SpaceX rocket Falcon 9 sits on Pad 40 of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Titusville, Fla., on May 18. An Air Force said the service needs to emulate the rapid prototyping processes used by SpaceX and other small, private space exploration companies. (Roberto Gonzalez/Getty Images)
The Air Force of the future should look a little more like SpaceX and other small, private space exploration companies, according to a recent report from the service’s chief scientist.
The Air Force’s current acquisition process is incapable of producing innovative systems quickly and affordably, former Air Force Chief Scientist Mark Maybury said in a June 21 report called “Global Horizons: United States Air Force Global Science and Technology Vision.” And the increasing complexity of integrating advanced technology into aircraft such as the F-35 will likely further slow the development process in the future. This “threaten[s] to erode the current decisive technology advantage” the Air Force now enjoys over its adversaries, Maybury said. He retired June 28.
Maybury said the Air Force needs to emulate the rapid prototyping processes used by SpaceX and Scaled Composites, which he said produce aerospace vehicles 50 percent faster than under traditional acquisitions. SpaceX produced the Dragon capsule, which last year became the first commercial vehicle to dock with and deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and Scaled Composites won the Ansari X-Prize for its SpaceShipOne, the first private manned spacecraft.
The report also said that using small, low-cost launch capability being developed by commercial industries such as SpaceX would allow the Air Force to more easily access space. This will become more important as space becomes increasingly competitive and congested, and more nations launch satellites and other spacecraft.
The Air Force needs to refocus its prototype efforts to provide early proofs of concepts and reduce technical uncertainty, the report said. And emphasizing technology demonstrations and creating open challenges could lead to more innovative technological breakthroughs, fill gaps in the Air Force’s capabilities, reduce risk aversion and energize the workforce, the report said.
Maybury also said the Air Force could cut its development cycle time by 25 percent by using advanced, physics-based modeling and simulation tools. Those tools could help the Air Force assess how feasible and expensive it would be to integrate technologies into a system, identify technology that isn’t ready to be incorporated into systems, quantify risk at critical decision points, and avoid discovering defects late in the development process.
And the Air Force should also expand its current laboratory personnel demonstration flexible hiring authorities to the entire acquisition workforce. This would allow the Air Force to hire scientists and engineers 70 percent faster than under the normal hiring process.
Maybury’s report said that the Air Force needs to focus on so-called “game-changers” to keep up with emerging challenges and global threats between now and 2027. He is particularly worried about the increasing competition worldwide for top scientists and engineers, and the United States’ decline in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, graduates. This could erode the nation’s advantage in producing new technologies, he said.