get at different mechanisms for addressing that threat that’s actually coming in. … The HPM system disrupts electronics that are in some of the cruise missiles, and then the laser system is very much a thermal burn, providing a kinetic-type kill, but it’s a different mechanism than you would have with a kinetic munition blowing it up.”

Ristich added that ABMS, envisioned as a faster, more connected way of doing command and control across the armed forces, is providing an opportunity for various military experimenters to help and learn from each other.

“ABMS is an example of where others that were doing this experimentation, including our office, kind of converged together to bring the different elements that we’re experimenting on to provide broader capabilities to actually see … more of an end-to-end kind of capability,” he said.

Those kinds of partnerships are also popping up between SDPE and other Air Force groups, like bringing in Global Lightning to assist with Air Education and Training Command’s “Squadron Next” plan to bring better connectivity to bases. Ristich indicated that’s a good model for future collaboration, but that experimentation won’t necessarily take root within program offices themselves.

Looking forward, SDPE is planning new campaigns and figuring out how to make the most of other efforts in AFRL.

Two pathfinders are helping hone their focus: one on rapid development of electronic warfare tools, and another on palletized munitions, or “the idea of exploring the ability to deliver a large volume of weapons at any given time,” Ristich said. The office is sketching out possible experiments that could get underway in fiscal 2021.

He added that AFRL’s “Vanguard” programs—major development efforts that will pull resources from across the lab—are a natural candidate for operational experiments so the Air Force makes sure the technology meets Airmens’ needs.

The office can also learn from its struggles.

Transitioning technologies to full-fledged programs continues to be difficult, Ristich acknowledged, but bringing in program executive officers early can help smooth that path. 

He also noted one effort, dubbed “opportunity capture,” that ended up being too small for the vast task of identifying and reeling in emerging ideas for use in the Air Force—a mission now handled by AFWIC and AFWERX.

“The question was, how do you institutionalize something like that, where you’re doing horizon scans, and understanding those evolving marketplaces, and able to distill them into essentially operational concepts?” Ristich said. “That was an example of a small office really not able to absorb that fully.”

Others have criticized experimentation for not following through on certain ideas. Though Air Force officials insisted their effort to vet light-attack aircraft was just an experiment that wouldn’t necessarily result in procurement, lawmakers and some in industry have criticized the service for what they saw as resistance to going all-in on a needed platform.

SDPE has to prove it can come through on its big promises while keeping a 30-person staff and a yearly budget of around $120 million.

“It’s very tempting, actually, to grow,” Ristich said. “We try and execute as a flat organization where essentially everyone knows everyone and we work directly together. I think as we start to get too large, we’ll start to stratify into a hierarchy. … We don’t want to do that.”