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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One suggestion of the Ridenour report was that the Air Force hire leading scientists to serve as advisors for one or two years. In May 1950, the new Deputy Chief of Staff for Development, Major General Gordon Saville, asked Ridenour himself if he would be interested in such a position. In September, Ridenour was appointed Chief Scientist.

The cold war had just warmed up in Korea, the Soviet Union had built an atomic bomb, and America was struggling with the question of building an H-bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The defense of North America from air attack was one of Ridenour’s first concerns. Along with colleague Ivan Getting (who had earlier turned down Saville’s request to advise him on science issues), Ridenour pushed for establishing the Lincoln Laboratory, a research center for air defense, at MIT. He was also instrumental in instituting a series of seminars at MIT that brought together top scientists and strategists and in which projects such as the Distant Early Warning Line and the Semiautomatic Ground Environment (SAGE) air defense computing and relay system were conceived.

Dan Hastings, an MIT physicist, served as Chief Scientist in the late 1990s. One of his first big projects was “Doable Space,” which recommended a greater reliance on commercial launches. As Chief Scientist, “you have authority over nothing,” he says, “but you have a great deal of influence, which stems from the fact that it’s a direct reporting relationship to the Chief and the Secretary. In a hierarchical organization like the military, the fact that you talk directly to the Chief and the Secretary means a great deal. You realize the average colonel and even the average one-star or two-star [general], they never talk to the chief and the secretary. They only talk to the level above them.”

Chief Scientists have ranged from aerodynamicists and aeronautical engineers to physicists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and even a physiologist. “You have to find people who are polymaths, who have a tremendous sense of scientific and technical curiosity,” says Hallion.

An aeronautical engineer with an intense interest in spaceflight, Mike Yarymovych had worked for NASA on the Apollo program and had served as NASA’s representative to the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory. He was asked to become Chief Scientist in 1973. “In the second year I ran a study using the old von Kármán name; I called it New Horizons II.” The study predicted that space would increase in importance as an arena for both civilian and military activities, and that computers would keep getting smaller and more ubiquitous. “At that time we were still dealing with IBM 650s—huge machines—and we’re saying, ‘We’re going to have several computers on each wing of an airplane,’ ” Yarymovych says. “The thought of miniaturizing processors and sticking them all over the place was kind of radical.”

Yarymovych’s prediction that the Air Force was entering “the age of computational plenty” wasn’t exactly welcomed. “At that time [it was] so revolutionary that it got [semi-] classified and put away because it was going to shake up a lot of things,” he says. “It finally got declassified 20 years later.” But there was still an indirect effect. A debate was flaring in the Pentagon over new fighter aircraft, specifically their designs and missions. “The discussion was the so-called high-low mix of fighters,” says Yarymovych. “The [air superiority] F-15 was already being built, so the thought was ‘How do you justify the [fighter-bomber] F-16?’ Going back to my New Horizons study—when I said computers everywhere and small is beautiful, never mind the big things—they used that as one of the reasons to justify a smaller airplane.”

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.”

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