AFRL’s Transformational Capabilities Office reaches Initial Operating Capability

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Air Force Research Laboratory Commander and Technology Executive Officer Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle announced Sep. 11 that the Transformational Capabilities Office, the group responsible for implementing the transformational component of the Air Force Science and Technology Strategy, has reached Initial Operating Capability, a determination that removes its provisional status and establishes the TCO as a permanent AFRL mission organization.

“In the past year, we have gathered enough fact-based evidence to formalize the TCO as the official unit tasked with leading enterprise-level planning and execution of transformational S&T for the Department of the Air Force,” said Brig. Gen. Pringle. “This designation establishes a formal office for accelerating the changes needed to deliver the game-changing technologies our warfighters need now and in the future.”

Moving forward, the TCO will execute follow-on S&T initiatives guided by the S&T strategy to support the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force, and further evolve the organizational concept under the guidance of TCO Director Chris Ristich, a member of the Senior Executive Service who also serves as the Director of Strategic Development Planning & Experimentation (SDPE). He aims for TCO to achieve full operating capacity (FOC) by the end of fiscal year 2021 and be fully resourced by FY24.

Ristich, who reports directly to the AFRL commander in this role, said, “the big picture goal of the TCO is to cultivate leap-ahead solutions that enable the Air Force and the Space Force to dominate time, space and complexity in all operating domains to project power and protect the homeland.”

In the fall of 2019, the TEO created the provisional TCO to develop new business processes and guide the S&T portfolio following the release of the Air Force Science & Technology Strategy. A small group of scientists and engineers from across AFRL organized various efforts to promote transformational warfighting capabilities. Ultimately, a number of pilot programs served as test vehicles to evaluate these new processes.

The TCO introduced a number of initiatives to shape the S&T portfolio including the selection of the first Vanguard programs and a new process called WARTECH. This new process provides a forum for warfighters and technologists to co-develop new operational concepts enabled by high-payoff S&T investments motivated by future operating concepts and future force design. Other new processes include the Air Force Explore 1.0 nationwide opportunity call and the internal Seedlings for Disruptive Capabilities Program (SDCP). These initiatives aim to create a stronger pipeline of bold, high risk/high payoff ideas by using competition to drive more cross-disciplinary collaboration and incorporating partnerships earlier into the process of technology maturation and solution development.

Timothy Sakulich, AFRL’s executive lead for Air Force S&T Strategy implementation, said that data gathered from these efforts served as the basis for the IOC determination. “While there is still work ahead to further mature and institutionalize the new processes, TCO is purpose-built and well-positioned to lead the enterprise forward,” he affirmed.

For instance, the TCO facilitated selection and built management processes for the first three Vanguard programs (priority research initiatives with enterprise commitment), notably pairing AFRL program managers with SAF/AQ designated Program Executive Officers to develop and execute unique acquisition strategies past the prototyping and experimentation stage. Golden Horde, Navigation Technology Satellite -3 (NTS-3) and Skyborg aim to deliver game-changing capabilities that cover multiple domains and encompass multidisciplinary solutions.

Air Force Explore 1.0, the call for ideas with universal eligibility, demonstrated a new, more effective way to introduce defense challenges to the national market and engage with potential business partners. The call met and exceeded all expectations regarding the volume and diversity of the market response and its ability to find new partners with promising new ideas for the Air Force and Space Force.

AFRL’s Research Advisory Council introduced SDCP to the workforce, as an internal call for ideas encouraging teams from across multiple technology directorates to form and collaborate with suitable external partners including industry and academia. Seven multidisciplinary teams will each receive $3 to $5 million per year to execute three-year projects and advance their innovative capability ideas.

Meanwhile, the recent WARTECH summit brought warfighters and technologists together to address future force requirements, evaluate warfighter demand signals and prioritize advanced technology demonstration programs that have potential to be commissioned as Vanguard programs with Department-level endorsement and commitment.

Ultimately, the success of these initiatives illustrated that the “new TCO processes assembled an initial transformational S&T portfolio driven by future operating concepts and future force design needs,” said Sakulich.

Moving forward, TCO members said they plan to incorporate lessons learned in subsequent initiatives.

“In early 2021, the Explore 2.0 campaign will feature refined processes and an expanded scale,” said Dr. Reid Melville, AFRL’s TCO lead for AF Explore. “Our team is preparing a follow-on call to bring a new set of future force challenges to the national market,” he said.

Jeff Palumbo, TCO’s WARTECH Lead, said that during next year’s Capability Development Council session, his team will introduce the next set of Vanguard candidate programs.

The TCO will also report to the Executive Committee, a body led by the DAF TEO with representatives from the U.S. Space Force, Air Force Acquisition Executive (AQR) and Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC).

Brig. Gen. Pringle, who has identified implementation of the AF S&T Strategy as one of her top three priority areas, affirmed her commitment to developing the future force through sustained collaboration.

“Strengthening our internal and external Air Force and Space Force partnerships will lead to better informed S&T priorities, and help us ultimately deliver exceptional technologies to our warfighters,” she said.

TCO Director Chris Ristich echoed his appreciation for collaborative relationships and said his office will continually incorporate feedback from partnering organizations to ensure the success of our future force.

collage of capabilities

AFRL’s Transformational Capabilities Office began developing new business processes and guiding the S&T portfolio following the release of the Air Force Science and Technology Strategy. This small group of scientists and engineers from across AFRL led a number of initiatives to promote transformational warfighting capabilities including the selection of the first Vanguard programs, a new process called WARTECH, the Air Force Explore 1.0 nationwide opportunity call and the internal Seedlings for Disruptive Capabilities Program. (U.S. Air Force illustration/Patrick Londergan)