Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson visited AFWERX-Austin and Pilot Training Next in Austin, April 9, to see how Air Force innovation initiatives are shaping tomorrow’s Air Force.
The vice chief received an in-person briefing with AFWERX leaders and some of their collaborators from the Air Education and Training Command, as well as other Department of Defense agencies and private industry.
“AETC is a natural entry point for innovation,” Lt. Col. Eric Frahm, AETC Technology Integrating Detachment director, said to Wilson during the presentation at AFWERX-Austin. “We can teach our engineers and operators how to use this meshed network from an AETC training perspective and start bringing it into the total force.”
Wilson said he understands how essential it is to streamline innovation for the Air Force.
“Speed wins,” Wilson said. “It wins in both preparation and in battle. We must be able to out-think and out-innovate our adversaries.”
The general pointed out the need for the Air Force to get rid of old programs to make way for innovation and to weigh the value of all innovative projects or collaboration efforts. Whether looking at existing processes or innovative proposals, Wilson encourages everyone to ask, “Does this make the Air Force faster or more lethal?”
In the case of AFWERX and PTN, “the answer is yes,” Wilson said. “The status quo is simply unacceptable. We need to speed past the status quo. That’s what AFWERX and PTN are both designed to do.”
In the context of a great power competition – the race between American and foreign military powers to evolve tactical capabilities for strategic benefit – AFWERX plays a role by not only encouraging new innovation efforts but networking with small technology companies.
“We’ve increased the industrial base by going out to small startups and creating the right of first refusal before foreign adversaries can come in and grab those technologies,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Scott, AFWERX-Austin lead.
“I know what our competitors are doing,” Wilson said, referring to the importance of innovation in great power competition. “I know how fast they are trying to bring capabilities to bear, how they are training. We must not only match but exceed that.”
Wilson asked AFWERX leaders what drives ATID forward and how they identify the Air Force’s “hard problems,” the type of problems that can’t be solved with existing systems, problems that drive innovation forward by their very nature.
“We get our hard problems from Gen. Kwast,” Frahm said. “There are some very specific lines of effort for us to pursue which gives us fodder to work with AFWERX on tech scouting and to start generating some of these great ideas.”
While AFWERX is focused on building relationships and opening opportunities, PTN is all about doing, according to Lt. Col. Robert Vicars, PTN lead.
PTN is a program that explores and prototypes training environments that integrate advanced technology to train pilots in an accelerated, cost efficient, learning-focused manner, Vicars said. Lessons learned at PTN can impact learning across the Air Force; it is not just learning how to train pilots but learning how Airmen learn.
“My job is to do. To be aggressive and sprint,” Vicars said. “We find ourselves running into hiccups sometimes because we’re going so fast. Sometimes you outperform the system and you have to get the system to catch back up with you.”
“We have amazing instructors at PTN who are thinking through different concepts with the technology. They are asking how they can apply the technology to exponentially increase learning and the ability for students to learn when they want and how they want,” Wilson said.
Pushing hard to integrate cutting-edge technology, mining data on student performance and finding the best partners to make it all happen means there will be some failures. Vicars said he was excited, though, about how much PTN learns from their failures and how much of that learning they have been able to share with others in AFWERX’s network.
“We have some wisdom in our scars,” Vicars said. “We are going to be constantly iterating until we find what works best.”
Wilson said there is a clear need to constantly push forward.
“Innovation is absolutely critical to everything the Air Force is doing and will be doing moving forward, but we are never there,” Wilson said. “I don’t see any end to innovation.”
The general said the most important thing for all Total Force Airmen to understand is this: “If you’re waiting on me to solve problems, you’re missing the whole picture. I trust you. Go along. I have your back.”