AFSC commander discusses need for STEM ecosystem

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. — When it comes to producing STEM graduates to develop and maintain modern weapon systems, the nation is falling behind, the Air Force Sustainment Center’s commander told members of the Oklahoma State Board of Regents last week.

Lt. Gen. Lee K. Levy II told Regents at their regular meeting Feb. 1 in Oklahoma City that one way to address the shortage of science, technology, engineering and math graduates is to develop an ecosystem that spans one’s entire educational experience.

“It has to have an elementary school infrastructure that keeps that spark alive, a high school education system that does things like teach advanced mathematics and physics, only so they can get into a university that has a STEM kind of program,” General Levy said.

During his hour-plus long address to the Regents, the general said he could hire all the engineers the state’s colleges could produce every year and still have empty chairs.

In this increasingly technologically advanced world we live in today, General Levy said he needs engineers to design, manufacture and sustain the kind of capabilities the Air Force needs to maintain an advantage over its adversaries.

“Only then can we maintain our technological preeminence in the modern battlespace,” he said.

He said the capabilities he’s referring to are “software and electronic driven,” adding that “empty chairs are not a path to sustainability.”

General Levy said the state needs an educational ecosystem that is established and sustained.

He said he understands the need to develop this culture because he comes from the state of Louisiana, which like Oklahoma, relies heavily on its oil and gas industry to fuel its economy.

As far as the production of STEM graduates goes, the state is “already way late to need” because it takes “21-ish years to produce a STEM graduate,” the general said.

Developing an ecosystem, he said, requires sustained funding, input and focus, but more importantly, requires strategic patience.

General Levy said that’s a difficult proposition when your economy relies on an oil and gas cycle.

He said his appeal isn’t for funding, because that isn’t his job. His job, the general said, “is to fight and win the nation’s wars.”

“I’m simply telling you how the factory works,” he said. “If you want an output from your factory, you have to manage the inputs and the process inside of the factory. And, I would submit that perhaps understanding the strategic environment, the risk to the nation, that the factory is probably not operating optimally.”

General Levy mentioned some of the weapon systems he maintains within AFSC, like the F-35, and the amount of technology required to operate those systems.

“It’s really a software package because that airplane goes into the battlespace, connects with satellites in space, connects to other air-breathing assets, both manned and unmanned, connects to the terrestrial, both surface and maritime assets, and creates complete battlespace awareness allowing us to impose our will on the enemy before he imposes his will on us,” he said.

The general also referenced the KC-46 Pegasus, the newest aerial refueling tanker, which will be maintained at Tinker Air Force Base, and how it requires 3.2 billion lines of code to operate.

“When I think about what our nation and the state of Oklahoma produces in terms of STEM graduates, we are being eclipsed by the Russians and by the Chinese, and that should worry you, because I don’t see the world getting any less technically sophisticated,” he said. “I don’t see the pace of modern warfare coming down and I always want to maintain the ability to play the away game when it comes to defending our homeland and fighting our nation’s wars.”

The sustainment and the design of modern weapon systems require STEM graduates, he said.

General Levy also talked about additive manufacturing and 3D printing. He said none of that “cool stuff” is made in America. As a result, he said, our adversaries control the language for how those systems are maintained and operated, which could make them vulnerable to cyber-attack.

“How do we create an industrial capability – digital foundries for tomorrow – to maintain our industrial and aerospace preeminence as well as ensuring that those are robust and reliable when called upon to do so in order to defend the nation?” he asked.

The answer, he said, comes from having men and women, who started out at a young age and continued to cultivate their learning, eventually earning a STEM degree.

“I need your help to raise the waterline in Oklahoma,” General Levy said. “You have an obligation as Regents and I have an implied task as the commander out at Tinker to create an economic system that helps draw us away from the oil and gas centered economy, puts more preeminence on the aerospace and defense industry, raises the tax base, raises the opportunity for better jobs, better education and better quality of life for Oklahomans.”

The general said the level of sophistication of his weapon systems that are increasingly reliant on software and cyber capabilities, and the inability of the state of Oklahoma to produce enough STEM grads, causes him great concern.

“So, what I would do is simply ask you to keep the pressure on,” he said. “In fact, I would ask that you would hit the giddy-up button.”

Chancellor Glen Johnson said Oklahoma’s higher education system has increased the number of STEM degrees by 6,000 in the past five years, for a 28 percent increase.

“Our engineering schools want to do more, but obviously funding is restricting that,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the entire Board, Chancellor Johnson said he appreciated General Levy’s comments and that the Regents found his presentation to be very informative.

“Thank you for helping us bridge the gap between Tinker, the State Capitol and the rest of the state,” he said.

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