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Grassroots innovation at Nellis impresses chief scientist

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Richard Caesar
  • 57th Wing Public Affairs

In August 2020, Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chief of staff of the Air Force, released his strategic approach, “Accelerate change or lose,” and followed it up with a charge to leadership across the Air Force to allow more spaces for innovation.

According to the Department of the Air Force’s Chief Scientist Dr. Victoria Coleman, Brown’s vision is thriving at Nellis Air Force Base at the level that affects the fight most directly.

“There’s a ton of innovation going on here at the base and in the broader Nellis community,” said Coleman. “What I’m seeing here is a great deal of excitement and energy, really from the ground up, and that was really refreshing.”

Coleman visited Nellis Nov. 15-19, accompanied by a group of over 30 chief scientists and advisors from across the Air Force, to take part in a series of science and technology discussions. The party also made stops at the Virtual Test and Training Center, the Shadow Operations Center- Nellis and the 414th Combat Training Squadron. The purpose of the visit was to observe how the Nellis mission is executed at the operational level.

She said her biggest takeaway was the grassroots innovation taking place at Nellis and spoke of one example that stood out to her.

“There was a team that is looking at ways to integrate autonomy into the operations of a regular squadron. There were four of them, top notch folks, all of them volunteers,” she said. “They had their day jobs. Then in the evenings, they built this team all by themselves, and they have a great handle on what you need to be able to deploy autonomy.”

The Air Force’s top scientist expressed that although it was encouraging to see so much forward thought and new processes being developed at the “operational edge,” more needed to be done from the Air Force leadership level to support these volunteer Airmen driving innovation.

“As leadership, we really need to learn what these people are doing by spending more time in places like this, then giving them the fuel and support they need to take this very unique capability that they’re building and institutionalize it … across the Department of the Air Force,” said Coleman

Coleman also revealed that her office is working on Management Initiative 9, which would recruit and embed much needed technical expertise at the front-line. As part of the initiative, the Air Force would analyze data about which career fields or organizations are in need of experts at the Masters or even PhD level and seek to fill those spots with dedicated personnel.

While lauding programs such as Spark Cells, she believes embedding dedicated experts directly into units could help drive even more innovation at the operational level.

“We don’t have nearly as many [technology experts] as we need on the uniform side and certainly on the operational side, which is where you need them the most. That’s where you’re going to do problem solving,” Coleman continued. “There’s only so much you can do by picking up the phone. You need to have some organic capability.”

Her office anticipates having the first round of data analysis for the initiative completed in April 2022, at which point they will be able to have a better idea of specifically what type expertise is needed and where.

Although Coleman is hopeful that this will be the first step in delivering an extra punch to frontline innovation, she’s encouraged by the work already being done by Nellis airmen at the operational level.  

“It’s brilliant and it’s being driven from the ground up,” she said.