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.
Andrew Williams, an 18-year veteran of AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate, will be the first full-time permanent deputy technology executive officer (D-TEO) for space science and technology, the lab said in a press release Nov 1.
The appointment means the changes the lab laid out last year to make it more responsive and useful to its new Space Force customers are finally complete.
Williams’ new role “will ensure integrated development and execution of Space S&T efforts across AFRL and serve as the primary focal point for AFRL integrated Space [Science and Technology] activities,” the announcement states. The role is that of a “conductor”—ensuring that all of the lab’s directorates, not just the four centered on space, are focused on the needs of the new service as they plan and execute their research activities.
Williams takes the post from Kelly Hammett, the head of the lab’s Directed Energy Directorate, who has been dual-hatted in the new role on an interim basis since September 2020. In that post, Hammett headed a working group that drew up the plans to serve the new Space Force by realigning the lab’s governance, rather than reorganizing or restructuring it to break off the space-related parts of the institution.
“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,” said Joel Mozer, chief scientist for Space Operations Command, whose job it is to tell AFRL what the new service needs for its operations.
The working group Hammett led recommended the creation of 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.
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.
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.
Williams will now work with 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 that 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 rows and three columns.
The three rows are:
- Evolutionary Work: Things that “make our current systems better, faster, more capable, cheaper.”
- Revolutionary work: Game-changers. A completely new way of doing things.
- ‘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.”
“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.”