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Second iteration of successful Vanguard incubation process approaches summit

  • Published
  • By Leslie Heck
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) – As the Department of the Air Force stands up Rocket Cargo, its recently announced fourth Vanguard program, the WARTECH incubator process that birthed Rocket Cargo continues onward with the upcoming WARTECH 2.0 Summit July 15-16, where more future Vanguards could be fresh in the making.

On June 15, a WARTECH pre-executive committee board finalized its recommendations concerning which advanced technology topic proposals should still receive consideration at the upcoming summit to be named a Vanguard. The pre-EXCOM, which represents O-6 level leadership and directly reports to an executive committee, received presentations on each topic June 8-9 and then conducted evaluations June 10-15.

Vanguards are premiere transformational Science & Technology 2030 initiatives with DAF commitment to deliver game-changing capabilities to meet warfighter requirements for future operations, said WARTECH Execution Lead, Jeff Palumbo. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Transformational Capabilities Office, the group appointed in Fall 2019 to implement the transformational warfighting component of the Air Force Science and Technology Strategy, introduced initiatives that included the selection of the first Vanguard programs: Golden Horde, Navigation Technology Satellite 3 (NTS-3) and Skyborg.

To help identify future Vanguards, WARTECH was launched within the TCO in partnership with the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability, U.S. Space Force Strategic Requirements (USSF/S5B) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition’s Science, Technology and Engineering Directorate (SAF/AQR) as part of a new initiative. WARTECH teams the warfighter with technologists to mature ideas into proposals for technological capabilities that meet these future force needs.

“By nature, WARTECH is a highly collaborative process that brings together the technical, operational, acquisition, and planning communities to make these challenging investment decisions,” Palumbo said. “This collaboration not only builds enterprise commitment to achieve the intended capabilities sooner but informs other elements of capability development—where do we need more technical maturation, where do we need to experiment, where do we need closer integration across technical areas or mission domains? WARTECH is not the only process that helps answers these questions, but it’s bringing many talented people together across the DAF and DOD to discuss, debate, and move out.”

The ongoing work in AFRL’s technology directorates provides a key source of technologies to form integrated capability solutions. The technical experts across AFRL provide the knowledge base that the TCO relies on to scope problems, leverage outside expertise, and provide technical solutions to the operational challenges, Palumbo said. The TCO designs, coordinates, executes, communicates, and collects feedback on the process.

To be considered in the WARTECH process, the topic must align to the National Defense Strategy and DAF priorities, must feasibly address mission requirements within transition timelines, must have concurrence that it provides a “leap ahead” in advancement or a significant cost imposition on adversaries and must include a potential transition path.

While there isn’t an open call for ideas or proposals at any point, the entry point for ideas is a Scoping phase, which involves the review of current and projected threats as well as current operation plan briefs to identify operational challenges, operational concepts that may address those challenges and technologies that can perform or integrate those operational concept solutions. At this point in the process, those are the key elements that make up a WARTECH topic. Any data calls for ideas are specifically targeted at the operational problem and the associated areas of uncertainty, Palumbo said.

In late April’s Curation Phase six topic teams presented the status of their proposals and received feedback from internal stakeholders, including the AFRL front office group, technology directors, chief scientists, the TCO and special guest, Dr. Victoria Coleman, Chief Scientist of the Air Force. In early May teams presented to enterprise stakeholders, including at the major command, combatant command, field command, U.S. Air Force Warfare Center, program executive officer and PEO staff levels.

The Independent Advisory Board also provided continuous feedback and held final sessions with teams in late May, and teams incorporated feedback, updated presentations and continued to refine their proposals for the aforementioned early June reviews to the pre-EXCOM board. If a topic makes it through the pre-EXCOM board to be a Vanguard candidate, it will then go to the summit.

The annual summit, which was first held in summer 2020, includes participants from the operational community (Air Force Futures, U.S. Space Force Futures, major commands, combatant commands), the acquisition community (the Air Force technology executive officer; SAF/AQR; AFRL technology directorates; Air Force Life Cycle Management Center; and Space and Missile Systems Center). Topics are reviewed by a two-star level EXCOM board, which is a governing body represented by the Air Force Futures, USSF/S5B, SAF/AQR, AFRL and the U.S. Space Force’s Chief Technology Innovation Office.

The summit leads to a prioritized list of proposed programs that have the potential to be commissioned as DAF Vanguard programs by a four-star level Executive Leadership Team, which is chaired by the vice chief of staff of the Air Force. Decisions coming out of the ELT may take time to be announced within the Department and may take even longer to be publicly announced because truly transformational efforts have security sensitivities associated with them.

“However, not being selected as a Vanguard does not mean the operational challenge goes away or the S&T activities supporting the challenge ends,” said Palumbo. “TCO is building a pipeline of transformational activities that continue to work toward the vision of the future force planners. I think of WARTECH as an overarching process that is targeted at identifying advanced technology demonstrations supporting the most challenging DAF needs.

“The most visible will be Vanguard programs, but the process will inform many parts of the enterprise in both transformational and foundational activities across budget categories. We may have WARTECH cycles where one or more Vanguards are selected. We may also have cycles where no topics are selected to be Vanguards but significant investments are made toward an initial curation phase. These investments will position the topic for follow-on prototyping and demonstration activities as an integrated capability addressing the original operational challenge.”

About AFRL
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit:

About SDPE

The Transformational Capabilities Office (TCO) is a small office that identifies and demonstrates the viability of leap-ahead capabilities to drive USAF and USAF Future Force designs, disruptive “first in class” system innovations, and Vanguard programs and reports to the AFRL commander. It resides organizationally within the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) alongside a sister office, the Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation (SDPE) office, which directly supports Department of the Air Force capability development as a technology agnostic honest broker. The office reports to the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) commander and receives its taskings directly from AF Futures and Air Force senior leaders. This close partnership with SDPE and alignment to AFRL allows TCO to rapidly pivot to evolving demands, build and lead cross-functional teams, and leverage existing Lab capabilities to accelerate capability development and transition.