Bring Back the Air Force Battle Lab

Commentary by Mike Benitez via War on the Rocks

The U.S. Air Force has established a new, innovative organization whose charter is to “create an environment where innovative ideas are rapidly harvested and evaluated, leading to swift fielding of proven concepts,” with a mission to “rapidly identify and prove the worth of innovative ideas which improve the ability of the Air Force to execute its core competencies and joint warfighting.”

This wasn’t 2021 though — it was 1997. This was the Air Force Battle Lab. Despite some notable successes, the organization was shuttered in 2007 to shift fiscal support to ground operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the time since the battle lab became an obscure historical footnote, the Air Force has launched several innovation efforts and organizations, but none has filled the void left by the battle lab.

To answer Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown’s call to accelerate change or lose, the Air Force desperately needs to revive the battle lab.

What Was the Battle Lab?

The Air Force Battle Lab wasn’t actually a lab, it was a group of seven mission-specific labs.

The battle lab existed to pair adapted mature technology with novel operating concepts to generate new warfighting solutions. To some readers, this may sound similar to several current Air Force efforts, but there are three distinct differences that separate the battle lab from anything the Air Force is presently doing.

First, the battle lab focused on exploiting mature (already fielded) technology and pairing it with novel concepts to generate new effects. For example, picture the F-16 HARM targeting system that is used for the suppression of enemy air defenses. Imagine what could be done by installing it on an existing drone to penetrate further and loiter longer in areas deemed too risky for expensive manned fighters. Imagine no more — the battle lab did this in 2004 with an MQ-1 drone. The closest effort to this kind of work right now are research labs, but they are rightly focused on advancing the maturity (or technical readiness level) of nascent technology.

Second, the battle lab primarily existed to quickly close known capability gaps for airmen. Specifically, their goal was to field solutions within 18 months. Case in point: In the early days of Operation Enduring Freedom, the battle lab was tapped to solve critical communication issues inherent to operations in mountainous terrain that block line-of-sight communication for aircraft performing close air support. The battle lab’s solution was the Fighter Aircraft Command & Control Enhancement pod, which repurposed a standard training instrumentation pod that virtually all fighter aircraft carry on their missile rails during training. This pod was modified to carry an iridium satellite radio modem and a small VHF/UHF radio and provided a bolt-on workaround to continue the mission — years before the formal Urgent Operational Need process fielded a permanent satellite radio to solve the problem.

Last and most importantly, the battle lab was unique in that they existed to innovate for troops in the field. This is an important distinction worth highlighting. Despite the hype and emphasis on innovation throughout the Air Force in recent years, the reality is that very few of the technology, acquisition, and innovation organizations exist to provide direct near-term support to the operators at the forefront of executing the mission and/or put into harm’s way.

Astute readers may point to the efforts of AFWERX, the Air Force’s lead innovation organization. No doubt it is doing great work. However, AFWERX was not created to help airmen directly — it was created to help reinvigorate the small business defense industrial base. This distinction is easy to see once you identify the organization’s unique value proposition: industry outreach and the ability to generate massive volumes of small business research contracts. More AFWERX efforts reinforce this point. AFWERX’s Prime exists to expand emerging dual-use technology transition paths to accelerate (i.e., “prime”) markets — like flying cars. Finally, while AFWERX’s Spark Tank program is centered on airmen’s ideas, the program is structured to deal solely in the unclassified realm, and efforts are almost entirely limited to solving administrative and support pain points. These are beneficial to the mission in their own right, but these are not the ways or means to solve warfighting problems that operational airmen must contend with.

Why a Battle Lab

There are two imperatives for reviving the battle lab.

The first is bureaucracy. As the complexity of airpower continues to increase, there are more people than ever involved in the design, proposal, approval, and acquisition process to field capabilities that hope to generate the effects intended. As a result, the Air Force has found itself trapped in a paradigm where its strategic planning and programming efforts are yielding smaller returns on investment, and they are taking longer and longer to reach the end user in the field. This, in turn, creates more (and larger) capability gaps that are presumably solved sometime in the future with “program next” using the same process that created the issues in the first place. In the meantime, it is the operator deployed to execute the mission who assumes all the risk.

I am reminded of a recurring theme at the Air Force’s Weapons and Tactics Conference, an annual event attended by thousands of tacticians and dozens of general officers. A large part of the conference involves presenting operational problems for the operators to solve with innovative ideas. However, those operators closest to the warfighting problems are prohibited from proposing any material solution (i.e., no new hardware or software and no equipment modifications). In summary, they are asked to close capability gaps created by their own acquisition system, with only the tools that system has managed to provide them, and their disruptive material solutions aren’t even considered. Yes, there is value to imposing constraints to breed creativity, but there is also a point where a person can no longer be expected to “non-material” his or her way out of a material problem that was created by their own institution. The current process was not designed to be dynamic, and therefore it isn’t.

Secondly, the battle lab could provide a much-needed vehicle for tactical efforts to create operational impacts with strategic implications. It would do so by operating outside of the current planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process, a 1960s system that operates on the underlying premise of delivering one solution to one problem. In contrast, the battle lab would not only close tactical capability gaps but also rapidly create multiple ways to generate effects — and counter competitors’ capabilities. At the operational level, this translates into creating multiple dilemmas for the adversary. This is the key operational premise that underpins strategic competition and the National Defense Strategy.

There is little doubt that the Air Force wants to do this, but there is also little doubt it can do this by continuing to rely solely on its current organizational and institutional process that has proved unable to deliver.

Battle Lab 2.0

Innovation in the military is viewed mainly through the lens of technologists and futurists. After all, that’s where the money is. However, one of the underlying assumptions of this tech-centric culture is that capability and cost are directly correlated. This is wrong. In fact, it’s entirely possible to be extremely disruptive without being extremely expensive. As Chris Brose’s book The Kill Chain highlights, “new thinking is more important than new technology.” Right now, the Air Force has no organization charged to think like this — let alone act. Some might point to Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability, but this organization was created to centralize strategic force design and inform long-term budget decisions in order to build the force of the future. In fact, a few months ago it was quietly re-aligned and rebranded as Air Force Futures to clarify its scope.

Think of the battle lab as teams of Lego masters. They would be focused on creating new effects by making innovative combinations of pieces sourced from the biggest Lego bin in the world: billions of dollars of military equipment that has already been procured, tested, and fielded. In many respects, the Air Force battle lab would be akin to a short-timeline, service-centric version of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, set up in 2012 to fund a handful of (usually classified) projects each fiscal year that test new ways of using existing weapons.

Adopting a line from DARPA’s purpose, the revived battle lab’s mission would be to create and prevent tactical surprise by developing novel, unorthodox, low-cost and high-payoff concepts that harvest, harness, and adapt technologies that already exist within the Department of Defense. This would close mission capability gaps for operators and create near-term disruption.

Rather than listing some promising ideas here and spoiling any future element of surprise, here are three unclassified historic examples to provide context.

A weapon: The Navy Weapons Center once created a very cheap anti-ship missile using off-the-shelf components by attaching an AGM-45 rocket motor to a Paveway II laser-guided bomb known as the AGM-123 Skipper. This crude but effective weapon was used to sink an Iranian frigate in 1988 during Operation Praying Mantis.

A Navy A-6 Intruder firing an AGM-123 Skipper. (Department of Defense)

A modification: In the aftermath of the failed Operation Eagle Claw, a combined Air Force, Navy, and Lockheed team was tasked to develop a unique hostage and team extraction vehicle (the weak link in the failed mission). Known as Operation Credible Sport, the team’s solution was a C-130 outfitted with rockets to permit a landing and subsequent take-off within the confines of a soccer stadium to rescue the American hostages held in Iran.

A Credible Sport YMC-130H forward-firing rockets during a short-landing test. (Department of Defense)

An adaptation: Just before Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Air Force contracted Northrop Grumman to modify a handful of target drones to lay chaff corridors. Completed in just 17 days, the modified drones were air-launched by a Navy DC-130 on the opening night of the war to clutter Iraqi radars ahead of the Air Force’s initial wave of manned strikes.

Modified BQM-34 target drones loaded on a Navy DC-130 in Masirah, Oman, on the eve of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Public)

Such technology mashups would augment — not replace — other acquisition/development efforts because the battle lab would operate off of needs, not requirements. For the unfamiliar, in defense parlance, requirements are largely driven by a bureaucratic top-down process and long-term strategic programming. Needs are quickly derived from the customer — the operator dealing with the warfighting problem first-hand. Right now, the only rapid needs-based support these airmen can get is from a system developed during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that tragically mandates they be put into harm’s way before asking for help. This is not useful in an era of great-power competition.

The Minimum Viable Product

In this regard, the battle lab would provide a much-needed sense of urgency by prioritizing the most important and underappreciated variable in strategic competition — time. To preserve this key organizational attribute, as well as to temper technological appetite and to breed creativity, the proposed battle lab should aim to field minimum viable products within 18 months, the same timeline the original battle lab used 20 years ago.

It’s worth emphasizing the most important value of a minimum viable product is that it’s customer-focused — it’s the simplest version of a thing you can build that delivers value to the customer. In other words, it may not be perfect, but it will get to the operator in the field. This is a very different approach from the prototypes, demonstrations, and proofs-of-concept that currently crowd much of the defense innovation space.

This is the key for taking ideas from concept to combat to quickly close capability gaps while avoiding the trap of a more traditional byzantine requirements process or, worse, creating a pile of prototypes but delivering no capability to the help those dealing with the problem in the field. Minimum viable products permit the rapid fielding of solutions while still retaining the right and ability to iterate through the build-measure-learn cycle of product development to get end-user feedback and to continually iterate on solutions. This is fundamental to keeping the battle lab operating like a lean startup, even as it exists inside the Air Force’s bureaucracy.

Using this process, the battle lab would own the problem, maintain unique tactical and operational insights, and empower the operatorial Air Force all while implementing numerous Defense Innovation Board recommendations that have yet to be acted on by the Air Force.

Accelerate Change

To be fair, the original battle labs weren’t perfect. Fortunately, the Air Force is in the business of applying lessons learned and is capable of building a better version of the battle lab today.

Where would the new battle lab(s) be located? How many labs should there be and what missions/areas should they focus on? How would it be manned, and who would own them? How would the battle labs discriminate among potential customers and problem sets to operate based upon value, opportunity, and needs? How would they expedite contracting to deliver on such aggressive timelines? How would they scale solutions past the minimum viable product stage?

These are all valid questions to be answered in time, but first the Air Force must come to the realization that it doesn’t need another innovation organization or technology accelerator. It needs a customer-centric capability accelerator — it needs to revive the battle lab.