The United States shouldn't play catch up to Russia or China in technological development, regardless of whether or not the two adversaries are surpassing the Pentagon in new weapons.
Instead, the U.S. should be where they aren't, according to the U.S. Air Force's chief scientist.
"We shouldn't target China or Russia. We should not just follow their lead. Rather, we should be where they aren't," said Dr. Richard Joseph, who also serves as the chief scientific adviser to Chief of Staff Gen David Goldfein and Secretary Heather Wilson.
Joseph and Mark Tapper, special adviser to the service's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, spoke at the DefenseOne Tech Summit during the panel "Aircraft 2030," which assessed how the service is racing to leverage artificial intelligence and developmental programs to stay dominant in the air, space and cyber domains.
"We can't be targeting the adversaries" directly, Joseph said. "We should not be just following their lead. We should be looking at this in a grand way and try to decide where we need to go to retain dominance."
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The strategy speaks more broadly to how the Air Force is developing its next best weapon. In this case, that's a "family of systems" that link, connect and share with one another to read the battlespace in real time.
Tapper said the phrase "family of systems" points to the service's much needed culture change.
During the fiscal 2019 budget request rollout In February, the Air Force began speaking more specifically to its new family-of-systems approach as part of its next-generation air dominance strategy. That meant the service shifted from discussing a single, advanced weapon or potential sixth-generation fighter to discussing more broadly how emerging technologies must network going forward.
"We need a new way of looking at development of technology," Joseph said. "Whether it's software or hardware it doesn't really matter."
On that same topic, Tapper said innovative technologies need to have a purpose in order to be useful.
"New technologies to do what?" he asked.
The two men also said the Defense Department can't be shy in the way it tests -- and sometimes fails.
Joseph said every single test, modernization or upgrade to a program has disproportionate impact because it's viewed like a large acquisition program. That's problematic when it's time to measure failure or lessons learned.
"If an experiment doesn't work out as planned, instead of saying, 'well, we learned a great deal ...[and] we know what to do next,' ... we [instead] say, 'Well maybe we ought to cancel this entire project,'" he said.
In order to succeed, testing must be continuous, the officials said. And it can be enhanced with predictive analysis, they added.
"In order to be successful, we have to be able to sense, we have to see, hear, we have to plan ... and then we have to execute," Joseph said. "It starts out with our ability to make sense out of what we sense."
"We have to start sharing data, not just across the intelligence communities. We have to find a way to do it better," Tapper added.
The push for big data and tech development has also forced the Air Force and Defense Department as a whole to navigate how to better work as a team, Joseph said.
Joseph compared innovation and using a family of systems in the multi-domain space to a game of hockey. Hockey players always get two fundamentals wrong, he said: they prioritize individual achievement first, and they shoot at the goalie.
"You shoot where the goalie isn't, or you shoot where the goalie can't be," Joseph said. "The second thing that comes in is this concept of a team. The way you work [a] problem is by using the team."
It also speaks to how the U.S. works with its allies, he said.
"This goes beyond the assets that we own to the assets our allies own," Joseph said.
-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.