U.S. Air Force Adds Scientific Research Office in Australia
The move strengthens science partnership with a key ally.
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is opening a scientific research facility in Melbourne, Australia, to be co-located with that country’s Defence Science and Technology Group. The new office will enhance cooperation between the two countries on basic scientific research that will benefit both militaries.
The office will be part of the Asian Office of Aerospace Research and Development (AOARD), which promotes science and scientific interchange across the region by generating and monitoring contracts and grants between the Air Force and overseas research and development organizations. It is a branch of the International Science Division of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, which falls under the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. The Air Force Office of Scientific Research also has offices in London and in Santiago, Chile. Plans call for an additional satellite office in Brazil as well as Australia.
The AOARD headquarters office is co-located with Army and Navy personnel, so it also fosters relationships between the services. Established in 1992, it shares offices at Hardy Barracks, Tokyo, with the Army’s International Technology Center and the Office of Naval Research Global-Asia.
Australia is one of the so-called five eyes nations along with Canada, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States. The term “five eyes” refers to the fact that they share intelligence with one another. Australia and AOARD have a strong history of cooperation on scientific research, according to Jermont Chen, the AOARD director.
“They’re excellent partners in combustion, hypersonics, aerospace, quantum—pretty much everything,” Chen says. “The purpose is to cross-pollinate and to leverage each other. They can leverage our funding, and we can leverage their knowledge of the area and focus on our [mutual] goals.”
Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group, which is contributing the office space, brings together interdisciplinary expertise from across the country and around the world to address that nation’s national security challenges. It is made up of nine divisions for aerospace; cyber and electronic warfare; intelligence, surveillance and space; joint operations and analysis; land operations; maritime operations; research services; science engagement and impact; and weapons and combat systems.
The personnel in the new office also will work closely with the U.S. Army International Technology Center-Pacific, which conducts technology research and facilitates government-to-government engagements with people assigned to Japan, Singapore and Australia, and with the U.S. Office of Naval Research Global, which fosters long-range strategic efforts that address the needs shared by the Navy and by international partners. Both organizations already have offices in Melbourne. “They will be coordinating like we do here in Tokyo,” Chen says.
Chen cannot estimate when the office will officially open in large part because of delays associated with the pandemic, but the office will be minimally staffed with two researchers—one military and one civilian—and perhaps one administrative position. The staff will conduct basic research about 50 percent of the time, and the other 50 percent of the time will raise awareness, enhance engagement and build relationships.
Although the office is not yet open, the two researchers have been hired. “The people we’ve selected are in place, and they’re teleworking for Australia from their locations right now,” Chen says.
Historically, AOARD has worked with Australia from its headquarters in Tokyo, but that meant long flights for short visits. And when scientists did visit, schedules often would be packed with many appointments at multiple locations. Now, because of the coronavirus pandemic and travel restrictions into Australia, having in-country liaisons is that much more beneficial.
For strategic regions, the Indo-Pacific region is a top priority for the Defense Department, so strong relationships with Australia and others are critical. “A lot of times we’ll talk about science diplomacy. I don’t think that’s our [primary] role, but it is something that we provide,” Chen explains. “I think the best thing that we do is that we put scientists together. We make them drink coffee and make them talk science. That gets everyone’s creative juices flowing, and that could produce some interesting collaborations.”
The basic research that AOARD funds can sometimes lead to applied science projects between Indo-Pacific countries and the AFRL, he adds. Researchers engage in those collaborative projects through two kinds of government-to-government lab agreements known as data exchange agreements and project agreements.
In addition, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) sponsors international cooperation efforts through so-called country initiatives. Those are three-year efforts funded at about $1 million per year. The Air Force pays for the work done by its U.S. researchers, and the other countries fund the work done by their scientists. “It’s kind of like a Dutch date but in research,” Chen says.
The AOARD recently renewed international initiatives for Taiwan and Korea. It also has awarded 20 grants over the past year. As examples of the type of science funded under the initiatives, Chen cites nanoscience research with Taiwan, an autonomy initiative with Australia and nanosciences, space and quantum science initiatives with South Korea.
The AOARD also has supported a synthetic biology project with the AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing, Northwestern University in Illinois, which has an AFOSR Center of Excellence, and the National University of Singapore, which is funded by the Republic of Singapore’s Ministry of Defence. “What the whole team is focused on is human performance and how to mitigate things with synthetic biology. For example, they might be able to help soldiers be protected against heat stress. Obviously, heat stress is really important for the Air Force, and Singapore is a very hot country, so they’re also interested,” he reports.
International collaboration poses challenges. In Japan, for example, article nine of the constitution states that the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. For that reason, land, sea and air forces, as well as other potential war capabilities, will never be maintained. The Self-Defense Force is considered an extension of the national police force. It is supposed to be maintained at a bare minimum level, just enough to defend the country. As a result, universities often do not accept funding from U.S. defense organizations.
Additionally, the U.S. Education Department launched investigations earlier this year into Harvard and Yale research centers and demanded those universities turn over documentation regarding funding from China, Iran, Qatar, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
“I think this, in Asia, is a challenge. It will probably take some time to figure out where we can go with this as each country’s science organization continues to work the issue internally,” Chen says.
For both kinds of problems, Chen asserts, the best solution is raising awareness. He points out that AOARD funds long-term, basic research that culminates in scientific papers, not applied science that results in technology that can be used in the near term. Furthermore, the U.S. Air Force does not demand ownership of intellectual property rights from research grants but does want rights for government use.
While the AOARD’s research priorities align with those of the Air Force and the Defense Department, Chen lists hypersonics and quantum communications as being especially critical to the Indo-Pacific region. The area is seeing a lot of funding for quantum computing from various countries. “And I can’t say quantum computing without saying artificial intelligence. These are definite game-changers for the Air Force, for the Defense Department.”
He also cites synthetic biology, his own area of expertise, which he describes as “trying to hack biology to do something it’s not naturally meant to do.” Synthetic biology could potentially lead to specialized coatings that prevent barnacles from attaching to ships, camouflage that changes colors or patterns in different environments, or armor that heals itself. The AFRL announced in 2019 that researchers used bacteria to rapidly build a prototypical aircraft runway. They essentially sprayed on the bacteria, nurtured it and watched it grow.
Chen also notes the importance of space domain awareness and navigation, especially now that the AFRL and its subordinate organizations support the recently created Space Force. “Are there new ideas or new tools that are available to see things, to identify things from afar, and to track things? That hammer that the astronaut dropped is now going really, really fast and can be in orbit for a long time. For these big-ticket topics, Asia is very well suited to help us find the gaps.”