By Halle Thornton
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Schriever Airmen attended the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida Feb. 27 through March 1 as a reward for their hard work as well as furthering their innovation spirit.
The symposium is one of the nation’s premier events for defense and aerospace professionals throughout the United States and abroad.
The Air Warfare Symposium brings together Air Force senior leaders as well as leaders in industry, academia and government to address challenges facing the Air Force now and in the future.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson opened the conference saying, “The Air Force will be at the forefront of the next war,” emphasizing the need for experienced operators ready for major combat operations who are “ready to fight tonight.”
In order to be ready to fight tonight, Wilson said Airmen need to overhaul how acquisitions are done.
In the past two years, the Air Force has stripped 78 years of planned acquisitions from scheduled programs — well on the way to the goal of stripping 100 years from planned acquisition schedules.
Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, continued the theme of overhauling acquisitions highlighting the need for the Air Force to appeal to a wider array of companies when bidding contracts.
For 1st Lt. Patrick Boyle, 1st Space Operations Squadron delta crew commander and event attendee, the conference focused on innovation at all levels.
One of the new Air Force initiatives discussed was Pitch Day, an Air Force rapid acquisitions program appealing to startups.
“The idea is a startup gives one pitch, and if the Air Force likes it, they draft a one-page contract and the startup is paid to begin the work immediately,” Boyle said.
Boyle’s favorite part of the conference was the Spark Tank competition finals.
“Mark Cuban, along with (Secretary Heather Wilson), (General David L. Goldfein, Air Force Chief of Staff) and (Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright), heard directly from Airmen about innovative ideas they had to improve Air Force lethality, readiness or effectiveness,” he said. “It reminded me a lot of the 50th Space Wing (Innovative Warfighters Advancing Readiness) program when we presented to (Col. Jennifer Grant, 50th Space Wing commander), (Col. Jacob Middleton, former 50th SW vice commander) and (Chief Master Sgt. Boston Alexander, 50th SW command chief).
“It also cemented my belief that the people closest to a mission, when supported by leadership and encouraged to never stop looking for ways to improve in their unit, will find innovative solutions to overcome any problems or challenges that come their way,” Boyle continued.
Master Sgt. Travis Meeker, 50th Operations Support Squadron weapons and tactics flight chief, said he took away three key points from the symposium:
1.) If Airmen have an impactful idea and have done all the research, the onus is on the naysayers to provide a reason why the idea cannot press forward.
Meeker said the Spark Tank panel, consisting of the SECAF, CSAF, CMSAF and two entrepreneurs, asked testing or acquisitions agencies to immediately step up and assist.
“The leadership of the Air Force want to see innovation and will remove obstacles that prevent great ideas from achieving fruition,” Meeker said. “Even the acquisitions community is jumping on board, trying to come up with better solutions and processes to expedite technologies instead of bogging down newer programs.”
Roper said the acquisitions system was good for its time, but technology is advancing at a rate much faster than the Air Force processes.
“Something has to change or we will be left behind,” Meeker said. “If there is a good idea, let your Airmen run with it. Help them out and get the answers they need; become experts on the idea.”
Meeker suggested using Spark Tank as a useful guide on what questions to ask.
“If anyone tells you no, be sure you ask for the reason, because just saying no does not suffice anymore,” he said.
2.) The frozen middle is real.
Meeker explained the frozen middle are the steps (or people) in the process between the bottom and the top of the command (or the start or end of the process) that prevent good ideas from being realized.
“There is some merit to having that mechanism to slow down an idea (research is needed, money needs to follow, and buy-in must occur), he said. “But slowing ideas down too much creates an atmosphere that the Air Force isn’t listening and can outright kill innovation.”
Meeker suggests creating a culture that is willing to look into ideas and help it along rather than stop new ideas from going forth.
“Encouraging ideas is a great mark of an open environment,” he said. “The more we encourage ideas, the greater the connection our Airmen will have.”
3.) Innovation is full of failure. Build on it, make the idea better and don’t stop.
“We are risk-adverse,” Meeker said. “For some things, that’s OK. For innovation, you must take risks. Build a prototype, see how it goes and then make adjustments when it does not meet your goals. It’s an iterative process.
After it is confirmed, Meeker said add more to the prototype and mark progress.
“Limiting your risk will help create manageable goals,” he said. “That’s not to say that you will never take big risks, but avoiding risk all together is unrealistic and unproductive.
“If the idea does not pan out, you could always take the lessons learned and try a new idea,” Meeker continued. “Nothing was ever made perfect on the first try.”
The next Air Warfare Symposium is tentatively scheduled for February of 2020.
The next iWAR panel at Schriever AFB is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. May 16.