Innovation Inside the Bureaucracy


2014-07-16 By Lieutenant General Ted F. Bowlds USAF (ret)

To those who believe innovation inside the government, within the walls of the Pentagon bureaucracy is impossible, I am here to tell you it can happen.

It requires only two ingredients.

The first key ingredient is the entrepreneur, the innovator, and the person with the new novel idea.

Any organization has these individuals. It is a question of whether or not the organization encourages these individuals and welcomes their ideas or if the institution stifles and crushes their new ideas, “We’ve always done it this way.” thinking.

And this is where the second key ingredient to innovation rests, at the footsteps of a person in a leadership position within the bureaucracy who serves as the innovator’s champion.

It is not an office, a committee, or an organization, but a single person who makes a new idea a reality.

So the math is simple: individual with an idea plus a champion equals innovation.

ADVENT is a joint project of GE and the U.S. Air Force
ADVENT is a joint project of GE and the U.S. Air Force 

During my short time as commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) I was witness to this rare occurrence of the individual + champion = innovation.

Within AFRL I certainly had no shortage of new and innovative ideas. By its nature, that is what a laboratory is supposed to do. Scientist and engineers love the work they do, that passion sores when the scientist see it actually in the hands of the war fighter. The challenge is often “selling” these new ideas to big Air Force.

While the Air Force has a history of embracing new technologies, like stealth, it has done so with caution. The champion who forced new thinking and embraced new ideas during my tenure was Michael Wynne, Secretary of the Air Force.

Mike Wynne took a direct interest in the work being undertaken within AFRL. Some of this interest was probably based on his love of research and where he began his Air Force career. But I believe what drove him most was his desire to push innovation and forward thinking into the Air Force. Mike consciously understood and believed in his part of the equation.

Two examples illustrate my point.

Direct Access Facilitated a Process of Innovation

First was my direct access to Secretary Wynne. About every six weeks, I would sit with the Secretary and discuss what was happening in AFRL, what new ideas we were pursuing, what discoveries had been realized, and where I needed his help as the champion.

While many individuals and organizations can claim such a privileged audience with the SecAF, it was the process that I took to get to these meetings that was truly remarkable. Secretary Wynne was directly involved in scheduling these discussions.

The meetings did not follow the established protocol for scheduling the SecAF’s time. Mike simply put it on his schedule.

Most important was the absence of any pre-briefs or advance charts to any other organization or office in the Pentagon. The discussion went directly from my thinking to discussion with Mike.

Lastly, other than Secretary Wynne’s assistant, there for any notes to be taken or action Mike directed to be taken, it was not a room filled with “strap hangers.” The meetings were a forum for clear discussions, identifying roadblocks, and taking action to quickly make things happen.

 AFRL Commander’s Challenge as an Innovative Approach

The second example was the AFRL Commander’s Challenge.

The simple concept behind the Challenge was to give two competing teams of young researchers a real world problem to solve in a head-to-head competition. The competition was setup to drive innovative problem solving in a short demanding time frame. With elements of technical, financial, contracting and program management, the Challenge also served as a learning tool.

When you take this environment and couple it with Secretary Wynne’s direct involvement, the results are magnified. Mike’s involvement ranged from picking the real world challenge (given his position he certainly had access to many issues needing to be solved) to presenting trophies to the winners.

These two small examples barely capture the innovative spirit Secretary Wynne brought to the Air Force thinking.

The ADVENT Engine

His creative leadership can be seen in large AFRL efforts like the The ADaptive Versatile ENgine Technology (or ADVENT) program, an AFRL aircraft engine development program with the goal of developing an efficient variable cycle engine for next generation military aircraft.

Most if not all of the transformational ideas put forth by AFRL while I was commander had Secretary Wynne’s personal support.

I also witnessed beyond my time as AFRL Commander Secretary Wynne’s style of leadership. He always encouraged discussion, especially when it generated new ideas and approaches. And he was not afraid to try something different especially if it benefited the war fighter.

In summary, let me offer a slight modification to my equation. Specifically;

Individual + Secretary Wynne = Innovation

Editor’s Note: The fruits of a process of innovation do not occur overnight.

With regard to the ADVENT engine project, progress has been made with a significant impact on US engine technologies.

According to a 2012 General Electric press release:

EVENDALE, OHIO – GE Aviation began testing its engine core for the ADaptive Versatile ENgine Technology (ADVENT) program with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. The core test demonstrates GE’s most advanced core propulsion technologies including lightweight, heat-resistant ceramic matrix composite (CMC) materials. These core technologies, along with an adaptive low pressure spool, will result in a 25 percent improvement in fuel efficiency, a 30 percent increase in operating range and a five-to-ten percent improvement in thrust compared to today’s fixed-cycle engines.

The ADVENT program is scheduled to conclude in 2013 with a full engine test. GE will continue to mature the ADVENT technologies through the Air Force’s Adaptive Engine Technology Development (AETD) program, which will conclude in 2016 following fan rig testing and a core engine test.

“The ADVENT engine is a revolutionary military engine,” said Jeff Martin, GE Aviation’s general manager for the ADVENT program. “Packaged together, GE’s variable-pressure-ratio fan, CMC materials and high-pressure-ratio core technologies will enable the Air Force to meet the aggressive performance targets required for future missions.”

“GE Aviation is honored to partner with the Air Force in the demonstration of these unique technologies with the U.S. Air Force,” said Dan McCormick, GE Aviation’s general manager for the AETD program. “Along with advanced controls and exhaust system designs, we will integrate proven ADVENT technologies like third-stream cooling and CMCs into our AETD engine.”

Unlike fixed cycle engine architectures powering today’s aircraft, variable cycle architectures are designed to operate efficiently in conditions across the entire flight envelope, including subsonic and supersonic speeds. GE’s adaptive cycle design includes a third stream of air that can be utilized for maximum fuel efficiency and provide thermal management advantages to a conventional engine.

The ADVENT engine is GE Aviation’s most recent development program to successfully demonstrate the variable cycle architecture. Following initial studies by Gerhard Neumann in the 1960s, GE’s YJ101 was the first full engine to demonstrate variable cycle capabilities in 1976. GE built on the YJ101 experience to produce the YF120 variable cycle engine for the Advanced Tactical Fighter project, which set the world supercruise record in 1990.

The ADVENT and AETD variable cycle engines are improving on the YF120 design while integrating technologies developed through GE Aviation’s $600 million investment in commercial engine programs, such as high pressure compressors and lightweight CMCs in the high- and low-pressure turbines that result in reduced engine weight and minimize the need for cooling. The ADVENT engine will be GE’s highest overall pressure ratio military engine, resulting in a significant fuel consumption improvement compared to today’s engines.

For the biography of Lieutenant General Ted F. Bowlds USAF (ret) during his time in the USAF see the following:

And for an updated resume:


Editor’s Note About the Series:

This is the third in a multi-part series focusing on Mike Wynne and his impact on innovation in the Department of Defense:

The kick-off piece:

From Lou Kratz

And Wynne’s contribution to innovation in defense clearly is not over, and his contributions on a regular basis to Second Line of Defense certainly demonstrate this.

For example, her is his take on the potential role of the Advent engine in evolving the air combat capabilities of US forces: