How to Win Enemies and Influence Policy
From the halls of power to field laboratories, the Air Force Chief Scientist helps shape the future of U.S. flight.
- By Mark Wolverton
- Air & Space magazine, August 2010
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The many issues on which the Chief Scientist has provided counsel reads like a history of Air Force technology. Examples and associated individuals include the development of supersonic aircraft (Horton Stever, Courtland D. Perkins), the integration of ballistic missiles into military strategy (George Valley), the rise and fall of the supersonic bomber (Joseph Charyk), increasing reliance on satellites and human spaceflight (Yarymovych and pretty much every Chief Scientist since Sputnik), remotely piloted vehicles (John Fisher, George Abrahamson), and directed-energy weapons (Dan Hastings). The Chief Scientist helped acquaint Air Force leadership with the potential of each new technology, easing its transition from the laboratory to the operational world.
Occasionally the Chief Scientist serves the opposite function: preventing the Air Force from squandering its budget on impractical ideas. “One of my biggest challenges was reeling them back sometimes,” says hypersonics expert Mark Lewis of the University of Maryland, who served as Chief Scientist from 2004 to 2008. “Someone would get a briefing on some latest or greatest technology and say, ‘Wow, we got to do this,’ and I’d have to say, ‘That briefing looked good, but let’s dig into this a little more.’ One of the first issues [during Lewis’ years] was a lot of interest in really high altitude. Some of the near-space solutions involved the use of airships. There are things that airships can do very well. There are things that airships can’t do very well, and one of those is flying at extraordinarily high altitudes and holding your position over a single spot on the Earth. And yet we had folks with viewgraphs where they’d imagine these magical airships that were hovering at some incredible altitude over some fixed point on the Earth for long duration.”
Actually, says Lewis, being the naysayer is a big part of being Chief Scientist: “You’re the guy telling people that their baby is ugly, that their concept doesn’t work, and sometimes you have to tell them why their concept violates the basic laws of physics. Not always a popular position to maintain.” In fact, the Chief of Staff once told Lewis that “if people aren’t calling and complaining about you, you’re not doing your job.”
He recalls the design of control stations for unmanned aerial vehicles. “Some of these weren’t very ergonomic. Instead of being designed to look like a cockpit, the control stations were menu-driven, the way a home computer operates. In most cases, this is a poor way to control an airplane. I brought this to the Chief and Secretary, along with the candid observation that the Air Force organization in charge of procuring our control stations was not doing enough to improve them.”
The Chief of Staff at the time, General Michael Moseley, was an ex-fighter pilot who immediately saw the advantages of Lewis’ suggestions and implemented the changes. Still, the Chief Scientist had stepped on a few toes, most notably those of the general who was in charge of the UAV control station project. “I learned a new four-letter word from that very upset general,” Lewis observes wryly. (The Chief of Staff later told Lewis, “Partner, it’s always good to expand your vocabulary.”)
The Chief Scientist also deals with fairly mundane but no less important issues. Lewis, for example, mentions “sustainment”: essentially, keeping the Air Force’s aircraft and other assets up and running. “The average age of an airplane in the Air Force is about 26 years,” he says. “Airplanes were literally falling apart in the sky.” (In 2007, a National Guard F-15 had come apart in flight, and when an investigation found that faulty longerons could cause fatigue cracks, the fleet was grounded.) “Keeping old airplanes flying, better diagnostic and repair techniques, ways of repairing old parts with newer parts, old materials with new materials, was an area that I focused on.”
Lewis and his military assistant, Colonel Rob Fredell, also an engineer, looked into the use of new hybrid composite materials in aircraft. “One of these materials is called GLARE and combines glass fibers with thin aluminum slices,” Lewis says. “The result is a material that is stronger and lighter than aluminum, but is very crack-resistant and has the repairability of aluminum. Repairing pure composites can be challenging.” Lewis instituted a research effort on GLARE materials at the Air Force Research Laboratory in partnership with contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Alcoa, proving the economic and engineering advantages of using such materials in transports and other aircraft.
The Chief Scientist is invariably on leave from a secure academic or industry position, is paid by the Pentagon at the same rate as that prior job, and serves knowing the old job will be there when his term is up. “It’s not a launching pad to some other job in the Department of Defense,” says Lewis, “which means that the Chief Scientist really isn’t worried about the political consequences of telling the truth.” Mike Yarymovych compares the job to that of a court jester: “You sit at the foot of the king’s throne, and while the courtiers are telling him what he wants to hear, the court jester tells him the truth and gets away with it without getting his head chopped off.”