PEO Spotlight: Expediting Innovation
A U.S. Air Force program executive office strives to rapidly develop ISR and special operations capabilities.
Delivering technologies in two high-demand mission areas—special operations and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance—is a tough job. But Col. Michael Schmidt, USAF, says he’s glad to do it.
Col. Schmidt took over last year as the U.S. Air Force program executive officer (PEO) for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and special operations forces (SOF). The job title does not include rotary wing aircraft, but arguably it could, because the office assumed responsibility for that portfolio about three years ago.
The PEO is accountable for a number of critical systems, including Global Hawk, Predator, Reaper, U-2, V-22 variants and the combat rescue helicopter. Since the beginning of fiscal year 2015, the office has modified more than 300 aircraft, some in the Rapid Development Integration Facility at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where the PEO office is located. The work involved more than 800 warfighting systems, such as defensive systems, ground control stations, simulators, sensors and communications systems. The office executes more than 3,600 contract actions per year for about 160 programs, projects and foreign military sales. Furthermore, aircraft under the PEO’s charge have flown over 200,000 hours in combat missions since the beginning of fiscal 2015.
But with the insatiable demand for ISR capabilities and the high operational tempo of special operations forces, delivering innovative solutions rapidly may be the PEO’s forte. The office responds to a high number of joint urgent operational needs statements. Those statements indicate that warfighters need something, and they need it now. “We get a lot of requests to do things fast—do whatever it takes, work seven days a week, make-it-happen kind of things. That’s just the nature of this portfolio, with our weapon systems in combat somewhere around the world,” Col. Schmidt explains. “The people across the organization are very good at dealing with rapid acquisition and dealing with new, innovative technologies. Within the ISR and SOF portfolios, that is the expectation of our customers: that we will be flexible and innovative to solve whatever operational gaps they have.”
He cites the MQ-9 Reaper as one example of rapid innovation. “We take the list of capabilities our warfighters are asking us to go after, and we deliver on 18-month intervals a capability to the field, which is not easy. Our customers can expect a capability upgrade on those 18-month intervals, and that really is innovative in and of itself,” Col. Schmidt offers.
He notes that Special Operations Command, Air Combat Command and the combatant commands all requested improved capabilities for the Reaper. “In particular, they wanted an extended range, giving it more loiter time and more capability up there, so we delivered on time our MQ-9 extended range capability, pushing our first 38 aircraft out there in the timeline prescribed,” he recalls.
And it’s not just the United States seeking greater ISR capabilities. The PEO’s portfolio includes $15 billion to $16 billion in active annual appropriations, and international sales make up about 34 percent of that total. “Our foreign military sales customers know they can count on us to deliver and help the joint fight out there in the world,” Col. Schmidt states.
Foreign sales are “growing incredibly, especially from an ISR perspective,” the PEO adds. “We are getting a lot of cases from various countries in Africa, and we’re working with our combatant commanders to build those partnerships.” He specifies that foreign governments are interested in both the Global Hawk and the Reaper.
Foreign governments also show interest in the MV-22, CV-22 and commercial derivative aircraft. In fact, rotary wing platforms are a major priority within the Air Force as well. “Rotary wing is one of the largest growing areas within my portfolio,” Col. Schmidt says, adding that he was surprised by that fact when he started the job. “It’s because of the nature of our aging fleet in the Air Force.”
The Air Force is replacing the HH-60G Pave Hawk search and rescue helicopter with the HH-60W. Service officials also intend to replace the UH-1N nuclear support fleet, which does not have the lift capability or speed to meet current requirements. “There’s really a lot of work going on in our rotary wing business,” the colonel reports.
He also touts the benefits of the Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities program, under which the military services, Defense Department and other government agencies share information, technologies and solutions. While he declines to go into specifics, Col. Schmidt says a lot of time is spent “thinking about how we use our sensors and how we could use them differently as better, stronger combat enablers.”
The program fosters the same kind of innovation Col. Schmidt says is critical to his office’s reputation. “I am really pushing hard to be the recognized ISR and special operations forces and rotary wing center of excellence. I want to make sure we’re the recognized experts in those areas,” he says.