Speed is the crux of innovation and improvements the Defense Department will make to ensure the force is ready for any contingency, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen W. Wilson said here at the Defense One Summit this morning.
Wilson said the Air Force is focused on the need for speed. “We can’t buy new capabilities using old ways,” he said.
The Air Force has been globally engaged for the past 26 years, Wilson said. But, he added, the nature of today’s threats are different. They range from countering violent extremism to the return of Great Power politics with Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea and Russia illegally annexing Crimea and fomenting a civil war in Ukraine.
North Korea developing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them — including testing an intercontinental ballistic missile — helps “focus” Air Force goals and aims, the general said. “We are focusing our efforts to be ready for any potential conflict around the globe and give the President options,” Wilson said. “We organize, train and equip forces to make sure they are ready to go for any contingency.”
The Air Force is in the midst of a major modernization push, he said, because the changes in the threats require it. The Air Force is modernizing its intercontinental ballistic missiles and bomber force. New aerial refueling tankers are needed for global reach. The F-35 Lightning II aircraft is hitting its stride, and research has begun on a 6th-generation aircraft.
“Everything we do is to try to compress that time,” Wilson said. “Speed is the big driver.”
Developing military capabilities is an involved process, the general said. There is the requirements process, an acquisition process, a contracting process, a testing process and finally a fielding process. “That takes time,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to shrink that time.”
All this requires a stable budget, the general said, something DoD has not had for years. Still, the service is working with industry partners to “do everything we can to compress the time to develop capabilities,” Wilson said.
Part of this is enabling service men and women and their civilian peers. The general spoke of going to bases and meeting young airmen who — on their own — developed new methods to speed processes or wrote new code to automate a particular capability.
Wilson was part of the small Air Force team that worked on the F-117 Nighthawk stealth aircraft in the 1980s. That team, he said, was empowered to make decisions quickly and the result was a game-changing aircraft that performed brilliantly when it was needed.
“We are trying to do that broadly across all our acquisition programs,” the general said.
The Air Force is heavily invested in artificial intelligence research, he said, especially looking at how computers can sift data and learn.
“Data is the new oil,” Wilson said. “How do we sense the environment? How do we understand it? And how are we able to provide effects around the globe? With speed.”
The Air Force and DoD need to work with industry to exploit this new capability, Wilson said. Still, it will present challenges from a development angle, he said, from a use angle and from an employment angle.
“We are going to have to be thoughtful about this as we go about making truly autonomous things,” Wilson said. “We can’t just unleash technology without being thoughtful about how autonomous it can really be.”