In the new era of “great power competition” the United States cannot afford to fall behind, especially in the science and tech arena. However, adopting a risk-tolerant approach to science and technology experimentation will ensure that the U.S. makes significant scientific breakthroughs, according to the Air Force Research Lab’s (AFRL) chief technologist.

During today’s Defense One Tech Summit, Timothy Bunning, chief technical officer for the AFRL, explained that the U.S. is behind on hypersonic. Currently, the lab is using simulation and virtual environments to make the necessary advancements, but while progress has been made, the U.S. still lacks the testing ranges necessary to move as quickly as it wants to.

“We don’t have what we need to maybe operate at a speed of relevance right now,” he said.

In 2019, the United States signed a deal with Australia to run experiments and resolve this range issue, however, it remains unsolved.

“We had a recent scientific advisory board examination of a hypersonic program and…they came back and said, that’s the number one threat right now to the portfolio,” Bunning said, adding that the U.S. has continued to pour in various research efforts, some of which have been successful and other have not.

“These are complex systems, and things go wrong. And we have to be tolerant of that failure. We certainly know the other side is doing lots of tests, and they fail all the time and maybe don’t have the political pressure, public pressure, negative pressure, that comes along with the test,” he said.

Bunning continued by saying that reading too much into the failures would put the U.S. in a position to pivot away from hypersonic research and development, allowing that research gap with China and Russia to emerge.

The silver lining, according to Bunning, is that right now military leaders and lawmakers are in a position to support ambitious experimentation.

“There’s recognition … we’re coming out of an era where we could do what we wanted in permissive environments…therefore, we need to change the kit that we have,” Bunning said.

But to make significant progress in hypersonic will take some development of concepts and evolvement of the technologies. However, Bunning said to get there requires the Federal government to adopt a risk-tolerant approach to science and technology experimentation.

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Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez
Lisbeth Perez is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.