As the lead agency in the realm of test and evaluation, the Air Force Test Center is tasked with testing tomorrow’s aerospace systems while keeping an eye on an ever-changing technological horizon.
“The test center has a long history of providing great value to the warfighter, but the national security environment has been evolving at a pace I haven’t seen across my entire career,” said Brig. Gen. Christopher Azzano, AFTC commander. “So while we are executing our vital mission today, the mission of testing Air, Space, and Cyberspace systems; we also have to be thinking about how we’re going to do it tomorrow, the year after, and 10 to 15 years beyond.”
The AFTC is headquartered at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The organization has oversight of various testing missions across the nation — the 96th Test Wing, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., Arnold Engineering Development Complex, Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., and the 412th Test Wing, also at Edwards.
Azzano, along with his command chief, Command Chief Master Sgt. Michael Ditore, recently shared the AFTC’s enduring principles as well as their vision for the AFTC’s future for ensuring the Air Force Test Center stays ready for tomorrow’s threats. Azzano explained how the center is “Achieving speed, agility and innovation through world-class risk management.”
“One of the core competencies the test center brings to the fight is risk management. We do it better than anybody; whether operational or safety risk, technical risk, program risk, financial risk, you name it, we manage it better than anybody,” Azzano said. “We are really good at deconstructing problems and finding the things that could potentially create challenges or hazards for us and mitigating those. We do it better than anybody because it is the foundation of everything we do; being out front and leading in a new area and doing things that have never been done before. Risk management is inherent in our culture.”
The creativity and flexibility of the AFTC is also a principle that Azzano recognizes and aims to continue.
“Another of our enduring principles is the ability to tailor each of our programs and products to meet the needs of our customers in a way that truly adds value; not always having a one-size-fits-all solution, which is a trap that many people in government and industry fall in to, but not in the Air Force Test Center,” Azzano said. “We are always looking to find the best solution to the problem at hand. We are, by nature, problem solvers who detest inefficiency.”
Azzano cited an example of the AFTC’s flexibility during the Air Force’s Light Attack Experiment. The experiment took place at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., under purview of AEDC. The Light Attack Experiment evaluated commercial “off-the-shelf” platforms to explore cost-effective options to provide relief for 4th and 5th generation aircraft and also bolster international interoperability. The Air Force Research Laboratory was tasked with the experiment, and they turned to the AFTC for support.
“AFRL came to us because they knew we were the only organization that possess those requisite skills,” Azzano said. “So we tailored the program and it was a tremendous success, and we are going to see some promising follow-on efforts in the category of experimentation.”
Lastly, Azzano said that a “relentless focus” on the warfighter as an enduring principle is critical to the AFTC mission.
“If we’re trying to meet somebody else’s needs or objectives as opposed to the warfighter’s, then we’ve lost our way,” he said. “When I visit our units and talk to our amazing workforce, asking them what they’re doing and how it’s going, they very quickly link their efforts to a warfighting capability.”
Lifeblood of the Test Center
The key to the AFTC’s successes in the past and for the future is applying those enduring principles, to emerging domains, and trying to think ahead of adversaries in a rapidly evolving environment, Azzano said. And part of that lies in harvesting innovative ideas and harnessing a talented and passionate workforce.
“We are executing today and planning, resourcing and investing to be able to continue to perform our mission years from now in an environment that is changing very rapidly,” Azzano said. “That is my first and primary focus; at the same time there has always been a deficit in understanding what the test center can do for our Air Force customers and the joint services. So it’s on us really to help educate our customers and communicate to them what we can do to enable greater capability development and integration across warfighting domains.”
Azzano said that the challenge lies in effective communication with the AFTC’s customers with the key being constant engagement.
“We need to effectively communicate the value we bring to our customers in a way they clearly understand, even if they don’t observe it directly,” Azzano said. “Having established a strong rapport with our customers and having obtained the resources we need to meet their needs, our focus returns to our world-class workforce. It’s really about making sure that we can hire, develop and retain the right people who are highly motivated, fiercely loyal to our national objectives, and enthusiastic about what they do. A highly-skilled workforce will help us achieve our objectives in a dynamic environment. We need to continue developing and retaining that talent because it’s our lifeblood.”
That workforce is vital to the success of the AFTC and the Air Force as whole, Ditore said.
“We’ve been the world’s greatest air force because we have the greatest airmen, but we also have the most qualified and skilled air crew, the technology, the weapons systems,” he said. “In order to maintain that and stay in front of our adversaries, it’s the Airmen across the test center that are taking that emerging technology and turning it into an asset for us and win those fights tomorrow.”
Ditore, who joined Azzano as his command chief in November 2018, was personally asked by the general himself because of his previous assignment as the command chief of the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan.
“One of the reasons I asked Chief Ditore to join our team was his experience in the 18th Wing at Kadena, right out of the largest operational wing in the Air Force,” Azzano said. “If anybody knows what’s going on in the field, warfighters at the point of execution, in a very challenging theater of operations, it’s Chief Ditore. So chief is bringing that experience and he is really helping us transform as an enterprise to better suit our customers, but also to link what you’re doing every day to what’s really important in the field, which feeds our long-term national defense capability.”
Ditore said he is eager to meet the Airmen and civilians across the AFTC and get to work.
“I’m ready to dig in and see what we can do better to serve our Airmen and their families, it is vital to make sure that our Airmen have the tools, training and resources they need to do their job,” Ditore said. “We have to make sure they are motivated and proud of the job they are doing.”
“I want them to understand how their actions today is enabling the bigger picture; somebody turning a wrench out on the flight line is enabling a test tomorrow, which is enabling a capability six months from now, which might enable a new architecture or maybe trigger a strategic level ‘sea-change.’ That is something that is often lost when you are caught up in the day-to-day activity. We are very high op-tempo, so I just want people to take a step back and look and listen and think, and realize that we are doing something important,” Ditore added.
Azzano and Ditore both plan to engage both leadership and the workforce so that they can better assess the organization’s needs, while also reminding them of how important their work is. And also to harvest possible innovative new ideas.
“It is important for our younger folks to ask the ‘why’ and what we are doing; and I stress that to all levels of leadership,” Ditore said. “Our Airmen have a right to know what we are doing and why we are doing it. I’ve always found that morale was higher and the mission gets done better when our Airmen feel that sense of pride, when they are closer to the fight, and they understand what they are contributing to. They may also have some pretty awesome innovative ideas on how we do things better, so we have to be able to listen.”
Technology is constantly evolving, and for an organization like the AFTC, being ahead of the nation’s adversaries is challenge that the command is ready to tackle.
“My vision? To take our test and evaluation capabilities, our workforce and the products we produce today and evolve them to meet the needs of our nation in the years ahead,” Azzano said. “That vision primarily focuses on being able to test Air, Space, and Cyber systems that interact together across domains to create effects on battlefields that overwhelm our adversaries. That’s our fundamental value, if we can’t do that we fail.”
The AFTC is involved in emerging technologies such as hypersonic systems, cyberwarfare systems and space. Azzano explained the challenges of being ahead of current technological trends. New technologies lead new systems and capabilities by several years, up to eight or even 10 years, Azzano said.
“Being able to test the weapons systems of tomorrow is absolutely job number one for us,” he said. “We have to be ready well before the systems are ready for operational use. And at times emerging technologies evolve so quickly we have very little lead-time to develop the test capability that will enable future test programs, which in turn develop next-generation warfighting systems.”
One of the current weapon technological trends is hypersonic systems, and the AFTC is poised at leading the nation’s test and evaluation efforts in this emerging field.
“We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the focus on hypersonic development among many of our adversaries and within the last few years, it’s become one of the key objectives of our own defense effort,” Azzano said.
Hypersonics is a very harsh, unforgiving and technically challenging realm, going from a periodic program such as the X-51 Waverider research aircraft to current full-scale attempts. The AFTC is already working to develop technologies to develop weapons programs and other future systems.
“We are doing that on a very short order. If we are lagging as a nation in fielding hypersonic capabilities, we are even further behind in developing the test and evaluation infrastructure that can help us get there,” Azzano said. “We have to be a few years out in front. The same thing applies to directed energy or use of artificial intelligence in systems. And it’s always important to ask ourselves how we will test future technologies — how would we, for example, test autonomous systems? Well, we are thinking about that now. Even though emerging technologies and the systems they enable may not yet be ready to test, we don’t have the luxury of waiting to see how they play out. We have to be ready when the technology is ready and that is always a challenge.”
The planned creation of a new branch of the military responsible for space operations means that the AFTC should be an active participant in the testing and development of space systems, Azzano said.
“We look to the future, and we see what our adversaries are doing, across domains, but in particular in space,” he said. “We realize we cannot rely on space being a sanctuary forever, it will be a contested domain and we have to be ready to operate there.”
Azzano explained that in terms of military operations and development, the space domain has much room to evolve and the AFTC will play an important role in helping the nation’s space force achieve space superiority and mission assurance in space.
“We have an intense focus on how to get ahead and stay ahead of our potential adversaries,” Azzano said. “As we develop the concepts of operation for space as a warfighting domain, I firmly believe the Air Force Test Center has to have a pivotal role because we bring so many problem-solving skills to the effort. I’m optimistic we will retain our advantage in space as a nation, but the path will be easier if the Air Force Test Center is given a lead role in developing the systems and architectures that will get us there. I really believe that.”
A winning combination
The AFTC command team believes the way forward for a successful future is ingrained in its enduring principles and also on its people. The AFTC’s Airmen and civilians understand how critical they are to the nation’s security, Ditore said. For Azzano, the potential for the future is what helps drive him forward.
“The technology is evolving, there is great potential for it to feed our national defense capability; that gives me energy, I get excited about that,” Azzano said. “Frankly, I look at the team and the quality of the people, and they’re second to none, just an amazing group of folks with unmatched talent and dedication.”