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.

Mark Lewis shown here exiting an F-15. (Robins AFB)
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Shortly after starting his new job as Chief Scientist of the Air Force in the summer of 1973, Michael Yarymovych was at the Pentagon, attending a Department of Defense acquisitions meeting for satellite-based navigation—what is now known as the Global Positioning System. The meeting wasn’t going very well.

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Ideas for satellite-based navigation had been in development since the 1960s, but the Navy and the Air Force fought over technical details and which service should control it. When the Air Force was named the lead for the Defense Navigation Satellite System, the Navy began dragging its feet, insisting that its own version, Timation, was better.

As the Air Force colonel in charge of the DNSS program was making his presentation, Yarymovych says, “a Navy admiral stood up and said, ‘Listen sonny, we’ve been navigating the seas for the last 3,000 years, and I really don’t care to know the difference between the bow and stern of my ship. Just place me on the surface of the ocean.’ ” The meeting fell apart and the program appeared dead.

But Yarymovych knew the idea of space-based navigation was beautiful; it just wasn’t being sold right. He went to his boss, Air Force Chief of Staff General John D. Ryan, and got another chance to get things going. Yarymovych began forging compromises among the Air Force, Army, and Navy, putting together the best pieces from all quarters. One of his tactics involved changing the name of the system, with help from Colonel Brad Parkinson, who headed up the Air Force’s DNSS proposal. “The Air Force was in the middle of Vietnam: they were in no mood to think of fancy new space programs,” says Yarymovych. In a fighter pilot culture focused on pointy jets and dogfights, “satellite was a bad word, so I said, ‘Why call it satellite? You have LORAN, you don’t call it an antenna. It gives your position any place on the globe, right? So it’s a global positioning system.’ And it stuck.”

The Chief Scientist of the Air Force is a uniquely influential position. It is a temporary appointment for an accomplished civilian scientist or engineer, from academia or industry, to advise the Air Force on science and technology programs, clearly including selling them. He (no woman has yet served) works directly under the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff and carries the authority of a three-star general, but wields no actual power, makes no decisions, controls no budget, and commands a staff of only two: a military assistant and an executive secretary.

It took a couple of visionaries to realize that the Air Force needs scientific advice and to create a position that supplies it. Theodore von Kármán, a leading engineer and physicist of the 20th century, was a Hungarian émigré who in 1930 had become director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), where he did pioneering research in aeronautics and rocketry. In 1944, he founded the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasa­dena. General H. “Hap” Arnold, who had learned to fly at the Wright brothers’ school and who became the commander of the Army Air Forces, saw building for the future as his life’s work. When America was swept into World War II, Arnold was dismayed to discover that in aeronautical technology, the United States was trailing not only its enemies but even its allies. When America’s test jet fighter, the Bell XP-59A, took off in 1942, it was powered by copies of a British-designed engine.

“That shocked Arnold,” says aviation historian Richard Hallion. “He never again wanted to see the Army Air Forces dependent for its scientific advice on an outside organization.”

In September 1944, Arnold summoned von Kármán to a meeting, where the general explained that although he was confident that the Allies had won the current war, he was worried about the next: With the advent of jet propulsion, radar, and missiles, what was air power’s future? He tasked von Kármán to gather a team of experts to chart a course. The report that resulted, Toward New Horizons, extrapolated scientific and technological progress decades ahead, with specific recommendations on how the Air Force could strengthen its research and development capabilities and on the use of technical advances.

But when Arnold retired in 1946, von Kármán lost his strongest advocate. The following year, the Air Force became an independent service under General Carl Spaatz, who didn’t share Arnold’s enthusiasm for science. Historian Dwayne Day notes in his book Lightning Rod: A History of the Air Force Chief Scientist’s Office: “Although the Air Force enthusiastically endorsed the idea of accepting scientific advice and guidance, top Air Force officers were often unwilling to accept much of the advice, particularly if it conflicted with the service’s current modes of operation and its cultural identity.” In particular, the Air Force was advised to look into ballistic missiles, but the old-school bomber pilots running the show considered missiles and rockets the stuff of Buck Rogers—and missiles and rockets didn’t need pilots.

Von Kármán approached General Hoyt Vandenberg, who in 1948 had succeeded Spaatz as Chief of Staff, and pointed out what World War II had amply demonstrated: Wars could be won with science. In Toward New Horizons, von Kármán had recommended a Scientific Advisory Board to advise the Air Force hierarchy, and the service had agreed. Vandenberg assigned the board to form a committee to evaluate how best to integrate scientific research and development into the Air Force. The committee, chaired by physicist Louis Ridenour of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Illinois, produced a report that criticized the majority of the Air Force for a lack of interest in science and technology, among other things, and recommended the establishment of a Deputy Chief of Staff for Development and the Air Research and Development Command.

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