Initiating Ideas

July 1, 2003

The U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Force Battlelab takes creative ideas and turns them into a working product, writes Alicia Hammond.

June/July 2003
Have you ever thought that a piece of equipment could use an update or that the creation of a new piece of equipment could make a certain job a lot easier? Ideas like these come to people all the time, but the problem is making them a reality. How can an idea become an actuality? The answer is to take the idea to the United States Air Force Air Expeditionary Force Battlelab (AEFB).

For the past six years, the AEFB has been working to transition innovative ideas to equipment that reduces time and increases effectiveness. The AEFB, located at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, is where a group of experts focus on ideas to make ground support equipment, as well as other types of equipment, better for the Air Force and possibly for the general public.

Battlelab concept
"The Air Force Battlelabs were chartered by former Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Michael Ryan," says TSgt Ron Newpher, Director of Aerospace Ground Support Equipment at the AEFB. "Basically, he wanted visionary people to identify innovative ideas with the possibilities to use advanced technology in the Air Force, while fitting in line with expressing the Air Force core competencies."

There are seven battlelabs across the United States and each has its own focus area: space, information warfare, force protection, command and control, unmanned aerial vehicles, and air mobility. Battlelabs are different than regular research labs. They are interested in managing ideas and concepts but also with demand and value. Battlelabs are small focused teams of about 25 active duty Air Force personnel supported by on-site Department of Defense civilian personnel, contractors, and reserve forces. These people are experts in the area they are working and many have perspectives in the field as warfighters. The mission of the AEFB is: "To identify and rapidly prove the worth of innovative ideas for the Combatant Commanders' employment of Air Expeditionary forces for Global Engagement throughout the entire spectrum of warfare."

TSgt Newpher says that working at the battlelab is a unique opportunity. "This is a mature group that has a lot of experience. When a position becomes open, the selection process is very competitive. I jumped at the chance [to work at the Battlelab]. As an AGE guy, I had a lot of ideas to make this type of equipment better."

The Air Force created this unique organization to get "high payback" results from initiatives fast. The AEFB does not accept just any idea to work on. A good AEFB initiative must meet several requirements to be able to make it to the next step. It must be an original, innovative concept, low-cost, have measurable results, can be completed in 18 months or less, and can be used by the entire Air Force. It could be anything that makes the Air Force lighter, leaner, or more lethal. The AEFB tries to work on a small amount of initiatives at one time to allow them to focus on each one and rapidly take them through the process.

"The most active initiatives we had at one time numbered 16 initiatives," Newpher says. "We try to keep a steady average of active initiatives at about 12. "Some [initiatives] are forwarded to us. We have gotten hundreds of ideas and transitioned about 25 of them to fielded equipment."

Advancing ideas
An idea presented to the AEF Battlelab is evaluated by all the battlelab members to decide if it is an idea that the battlelab is interested in advancing.

"This is basically a sanity check," explains Newpher. "If it passes the sanity check, we may take it on or forward it on to another battlelab it better fits."

Many times it is realized early in the process that a particular idea could work better at one of the other battlelabs or another military agency.

"One part of the process before you do anything is to get with the other battlelabs, including our sister services," says Newpher. "They also have Battlelabs and we see if they are doing something similar or if this is something that would interest them. We do have initiatives that cross the lines."

After advancement of an idea, the AEFB conducts in-depth research to decide if the Air Force should continue to spend more time working on the idea, move it forward, or wait for more technology.

"As a unit, we vote to move on it or not. It's called the Murder Board. A lot of questions are asked and another vote then kills the idea, defers it for more research or advances it to MAJCOM [Major Commands] approval. If it gets the thumbs up, it becomes an active initiative." Newpher says.

The AEFB has completed 23 initiatives in the past 6 years. The completed initiatives have varied levels of "transition" ranging from no transition to full use. Newpher says that a lot of initiatives are very straight forward concepts. "I get a lot of 'why didn't we do this sooner?' and that is what Battlelab is all about. These things just make it easier for the warfighter to do his or her job. Some of the simplest initiatives haven't been previously implemented by the MAJCOMs because there wasn't enough interest at the time and the current equipment is doing okay." He continues, "Basically, the MAJCOMs have more important things going on. We grab these low hanging fruits and present a fully demonstrated concept to the MAJCOMs. This makes it easier for them to accept the idea and implement it. One of our most important processes is to include the users in the building and demonstration of the initiatives."

One initiative that is nearing the final testing phase is the Mobile Aircraft Jacks and Equipment Kit (MAJEK), which is a set of standardized aircraft jacks that lessens the usually long process of preparation for deployment. MAJEK is a pneumatic-controlled, hydraulic-actuated universal aircraft jack designed for rapid deployment with a unit mounted load tester to test the load of the jack in a deployed environment.

"Anytime you deploy aircraft, you have to take the aircraft-specific jack with the plane. By making an aircraft jack that fits all planes we are making the job a lot easier for the AGE guys as well as the specialists who use them on the aircraft," Newpher says. "Instead of taking up four and a half pallet positions in some cases, this can do the same job with two."

Malabar International is under contract by the AEFB to make these aircraft jacks, which are currently being put through functionality testing.

"Specifications for the initiative prototype equipment were developed by all the users involved, then put out for relevant companies to bid on the manufacture and integration of the equipment," says Newpher.

"Malabar was the best choice for the design we had in mind. They have been building aircraft jacks for many years and I am very happy with the quality of work we have received from them."

The MAJEK project is a perfect example of the creative and important work the AEFB is doing for the Air Force and consumers through initiating, and ultimately implementing, ideas.

AEF Battlelab
360 Gunfighter Avenue, Suite 1
Mountain Home AFB, ID 83648-5299
[email protected]