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Empowering Airmen to discuss, innovate Air Force’s future

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Ashley Perdue
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

ORLANDO, Fla. -- This year’s Airlift/Tanker Association Symposium brought together Air Force leadership, academia, and mobility experts to include total force Airmen, civilians, and enterprise communities to discuss challenges facing the air mobility community.

One of the focus points for the symposium addressed giving young Airmen and industry partners more opportunity to be innovative and creative to improve processes and equipment for the warfighter.

“Up until about 1980 or so, the defense industry and government actually led a lot of innovation in this country,” said Lt. Col. Mark Jacobsen, founder of Uplift Aeronautics. “It was defense projects that lead to computers, internet and radar along with a lot of other things, but there has been a divergence since then. Now, the commercial sector is accelerating faster and faster, it’s almost exponential, and we’re trying to hang on and catch up.”

Jacobsen is an active duty USAF C-17 Globemaster III pilot. He is currently pursuing his doctoral PhD in Political Science at Stanford University. He founded Uplift after doing research among Syrian refugees in eastern Turkey in 2014. He received an Olmsted scholarship in 2008, spent two years in Amman learning Arabic, and earned a Master’s of Arts in Conflict Resolution from the University of Jordan. The Syria Airlift Project and Uplift Aeronautics are his personal initiatives.

Jacobsen states the reasoning for the gap in the Department of Defense is that the age-old processes are not equipped for innovation of the future.

In attempts to excel past this gap, a large focus is being placed on leadership to empower their Airmen, especially of junior ranks, to get excited about innovating and learning to work directly with industry partners, academia, and other government agencies to seek out solutions for their day-to-day issues, he said.

An example of this initiative is Air Mobility Command’s Phoenix Spark program.

Because of the program, Airmen at Travis Air Force Base, California, found top-tier workers from Silicon Valley interested in solving the unique problems being faced by the military. Through these new partnerships, the Airmen were able to bring unique solutions to the warfighter at a momentum not available through traditional pathways.

“We are trying to find the entrepreneurs of every shop to come together and figure out how to make similar things work at their own bases,” said Maj. Tony Perez, Co-Founder of Phoenix Spark program at Travis AFB.

Phoenix Spark is a base-level innovation program designed to organically connect and work with industry, academia and the Department of Defense in order to deliver tomorrow’s tools to the warfighter today. Through the program, Airmen were empowered to quickly and efficiently gain approval for the new electronic flight bag mount.

The DoD says it needs people who can champion these ideas to completion and that Airmen are not the only groups being focused on.

“That’s one of the reasons for the symposium, to partner with industry leaders to come up with solutions to substitute what we have been using as military standards,” said Robert Surrey, a contracting officer assigned to AMC. “We might not know there is new technology out there or new means and methods of doing something that is much more efficient, so we need to open up and let industry leaders take advantage of this opportunity to help us.”

According to Jacobsen, sometimes the best ideas come from those who are closest to the problems and are willing to create change through a network of innovation where everyone, military or industry, can help each other.

“People with drive and passion who are willing to innovate, are the people who are probably going to be in the Air Force in 20 years,” said Jacobsen. “So that’s a chance to mentor and show some faith and confidence, and if you give Airmen and partners some freedom to do that, it will act as its own reward for those people, and that’ll go a long way in retaining Airmen and setting them up for success.”