Space Force ‘Very Happy’ With Air Force Research Lab Realignment

The Air Force Research Laboratory has finally filled a new post announced more than a year ago to be a single point of contact for its new customers in the Space Force—and those customers say the lab’s realignment to work for two services appears to be succeeding.

AFRL will be making an announcement about the candidate selected for the new position of deputy technical executive officer for space shortly, officials said.

Meanwhile, the man whose job it is to tell AFRL what the new space service needs from the lab, Space Operations Command Chief Scientist Joel B. Mozer, told Air Force Magazine he’s more than satisfied with the efforts AFRL has made to be responsive to Space Force requirements.

AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Heather L. Pringle “has bent over backwards to demonstrate that she is committed to the Space Force as well as the Air Force, and so we’re very happy with that,” he said.

“The lab has done an amazing job of setting up those forums and councils to make sure that we have an input into their processes,” Mozer added.

Last year, having decided not to try to break off the space-related parts of AFRL, but rather to preserve the institution as “one lab, [serving] two services,” Pringle tapped Kelly D. Hammett, who runs the AFRL Directed Energy Directorate, to figure out how to make that vision a reality.

“So, we’re not going to actually rip all those billets and money out and make them a separate organization. They’re going to essentially be [assigned to the Space Force and then] given back to AFRL to execute in place,” Hammett told Air Force Magazine. His job, he said, was to figure out, “How are we going to do that? How are we going to make decisions and prioritize things to reflect Space Force priorities?”

The working group Hammett led recommended the creation of a new senior staff position—the deputy technical executive officer for space. Reporting directly to the commander, the new post is “a single voice that can speak to the customers across the Space Force, to hear their concerns, to get their demand signal, and to help prioritize it through the internal process” at AFRL, Hammett said.

Although the post was originally conceived of as a Senior Executive Service appointment, “Those SES billets are very hard to come by,” explained Hammett. The new job uses AFRL’s specialized hiring authorities to appoint a senior-level executive known as a DR-5, above the top-level civil service GS-15 designation but still below the SES level. ”It’s a special position,” Hammett said. “We only have about 20 of these in all of AFRL,” including the director of the Systems Technology Office and “a couple of our deputy directors at different directorates.”

Nonetheless, lacking an SES rank will make the job more challenging, Hammett said. “This person is the integrator—the conductor, I call it—of all of our space [science and technology]. They’ve got to be able to talk, persuade, … build consensus because now they’re not going to have the status of an SES,” but they will be trying to manage the chiefs of AFRL directorates who are SES. “So they’ll be below them in rank trying to say, ‘Well, I need you to come change your investments over here to do this because Space Force said so.’ That’s going to take tact and diplomacy.”

“I kind of wish it was at a higher level,” said Mozer of the new post. “It’s not what we [in Space Force] originally hoped for, and I think, not what AFRL originally hoped for, either.” Still, as a deputy to the commander, the new appointee would presumably carry her two-star imprimatur when talking to AFRL leaders, Mozer said. 

In September last year, Hammett himself was tapped for the new role—dual hatted in addition to his day job running directed energy research—an interim appointment that has lasted more than a year.

In his day job, Hammett explained, he oversees three lines of effort using directed energy. One is electro-optics— using lasers and sensors to “track and image objects in space for space domain awareness, so we can know where they are very precisely and very rapidly.” Electro Optics is one of the four elements of AFRL that was administratively shifted to the Space Force. The second is the development of terrestrial-based directed energy weapons, like the Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR)—a microwave weapon developed for air base defense against drone swarms. The third is … Well, he can’t really say.

“In terms of any space superiority, or space control stuff, I cannot talk in the open about anything that might be going on there. But you can kind of get the gist of it,” Hammett said. “There are technologies that we’re working on that could potentially enable some capabilities. And that’s about as far as I can say.”

But part of the mission of the Space Force is deterrence: How can that be achieved if its leaders can’t talk about its capabilities? 

“You have no credible deterrence if your potential rivals don’t know anything about what your potential capabilities are,” admitted Hammett. “There have to be some acknowledged capabilities to provide that deterrence,” he said, adding this was well understood by Space Force leadership. “Gen. Raymond has talked about the need to declassify more … The question is what are you going to reveal and what are you going to keep hidden?”

But neither Hammett, nor his soon-to-be announced full-time replacement as deputy TEO for space will get to make that call. “Those decisions are at the four-star or Secretary level,” he said.

Mozer said he was consulted on the development of the deputy TEO for space post and on individual candidates for the job. Indeed, he was originally going to be a member of the appointment board that makes the hire but couldn’t make the scheduling work.

Last week, Pringle called Mozer to tell him they had made a selection. “I expect that to be public in the very near future,” he said. AFRL spokesman Bryan Ripple told Air Force Magazine that paperwork had to be completed before any announcement.

Just One Piece of the Puzzle

Why did it take more than a year to fill this vital new role? Hammett explained that the creation of the deputy TEO for space was just one element of a concept of operations the working group had developed to realign AFRL.

That CONOPS also proposed a series of changes—not to organization, but to governance—to make AFRL more agile in its responses to Space Force research and technology needs. The plan needed buy-in across the enterprise and from Space Force partners.

“It took months and months of effort to get everybody on the same page,” recalled Hammett. Then there was a debate about who would provide the billet for the new post. ”Is this a Space Force person, or is this an AFRL person? That’s still not 100 percent determined. We are launching out with an AFRL person,” he said.

Finally, both Hammett and Mozer separately made the point that this was a post requiring exceptional talent and that headhunting for such a job always takes time.

When the new deputy TEO for space arrives, the person will find that, now that the governance changes in the CONOPS have been implemented, there are two new forums that bring together AFRL leadership to meet Space Force requirements.

The Space Science and Technology Board brings together the directors of the four major AFRL elements that were administratively transferred to the Space Force—Space Vehicles, Rocket Propulsion, Electro-Optical, and Systems Technology. According to Hammett, this group represents the 10 percent of AFRL resources focused directly on space.

The Space Science and Technology Group brings together management teams at the “action officer level” from every one of the lab’s nine technology directorates, plus its functional directorates such as finance and personnel—and research partners such as AFWERX and the Transformational Capabilities Office, as well. “Everyone is there,” said Hammett.

The group, he explained, is key to leveraging the 90 percent of AFRL resources which aren’t focused directly on space “but may be very space relevant,” such as research into materials, sensors, electronics, cybersecurity, and human performance. “There’s a lot of that which we need to harvest to make the Space Force successful,” he added.

The board meets every other week, the group weekly. That‘s a major shift up from the usual tempo of AFRL governance, points out Hammett. (For comparison, the AFRL Council, the lab’s leadership body, meets quarterly.)

“It allows us to … make decisions and try to establish policy and respond on a very rapid timescale, to the types of demand signals we’re getting from the Space Force, because they are moving fast and implementing,” Hammett said. “They’re in Year 2, and they want ‘new this’ and ‘new that,’ and so we really have to be able to respond at that speed.”

And so far, so good, said Mozer. In the Wartech process, for instance, which helps AFRL incubate its top priority Vanguard R&D programs, “Space is doing just fine.” With “a couple of space-focused programs out of a small handful, I would say that we are getting our fair share,” he said.

However, he added, “It’s still to be determined how well this works out in the long run.” The Space Force is “very new and exciting” right now. But what would happen as the shine wears off? “The real question is as we go forward, do we revert back to our old ways of doing things? Or do we keep the same focus on it? And I think we will, but that’s the thing we have to watch out for,” he said.

Mozer described his job as being “the demanding customer for [AFRL], to really give them some meaty priorities and problems to work on,” drawn from the strategic direction provided by the Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond.

“My role is to … translate CSO guidance into [science and technology] priorities for the lab and the acquisition community,” he explained.

Mozer said his biggest challenge was balancing immediate needs against longer-term requirements. Raymond, for instance, had set resilience and survivability of current constellations as an immediate strategic objective. And AFRL was developing Navigation Technology Satellite-3 (NTS-3) as a more resilient alternative to GPS. “So that’s a good example of where they know what our problems are, there’s a clear need, and they’re addressing it,” Mozer noted. “Where it gets harder is how do you balance that against the longer-term needs to build cislunar”—the space between Earth orbit and the Moon—“architecture or develop in-orbit refueling or repair … How do you allocate resources between the needs hitting your windshield today versus a potential need that’s coming down the pike and you have to invest now to develop options” to deal with it.

“That’s where it gets fuzzy,” Mozer said. It’s made fuzzier still by the commercial space sector, which is racing to develop new capabilities—often innovating faster than even cutting-edge research institutions can in the military. “What we have to do is figure out what are the unique things that if the government doesn’t invest in it and doesn’t buy down the risk, or do something else that industry is not going to do, those things aren’t going to happen. Those are the high priority things that we need to do.”

To help think about resource allocation, Mozer has developed what he calls the nine matrix: Three columns and three rows. “The three rows are: One, evolutionary work that will make our current systems better, faster, more capable, cheaper, whatever. The next row is revolutionary work—things that change the game, just totally new ways of doing things. And the third is what I call tech surprise, … scientific and engineering disciplines where we think there might be outcomes that could be surprises to us in a military sense, or things like quantum computing that we don’t necessarily think that we are going to weaponize right away. But we certainly would be worried if somebody else did it when we weren’t paying attention.”

The three columns are:

  • Work that supports the current generation of satellites for the next five years
  • Work that supports the next generation of overhead architecture currently being designed by the Space Warfare and Analysis Center, 15 years out
  • The next generation after that, “which is really when you start thinking about these long-term ideas of expanding into cislunar space, and Mars, and space logistics,” Mozer said.

“If you have a certain size of technology budget, you need to allocate it among each of those nine buckets,” said Mozer. Right now, he said, the Space Force view was that the biggest investment, up to 30 percent of its total budget, should go on “game-changing, next-generation stuff.”

The advantage of the matrix, he added, “from a prioritization perspective, [is] it allows us to turn the knobs if we decide, for instance, we want to take risk in the future to pay for the present or vice versa,” Mozer said. “All we have to do is change the allocations between those nine elements then we can communicate that to the lab—it’s a clear way to communicate what our tolerance for short-term versus mid-term versus long-term risk is.”