Start-Ups Wanted: How the Air Force Will Build Breakthrough Weapons

Start-Ups Wanted: How the Air Force Will Build Breakthrough Weapons

The Air Force recently launched AFWERX, a special innovation unit dedicated to finding and supporting new innovators.


The U.S. Air Force is intensely expanding its reach into academic and small business communities to conduct cutting-edge research and uncover breakthrough technologies.

This effort, which includes a vigorous pursuit of new studies and collaborative research partners with universities, also seeks to identify sometimes difficult-to-find innovators in the business world. Part of the effort evolved out of the 2019 Air Force Science and Technology Strategy.


The strategy “was a call to action for the [Air Force Research Laboratory] to up its game in so many areas to accelerate science and technology and deepen our relationships with the external world. It was a recognition that the government isn't the only institution that innovates and creates the next generation technology,” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), told the National Interest in an interview.

Pringle pointed to the critical need to expand and deepen relationships with universities and industry partners. In many instances, cutting-edge innovations can emerge from small companies or start-ups that uncover breakthrough weapons guidance systems, software, materials, or artificial intelligence-enabled applications, among other technologies.

“One of the most successful statistics that I like to quote … is that 75 percent of the industry that they have partnered with are new entrants to the DoD realm—that is fantastic. That means we've really opened our aperture beyond our consistent great performers to include so many more. What does that do? It opens our eyes to new ideas, new ways of doing business, and enables technology to accelerate even more,” Pringle said.

Part of this mission, Pringle explained, includes the addition of AFWERX, a special Air Force innovation unit dedicated to finding and supporting new innovators.

“We have AFWERX as part of our team now. And they're doing a lot of exciting things with small businesses, entrepreneurs, and companies that had not traditionally partnered with the Department of Defense,” Pringle explained.

Certainly, “out of the box” thinking on future threats and weapons innovations can emerge from larger companies with internal funding to help anticipate emerging military requirements. Yet, at the same time, there are also many innovations and potential breakthroughs emerging from smaller companies less likely to be on the Pentagon’s radar. For this reason, partnerships with universities, particularly ​​Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, can often yield findings capable of inspiring weapons developers to explore new avenues of development.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Air Force.