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This article was Originally Published on Jul 10, 2003 in Volume: 2  Issue: 3

Warrior Technologist

Interview with Major General Paul D. Nielsen

Commander Air Force Research Laboratory

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Major General Paul D. Nielsen is commander, Air Force Research Laboratory, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH. He directs the Air Force’s $1.7 billion science and technology budget plus an additional $1.3 billion from the laboratory’s customers. Approximately 5,200 people in the laboratory’s component technology directorates and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research execute the science and technology program. He also is the Air Force’s technology executive officer and determines the investment strategy for the full spectrum of Air Force science and technology activities. His responsibilities include planning basic research to ensure continued technological superiority; developing and transitioning new technologies for Air Force weapon systems and the supporting infrastructure; and ensuring responsive technical support to time-urgent problems.

Nielsen entered the Air Force in 1972 as a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has served in various jobs at headquarters level and in the field. He served at three product centers and three laboratories, including assignments at the Secretary of the Air Force’s Office of Special Projects and the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. 

Nielsen was a military assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the commander of Rome Laboratory. He was operations chief for the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center and director of plans for the North American Aerospace Defense Command. Prior to his current assignment, he served as vice commander of the Aeronautical Systems Center.

Q: Can you tell us about AFRL and its mission?

A: The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has one of the most exciting missions in the Air Force. We defend America by unleashing the power of science and technology. In 1997, the Air Force laboratories, situated across the United States, were consolidated into a single organization and became what is now known as the Air Force Research Laboratory.

Our headquarters is located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH, and we are part of the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC). Every day at AFRL we lead the discovery, development and integration of warfighting technologies for our air and space force.

We are organized into nine technology directorates, plus the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. We partner with government, industry and academia to push the limits of science and technology to accomplish our mission. As a full spectrum laboratory with about 5,200 employees, we plan and execute the Air Force’s science and technology program including basic research (6.1), applied research (6.2) and advanced technology development (6.3).

Q: What are three or four focus areas of most interest to AFRL right now?

A: We are pursuing a large number of technologies for all of our warfighting commands, whether they are involved in the more traditional type of armed conflict or the war on terrorism.

We have been increasing our emphasis on space technologies for several years now. We have been supporting Mr. Peter Teets, the undersecretary of the Air Force and Department of Defense (DoD) executive for space in meeting space challenges. We also work closely with Air Force Space Command and the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), Los Angeles, in planning and executing this work. We are working with SMC on concepts for a more operationally responsive spacelift capability, for an improved upper stage, and possibly some air-breathing hypersonic approaches. We’re continuing our work on key enabling space technologies—like solar arrays, on-orbit propulsion, radiation hardened electronics—especially computers, structures, thermal control systems and vibration and shock isolation. We’re really enthusiastic about microsatellites—their capabilities continue to grow and can be cheaper and more responsive to launch. And we are exploring new realms of space sensing: hyperspectral sensing, vibrometery, polarimetry and space-based radar. Right now, about 23 percent of our budget is dedicated to space-unique technologies.

A second area of focus is lasers and related directed energy technology. This is an area where a series of developing technologies are just about ready to burst onto the scene—everything from laser communications, to advanced lasers for tactical weapons, to new uses for solid-state lasers and high power microwaves. One of our biggest laser-based programs has been the development of the airborne laser.

A third focus area is nanotechnology and biotechnology. Both of these tech areas are looking at designing and manipulating matter at the molecular level to design novel materials, sensors and systems.

In biotechnology, we are delving into biomimetics—trying to learn more about how nature has solved a problem and how we can emulate it. For example, some animals, such as pit vipers, possess incredible heat-detecting capabilities without the need for cryogenic cooling. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could mimic these capabilities? Along these lines, we’re also researching the feasibility of self-healing materials and self-assembly just as our cells do.

These are just three of many exciting areas. Of course, you know we are working hard on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), information systems, turbine and hypersonic propulsion, human systems interfaces, bio-effects and protection, distributed mission operations, electronic warfare (EW), metals and composites, advanced algorithms, and precision munitions.

This is a wonderful time to be a technologist. There are so many interesting advances and so many great applications for our Air Force.

Q: Has 9/11 and the war on terror changed your priorities?

A: One of the great things about having a sound technology program is that it gives you a strong foundation to adapt to new threats. To me, a strong science and technology program is a great hedge against an uncertain future. And one of our primary missions is to prepare for the future, to take the long-term view of what our Air Force needs to stay dominant.

We’ve been able to quickly respond with new weapons and other systems to meet some of the threats our nation faces. I’ve been impressed and very proud of the innovation our men and women have shown in designing, developing and delivering new systems to our warfighters—in weeks and months, not years.

Q: What kind of warfighter support did AFRL give to Operation Iraqi Freedom?

A: I can give you several examples of the support our laboratory provided for troops involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom. First, is the Battlefield Air Operations Kit. This kit was designed to support Air Force combat controllers for close air support by increasing speed and targeting accuracy by the controller, and reducing weight the operator has to carry into the battlefield. In a few weeks, we developed a novel communications switch that allows controllers to switch from ground radio to aircraft and satellite communications on the move without plugging and unplugging antennas.

A second, and more widely discussed, example of AFRL support is the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB). At 21,000 pounds, it is the largest conventional munition in the Air Force. MOAB was featured on the cover of Newsweek and, surprisingly enough, on “Saturday Night Live.”

AFRL also supported our troops through the development of panoramic night vision goggles by our Human Effectiveness Directorate. These goggles give pilots a wide field of view in extremely low light conditions.

A final example of support is the Crash Prompt Agent Defeat Weapon, or CrashPAD. This prototype weapon was developed jointly by our Munitions Directorate, and by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. CrashPAD is capable of destroying chemical and biological agent targets while minimizing the release of live agents into the air. This greatly reduces the immediate threat to surrounding personnel.

Q: What is AFRL’s part in the National Aerospace Initiative?

A: The Director Defense Research and Engineering (DDR&E) National Aerospace Initiative (NAI) proposes a program for enhancing and accelerating the national efforts and technological capabilities in three key pillars: high speed/hypersonics (HSH), access to space and space technology. We’ve worked with the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the other services to plan this program. NAI builds upon a strong tech base in many AFRL technology areas such as propulsion, air vehicles, materials and space vehicles.

As you probably know, the NAI program was introduced late in the FY04 budget development. Consequently, the true scope of the program and the funding is still being discussed in the Pentagon. It’s too early for me to talk authoritatively on what the program will look like in FY05 and out.

Q: What are some new initiatives to quickly transition AFRL technology for military use?

A: For the last three years, we’ve been building a process and a forum we call the Applied Technology Council. The product center commanders and I meet twice a year with each of the Air Force major commands that program for systems. This face-to-face activity has been a boon to our ability to transition technology to the warfighters and to make sure we’re working on the systems they need.

In addition, Dr. Marvin Sambur, the Air Force Acquisition Executive, has been challenging all of us in the acquisition process to accelerate out transitions. Through his pathfinder efforts last year and the new Acquisition Centers of Excellence throughout our command, we are working closer than ever to integrate the efforts of the science and technology (S&T), acquisition, test and sustainment professionals to support our operational men and women. This tight coupling is leading to spiral delivery of capabilities to the Air Force.

Additionally, I have mandated the use of integrated product and process development (IPPD) on our key advanced development programs. This approach demands close stakeholder involvement in all aspects of the program as the technology is moved forward. In my view, no time in the history of AFRL have we had such success in getting technology to the warfighters.

Finally, I must mention the tremendous impact our senior leaders have made to technology transition. The secretary of the Air Force and chief, the undersecretary and Dr. Sambur, and the four star commanders have all provided strong and supportive leadership to this process. The Air Force S&T program is their program—and part of their legacy to future airmen.

Q: Can you explain the process by which technologies are funded, researched, developed and tested? How long does this take? Who sets the priorities?

A: Technology planning is a constant combination of tech push and requirements pull. We want our technologists to innovate continuously, to propose new programs and new applications. At the same time, we work within the Air Force requirements process to make sure that we are developing the capabilities the Air Force needs for today and tomorrow.

There is no standard time for this cycle. Some things go from idea to reality quickly, others can take a long time to develop. We began working on stealth technologies in the early 1950s. We’ve been working on high power lasers since the 1960s. On the other hand, once the GPS program established its constellation, the spin-off applications have been pouring out.

Ultimately the corporate Air Force sets the priorities, though we in AFRL are entrusted with taking the inputs from the warfighters and the technologists to develop a proposed program each year that balances opportunity and risk. Our proposed program then goes through Air Force Materiel Command and into the Air Force corporate process in the Pentagon.

Q: What is the outlook for the Air Force S&T program?

A: The Air Force S&T program is healthy and getting stronger. The transformation into a single laboratory is producing integrated products for the warfighter at a very rapid pace—as evidenced by our fielded products in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In addition, funding stability and modest real growth over the past few years has enabled us to plan our program and mature the right technologies at the right time for our customers. Furthermore, our funding outlook has enabled us to attract outstanding new scientists and engineers to our workforce and this is the real capital asset of any research organization—its innovative workforce.

Q: What would you consider to be your biggest achievement as commander of AFRL?

A: You know, like a lot of senior officers in AFMC, I’ve worked on a lot of processes and programs. I’ve fought hard on budget and personnel issues. And I’ve emphasized how important it is that we stay close to our warfighters and that we execute out programs professionally.

But, I think my biggest achievement has been to remove obstacles from the paths of our innovative scientists and engineers, to help them realize how important they are to the Air Force of today and tomorrow, and to help them work as a team with others in AFRL and across the Air Force.

Q: How is AFRL supporting homeland defense?

A: We’ve already provided some systems and consultative services to homeland defense—and we’ve provided lots of information on our programs and how they may satisfy their needs. Sensors, information systems and protective technologies such as blast mitigation are obvious technologies that apply to both the defense and homeland defense. Our Information Directorate at Rome, NY, already had a growing relationship with the Department of Justice and with state and local law enforcement agencies even prior to 9/11.

Of course, we stand ready to do even more as our nation faces this new threat.

Q: What are some benefits of partnering with academia and industry?

A: There really is no alternative. We want to reach out to the best and brightest throughout our country. And we have to be part of the broad scientific community. In addition, as good as our workforce is, it’s too small to execute the broad program the Air Force needs.

Generally, about 80 percent of the money that comes to AFRL in any given year goes to our industry and academic partners. This allows us to be more flexible in the skills we bring to a problem, it allows us to help develop the next generation of scientists and engineers, and it helps us transition technology to military, civil and commercial uses.

Q: What is AFRL doing to recruit and retain scientists and engineers?

A: AFRL is undergoing an aggressive recruiting effort to attract and retain the best scientist and engineers to maintain our technological excellence. Some of our current efforts include lab demo, active recruiting through targeted advertising, collaborations with colleges and universities, and attendances at conferences, scholarships, open houses and intern programs.

One of the most important keys to recruiting and retaining scientists and engineers (S&Es) is to provide them with interesting work. S&Es like working on the cutting edge—making new discoveries and designing new applications. If we have exciting research programs, we will attract and retain great men and women.

Q: Do you have an educational outreach program?

A: We have educational outreach programs at each of our sites. We think this is an important part of our mission—and it helps build the supply of scientists and engineers for our nation.

At Wright-Patterson, we have a strong program that was established though a partnership with AFRL and the Aeronautical Systems Center in 1999. The program consolidated and coordinated the individual outreach efforts of the many units at Wright-Patterson into a single program focused on getting students excited about science, math, aviation and aerospace.

Now we have a comprehensive program that addresses the different needs that exist in the broad K to 12 student population. We have programs that bring people into our facilities and other programs that go out to the schools themselves. In addition to our science and math programs, at the primary level, we support the OhioReads program that brings volunteers into the classroom to provide individual mentors to develop reading skills.

At the high school level, we have a summer hire program for high performing students, called Wright Scholars that includes a rich series of lectures and social events. And we strongly support school and regional science fairs as well as the International Science and Engineering Fair and the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.

Our Wright-Patterson outreach program reaches more than 200 schools in over 92 Ohio school districts. And, as I mentioned, we have similar programs at out other sites across the country.



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