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AFOSR - History

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A Brief Organizational History

Download the AFOSR 60th Anniversary Monograph for a comprehensive history of AFOSR and its contributions to scientific advancement.

The wide-ranging and highly successful United States Air Force basic research program that exists today was born out of the need to address a long-standing shortfall in military basic research. This deficiency became obvious during the WW II years when massive civilian-led research and development efforts were required to create much needed weaponry and support requirements driven by the war's critical pace.

This program of civilian-based research fit in well with plans that Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold had initiated in November 1944 when he brought a distinguished cadre of scientists together to form the Army Air Forces Scientific Advisory Group. Dr. Theodore von Karman, one of the world's leading aerodynamicists, chaired the group that continues to this day as the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). Arnold convened this group because he was convinced that "the first essential of the air power necessary for our national security is preeminence in research," and the war clearly demonstrated that the Army Air Force could only ignore the frontiers of science at the nation's peril.

In February 1948, an Air Force office responsible for research was established in the Air Materiel Command at Wright Field, Ohio, and ultimately designated the Office of Air Research (OAR). It was in January 1950 that the Air Research and Development Command (ARDC), devoted entirely to problems of research and development, was established. In October 1951, due in large part to the intercession of Dr. Louis Ridenour, the Air Force's first Chief Scientist, the Office of Scientific Research (OSR) was created as a small staff office in ARDC headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. The establishment of ARDC and the creation of OSR in the headquarters were of great consequence, because the Air Force had finally acted on the awareness that had been growing since the early days of World War II, that science, technology and the Air Force were intimately associated.

"Everyone is for research and development, just as everyone is against sin-however, very few people will sacrifice for it," so noted Gen. Jimmy Doolittle in 1951, to then Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg. As it turned out, this was indeed the case during the early 1950s, when AFOSR got by on shoestring budgets.

The fledgling AFOSR organization suffered organizational and budgetary growing pains until the launch of Sputnik in 1957 loosened the purse strings. But despite these initial problems, AFOSR-sponsored research in the 1950s produced significant results for the Air Force and had a direct impact on the history of science in several key areas.

Several significant program areas were funded by AFOSR during the 1950s that reverberate to this day, and will continue to do so for many decades to come. Primary among them is AFOSR support for maser and laser research; aircraft control theory and micro-electronics as it applied to integrated circuits.

In July 1956, AFOSR moved from their Baltimore location to "temporary" WW II office buildings in southeast Washington, D.C. Extensive reorganizations within the DoD beginning in 1958 and later within ARDC, led to the creation of the short-lived Air Force Research Division (AFRD) under ARDC and headquartered in Washington, D.C. AFOSR and the European office of ARDC were assigned to AFRD in January 1960 and the AFOSR civilian director's position was made a military billet. Gen. Bernard Schriever had taken these steps to place science at the service of the weapons acquisition community.

The AFRD mission was to plan, program, and manage the ARDC basic and applied research programs and recommend ARDC research policy. On 1 April 1961, the Air Force Research Division was separated from ARDC, which became Air Force Systems Command (AFSC), and renamed the Office of Aerospace Research (OAR).

The Office of Aerospace Research (OAR) was designated as a separate operating agency under Headquarters, United States Air Force, with the functions and responsibilities of a major air command, and moved to downtown Washington, D.C. The four research organizations placed under OAR were the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, Cambridge Massachusetts; the Aeronautical Research Laboratory, Wright Field, Ohio; the Frank J. Seiler Laboratory at the Air Force Academy; and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.

On 27 February 1970, Secretary of the Air Force, Robert Seamans, approved the merger of OAR into Air Force Systems Command (AFSC). AFOSR was officially assigned to the AFSC Director of Laboratories on 1 July 1970. The drive to realign the Air Force research organization had received added impetus from Congressional action in 1969, which expressly limited research funds for the DoD to programs directly supporting operational requirements.

In January 1975, AFOSR was designated as the single manager for basic research within the Air Force. This event was a direct result of the Chapman report in 1974, which examined the various issues concerning the use and effectiveness of the Air Force research and development laboratories. One of its recommendations was that the interests of the Air Force would be best served if all basic research were under a single manager who would shift research program emphasis from predominantly in-house to predominantly extramural. At the same time, AFOSR got a large boost from U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had expressed great concern about what he considered "the steady erosion of defense-sponsored basic research which may have already affected our future." He noted that past investments in defense basic research had been remarkably productive, but that most scientific achievements had come out of university and industry research labs. For this reason, he strongly supported a strengthened extramural research program.

The recommendations of the Chapman report, plus the interest of Sen. Goldwater and others, resulted in a budget increase in the late 1970s. The ratio of extramural over in-house research increased markedly. In an effort to further integrate Air Force research management, the European Office of Aerospace Research and Development (EOARD) and the Frank J. Seiler Research Laboratory were assigned to AFOSR on 1 July 1975. In October 1975, AFOSR moved from their Rosslyn, Virginia office spaces to Bolling AFB in southeast D.C..

Given its charter as the single manager for basic research and a Congressionally-inspired boost in funding, AFOSR funded a wide range of carefully selected scientific disciplines throughout the decade. Five areas received a major increase in emphasis starting in FY 1981. Two of these areas, Directed Energy Physics and Space Systems Science were concerned with the stimulation of new concepts in emerging technological areas. Two other areas, Weapon System Automation and Command and Control Science, were concerned with related aspects of future weapons systems in which technology either displaced or greatly augmented human capabilities. The fifth area of emphasized research sought to explore technologies that would be required to support continued tactical systems operations during the next decade when aviation fuel was projected to become increasingly scarce.

In response to the scientific and technological progress being made in the Far East, AFOSR established a new operating location in Tokyo, Japan in April 1983. In March of the same year, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) program. AFOSR addressed this issue by an expanded research effort in the areas critical to SDI including sensors, lasers, space propulsion, ultra-high speed computing, and advanced space materials. Two years later, the Air Force initiated Project Forecast II (PF II), the latest in the long line of forecasting studies that trace their roots to Dr. von Karman's report (Toward New Horizons) to the Scientific Advisory Group in 1944.

Begun in August 1985, PF II was a six-month study to identify potential 21st century technologies and weapon system concepts. Attention was focused in critical areas and AFOSR played a key role in shaping that focus, especially regarding the emphasis on high-energy density propellants, which paid significant dividends in the next decade.

Due to the defense draw down initiated by the end of the Cold War, AFOSR was confronted, as were all other DoD organizations, with a climate of reduced budgets, management reviews, reorganization initiatives, and assorted recommendations for transformation. As part of an outgrowth of a Defense Management Review (DMR) undertaken in 1989, the Air Force consolidated its 13 labs into four laboratories in December 1990. The leadership of AFOSR was changed from military back to civilian in April 1990. However, the responsibility for planning, implementing, managing and controlling the Air Force Defense Science Program, funded under program elements 61102F and 61103F, remained the primary mission of AFOSR.

As the centralized management function for Air Force basic research, AFOSR continued work to accomplish the Air Force goals outlined for scientific and engineering research. These basic research goals included: maintain technological superiority in scientific areas coordinated to Air Force requirements; prevent technological surprise; and maintain a strong science and technology infrastructure with all areas complementing the overall national research effort.

In 1992, the rumblings of draw down and reorganization within DoD filtered down to again directly affect how the Air Force would shape its science and technology enterprise. An early and significant portent of impending change was the merging of Air Force Systems Command, of which AFOSR was a part, with the Air Force Logistics Command, to form the Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) in July 1992. Although the earlier consolidation of the 13 Air Force labs to four "superlabs" (Phillips/Kirtland, Wright/Wright-Patterson, Rome/Griffiss, and Armstrong/Brooks) had satisfied the Air Force's short-term interests, this set in motion the momentum that would ultimately result in a single Air Force laboratory structure. The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) was established in 1997 and AFOSR became one of ten subcomponents within the new AFRL organization (AFOSR and nine Technology Directorates). With the inactivation of the four superlabs in late October 1997, AFOSR became the only AFRL component with a lineal history that predates the creation of its parent organization. In October 1998, AFOSR moved from Bolling AFB to Arlington, Virginia.