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Retiring AFRL commander touts game changing technology research; world-class staff

Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, Commander, Air Force Research Laboratory

Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello, Commander, Air Force Research Laboratory

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Tom" Masiello, commander of the Air Force Research Laboratory since June 2013, will retire following 35 years of active duty service to the U.S. Air Force this summer. He will be honored for his service during an AFRL change of command and retirement ceremony May 13 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Masiello will be succeeded by Maj. Gen. Robert D. McMurry Jr., who currently serves as vice commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, California.

During his tenure as commander of AFRL, Masiello championed the game-changing technologies of hypersonics, directed-energy weapons, and autonomy. He has managed a $2.1 billion Air Force science and technology program and an additional $2.3 billion in externally funded research and development.

Masiello recently discussed these technologies, saying that he believes they will make headlines for years to come.

According to Masiello, these game changing technologies all fit into AFRL's three lines of operation within the AFRL portfolio of responsibility: Revolutionary - making and keeping the fight unfair through technology; Relevant - meeting the near and mid-term gaps of major commands and warfighters; and Responsive - getting urgently needed technology from the lab into the field within months, mainly to support combat operations in the area of responsibility.

Three game changing technologies are being developed to change the nature of warfare. The first is hypersonics. Just over three years ago, AFRL demonstrated the X-51 Waverider, a hypersonic cruise missile-like vehicle, but without a warhead or a seeker in it.

"It was very successful, the fourth of four planned tests - powered by a scramjet and we actually got over 200 seconds of scramjet-powered flight accelerating out to Mach 5-plus," said Masiello. "It was a historic aviation milestone that erased anyone's doubts that sustained air-breathing hypersonic flight is for real."

That technology has matured to where it now has two separate technology thrusts, Masiello said. One, a scramjet powered demonstration and another that AFRL calls 'Tactical Boost Glide,' where a two-stage rocket accelerates a warhead to hypersonic speeds and then it glides in. "We believe that the technology to actually start a hypersonic program of record will likely be mature enough over the next four or five years," said Masiello. "That doesn't mean the Air Force has committed to that yet, but from a lab and science and technology standpoint, the technologies will be mature enough to start a program of record with the appropriate risk."

Based on AFRL's current investment strategy, Masiello said that AFRL will take a deliberate approach to maturing hypersonic technologies and fielding them first in weapons and then perhaps more in a reusable kind of vehicle with an intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance kind of role, and then a full scale strike and/or ISR - either manned or unmanned vehicle sometime in the 2040s.

The second game changing technology is directed energy - including lasers and high-powered microwave technology. According to Masiello, AFRL has leveraged advancements in both solid state and electric lasers.

"Chemical lasers produce a lot of power, but they take a 747-sized plane worth of hazardous chemicals to produce that power," said Masiello. Given all the hazardous chemicals that are required, chemical lasers are not operationally relevant to deploy throughout the Air Force, he indicated.

Masiello said that solid state and electric lasers are producing power that is operationally relevant for the Air Force. "We have completely shifted our focus toward those types of laser systems, and are looking to integrate over the next five years, a demonstration of integrating a medium powered laser into a pod and flying it on a high-performance aircraft like a fighter, to help mature that technology for eventually being able to integrate a medium, and then a high powered laser into fighter sized aircraft," he said.

The third game changing technology is autonomy.

"When we talk about autonomy, it's not automation, it's not pulling the Airman out of the weapon system. What we're talking about is making an effective human-machine team. The human does what it does best and the machine does what it does best and they've teamed where they can be so much more effective than if it was just a machine only or a human only," said Masiello.

One of the areas of autonomy AFRL is taking a look at is a program called "Loyal Wingman." Although not yet a program of record, it is part of a science and technology maturity plan. Loyal Wingman would pair a manned fighter with a UAV.
This state-of-the-art research would not be possible without brilliant people. According to Masiello, AFRL has been quite successful at recruiting top-notch scientists and engineers to do the critical research necessary to advance these game-changing technologies.

"We're doing ok right now, but we have to make sure way stay postured to be able to recruit that talent we need, especially as we increase our thrust in autonomy, human-machine teaming, and artificial intelligence," he said.

AFRL and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center are also partnering to map cyber-attack vulnerabilities and attack vectors and then develop solutions to help protect weapon systems.

"Our Sensors Directorate here is leading the research effort on securing embedded systems for fielded weapons systems. Our Information Directorate at Rome, New York, is doing more of the research for future secure architectures and network security. There's significant collaboration between all of our directorates on cyber security."

Masiello said he is optimistic about the budget outlook for AFRL and that he is grateful for the support the lab receives from senior Air Force and Department of Defense leaders, as well as the congressional support to lab has received.

"I honestly believe that we have put a structure in place where we're able to understand the warfighter's problems, what their gaps in requirements are, and then have a continuous dialogue with our scientists and engineers so they understand the state of the art as well as industry and then work technology plans to address those gaps.

As the general prepares for the next chapter of his life, he said he has enjoyed coming to work with some of the most brilliant minds in the nation at AFRL.

"It's just great people doing a very important mission that they're highly motivated to accomplish," he said.

The 56 year-old Masiello, from Youngstown, New York, plans to move to Virginia to rejoin his wife, Lt. Gen. Wendy Masiello, director of the Defense Contract Management Agency.