FAIRCHILD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. --
Innovation is a common buzzword used in many settings as a catch-all to promote developing strategies, solutions and inventions that can improve efficiency, but also may turn out to become industry game changers.
The U.S. Department of Defense is no exception to encouraging its forces to stay competitive and innovative. Fairchild’s mission enables Global Reach and requires its Airmen to sustain readiness of the 60-year-old KC-135 Stratotanker, the backbone of Air Force refueling. This sometimes means finding new ways to revitalize equipment.
“In order to effectively support the mission, we need to enable thinkers to be free to develop solutions,” said Col. J. Scot Heathman, 92nd Air Refueling Wing vice commander. “Having a force that is more creative will complicate our adversaries’ decision-making abilities. We can retain an asymmetric advantage if we are flexible and less predictable from possessing a culture that welcomes open thinking. It can be something as simple as reframing the problems we face to find a ‘we can do this’ answer.”
Warfare has changed radically in the past century as technology advanced, cultures evolved and the world stage became more complex. The Air Force has implemented various innovation programs over the years to maintain air superiority and become ever faster and smarter in facing the challenges of tomorrow’s battles.
AFWERX is an Air Force program that works in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory to support Airmen’s innovative projects and help foster a culture of innovation within the service. The program also hosts a yearly ‘Spark Tank’ competition at the Air Force Association’s Warfare Symposium and grants Airmen an opportunity to pitch their ideas to top Air Force leadership and a panel of industry experts.
“We use the word ‘innovation’ like it’ll cease to exist one day if we don’t keep using it.” Heathman said. “What we’re really trying to do is unleash Airmen potential to not only fix local problems, but anything they can dream up.”
Military innovation can mean many things, but doesn’t have to be a new concept or product. Most developments are improvements to a mechanism, work processes, communication or even a cultural attitude.
Heathman is joined by key members of Team Fairchild who are working to enable innovation from other angles. Dawn Altmaier, 92nd ARW community support coordinator and diversity champion, is at the forefront of brainstorming with Airmen to find personal, social and cultural improvements that could be as revolutionary as the next tech marvel.
“Twenty-seven years ago, the culture was Airmen should be seen and not heard,” Altmaier said. “The winning way we’re going now is that it doesn’t matter what rank or gender you are, what state or country you come from. At Fairchild and across the Air Force we’re celebrating differences and telling folks that if you have an idea, share it. That idea of open collaboration is genius, because when great minds can get together, everyone wins.”
Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein dedicated $64 million in 2018 to be distributed across the service for innovation promotion or projects. Team Fairchild is investing up to $50,000 of that funding to build a specialized workshop at the base Red Morgan Center.
Ben Furqueron, 92nd Force Support Squadron deputy commander, has taken up the charge to build an ‘Inland Spark’ thinker space with as many resources as possible to help eliminate physical barriers Airmen may have while working on ideas.
“We are constructing a place that will provide aides to mapping out concepts and putting ideas to the test while keeping it local,” Furqueron said. “I’m building a space for Airmen to use, but it’s up to leadership and Airmen to utilize it to the fullest potential. You can give people all the tools to create something, but it takes more than that; it takes a will to use it.”
Innovation is necessary for success, but Airmen may feel at odds working on side projects while endeavoring to perform their assigned duties. This belief is changing as NCOs lead the charge to foster a positive environment of free thinking while maintaining focus on mission completion.
Tech. Sgt. Shawn Roberge, 92nd Maintenance Group Aircraft Structural Maintenance section chief, is a successful innovator who recently finished development of a simple device that could save the Air Force more than a million dollars in avoidable aircraft repairs.
“Innovation is something we have to adopt because we don’t have the people or time to continue to do things the way we did an era ago,” Roberge said. “It begins with leaders at all levels; if you don’t foster or encourage people to speak up about ideas, regardless of rank, then nothing will change. We must continually grow because we are competing with other militaries working overtime on the same things we are, looking for that edge in a serious game we can’t afford to lose.”
One Airman’s method to do their job better can be shared and developed into a system that improves an entire unit’s performance; it all starts with one person sharing their idea.
Team Fairchild is dedicated to cultivating the seeds of problem-solving culture.
“We need to ‘tend the garden’ a little bit first and create more ideal conditions for ideas to grow,” Heathman said. “This will take more than setting aside a space; it’ll take some initiative from all levels to adapt our military culture to help a positive atmosphere take root.”
Innovation and modernization efforts such as these are preparing air mobility forces for future operating environments where emerging threats will require investments in Airmen to find unconventional solutions. Team Fairchild is pioneering this support to make the mission more capable, lethal and ready to provide Global Reach at the Speed of War.