By Scott Prater,
When Col. John Bunnell, Air Force Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities director, briefs people about Air Force TENCAP, he pulls up a slide showing a B-25 bomber taking off from the USS Hornet in 1942.
The iconic image marked the start of the now famous Doolittle Raid, which sent American bombers on a mission to attack the Japanese mainland just months after the Pearl Harbor attack that pulled the U.S. into the second world war.
“Nobody would have thought, certainly the Japanese never thought, that we could launch medium range bombers from the deck of an aircraft carrier and attack their homeland.” Bunnell said. “That project combined two existing technologies that no one had thought of combining before to achieve a strategic effect.”
Today, AF TENCAP continues that tradition of innovation, by exploiting national level capabilities to assist warfighters.
“Exploitation means to get the most use of out of something,” said Lt. Col. Danny DeKinder, AF TENCAP deputy director. “Innovation means using something for other than its intended purpose. We bring those two ideals together at AF TENCAP.”
Located inside the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center’s Schriever operating location, AF TENCAP takes a diverse group of people with a wide skill set, including aviators, space operators, cyber operators, intelligence officers, scientists, and acquisition program managers, and places them in a close environment along with senior leader oversight.
“Then we say, ‘go solve a problem,’” DeKinder said. “That’s how you innovate and that’s what AF TENCAP has been doing since its creation.”
Opened in 1977, AF TENCAP was originally created as a cold-war era organization that created innovative ways to disseminate information from U.S. intelligence sources such as the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, to the warfighter. But, its mission has evolved during the past three decades.
“The biggest change for us has been through the interpretation of the term ‘national,’” Bunnell said. “Nowadays, we obtain information from a large variety of sources, including intelligence sources, but also from organizations like the national laboratories such as Lawrence Livermore and Lincoln Labs, and from industry.”
Air Force TENCAP focuses on relatively small scale projects for short durations (less than two years). As such, it complements the more long-term, formal Air Force acquisitions process.
On the front end of the acquisition process, AF TENCAP searches for emerging technologies that can rapidly translate into a capability. When AF TENCAP identifies these, it initiates projects that sometimes serve as prototypes for large-scale acquisitions.
On the back end of the acquisition process, AF TENCAP looks for innovative ways to use systems that are already fielded in order to meet emerging needs. In some cases, these innovations preclude the need to develop expensive new equipment.
In order to understand warfighter needs, AF TENCAP uses the USAFWC direct liaison authorities to tie into every segment of the Air Force, from space to combat aviation to special operations.
One example of an ongoing AF TENCAP program is “ Talon HATE,” which is a communications pod for carriage on F-15C fighter aircraft. The pod will combine information from 4th and 5th generation aircraft, national sources and command and control assets. This data will be transmitted over a common data-link for use by joint aircraft, ships and ground stations. The single operational picture formed by Talon HATE will provide warfighters with a capability to more efficiently engage and defend against “next generation” threats.
Air Force TENCAP employs 30 active duty members, 20 contractors and 10 government civilians who all play unique roles. But, creating a functional organization that’s tasked with using innovation and creativity to create results is a tall task, especially in a military environment known for its rigid structure.
“We’ve made extensive efforts to encourage creativity and innovation, such as creating a flat organizational structure and allowing our members to cross pollinate and trade ideas,” Bunnell said.
DeKinder said AF TENCAP has even created an innovation zone in the office, an area specifically designed to allow members to gather and brainstorm.
“We have lot of smart people and if you give them room to run they can come up with amazing things,” Bunnell said. “We all will continue to focus on getting that national intelligence to the warfighter, getting satellite information not only in to the cockpit, but into every operational environment, whether its cyber or space. That’s our bread and butter.”