MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. – The Hap Arnold Innovation Center (HAIC) of the California Air National Guard’s 163d Attack Wing has been nominated for the U.S. Air Force’s Gen. Larry O. Spencer Innovation Award, a first for the wing’s premier unit-level innovation hub.
Representing the National Guard, HAIC will compete for top team honors against nominees from all the major commands in the Air Force.
The accolade is expected to be presented during a virtual version of the annual Air Space & Cyber conference of the Air Force Association, Sept. 14-16, according to Maj. Roberto “Bobby” Carbonell, cofounder and operations officer of ARCWERX, Tucson, Arizona, a directorate of the ANG-Air Force Reserve Test Center dedicated to promoting and facilitating innovation in the Guard and Reserve.
“This is a really important award, really the only official Air Force award for innovation,” Carbonell said. “It’s significant. We think the Guard is significantly punching above its weight class in innovation. We’re a smaller force, but made up of incredibly talented men and women with both significant military and civilian expertise, which lets them see things in a different way.”
Inaugurated in 2015, the same year HAIC was christened, former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III named the Spencer award after his (then) vice chief of staff, originally emphasizing the impact of innovative ideas on saving time and money. By 2017, the scope of the award had expanded to encompass improved “efficiency, operational readiness, and replication of the innovation across the Air Force enterprise,” according to the nomination solicitation.
“Saving time and money is great, but sometimes you can innovate something new that creates capacity and ability to do the mission better, faster, and in a more efficient way,” said Carbonell, stressing the Guard’s dual role, “in the case of the Hap Arnold center, gaining capabilities that help us to serve our fellow citizens as well.”
Though HAIC’s nomination covers a period running from April to April, the citation recognizes the considerable cumulative achievements of the innovation center. One realization is showcased in the ongoing fight against California wildfires. HAIC has served as a key problem-solver for the pioneering adaptation of the MQ-9 Reaper remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) from lethal expeditionary platform to life-saving use in domestic operations (DOMOPS) – now a “best practice” propagated throughout the RPA community.
Using the capabilities developed by HAIC, the 163d Attack Wing is deploying its RPAs to assist California firefighters from the air – as it has every fire season since the 2013 Rim blaze – to combat the wildfires now consuming the state. This season’s Reaper tasking includes covering the vast SCU Lightning Complex and LNU Lightning Complex blazes that each consumed more than 375,000 acres by the end of August, according to Cal Fire.
Among its greatest achievements, the HAIC team assessed the standard Air Force unclassified network used by RPAs – purpose-built for warfare – and determined it to be impractical for DOMOPS. Developing an unprecedented, unclassified network (“GrizzlyNet”) permitted the RPAs’ Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) package to aid firefighters with never-before-seen imagery and mapping of fire areas. The 163d RPAs quickly became an indispensable platform for a wide range of state missions. Through its constant use and improvement, GrizzlyNet matured into the first network of its kind to be submitted for formal cybersecurity accreditation.
“What HAIC has done to support CalFire with Reapers is revolutionary,” Carbonell said, “and a perfect example of how the Guard can innovate using the resources of the Title 10 [federal] mission to support the citizens at home in a unique way, driving home the point of being a Citizen-Airman or Citizen-Soldier.”
Other noteworthy innovations of HAIC (often in conjunction with other service branches and partners) include:
- Combining the use of handheld Android Tactical Awareness Kits (ATAK) with GrizzlyNet for firefighting, allowing first responders to see and interact with the Reaper’s full-motion video feed in real-time.
- Demonstrating a Multi-Intelligence Smart Processor with Air Force Research Labs (AFRL), to support Air Force Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities’ Operation “Talon Cheetah” by ensuring RPA data movement external to the Ground Control Station, a key component of supporting search-and-rescue operations and disaster response.
- Retrofitting the first near-real-time full-motion video sensor integration for Civil Air Patrol and manned ISR platforms.
- Accomplishing the first commercial data transport effort fielded to ANG Eagle Vision teams, enabling a personnel-rescue exercise.
- Repurposing obsolete tactical pods for command and control beyond line-of-sight, becoming the first to fly and test in partnership with ANG’s Tucson Test Center.
“The success of the Hap Arnold Innovation Center has been the result of a select group of people pushing forward, going above and beyond to make innovation happen at the wing,” said Lt. Col. Michael Baird, who had been running the center up to last year, and now serves as senior adviser to the current director, Maj. Jason Flowers. “No one has been told by a commander, ‘You have to do this.’ It’s all coming out of our Airmen’s drive to make things better for the wing.”
Baird said he hopes the nomination will inspire further embrace of innovation at all levels of the wing, “beyond the limited number of people who have been pushing this really hard.”
Flowers said five years of “really hard work culminated in the snowball effect we’re experiencing now: many projects going on at the same time, involving more and more elements of the wing.” He said those efforts include advanced computer networking with Reapers to increase their lethality and ability to respond in domestic emergencies.
Baird praised Capt. Scott Crandell, innovation center program manager, as the first drill-status Guard member “to jump in with two feet and be a true innovator, showing that DSGs can have that impact.”
The Spencer nomination “recognizes our effort to change the culture of the wing,” Crandell said, “to have every Airman realize that they can make an impact, not only on what they do, but what the Air Force can do as a whole.”
Crandell cited one such Airman-innovator as team member Tech. Sgt. Justen Lavenberg, who said it was “awesome seeing the team recognized on a larger scale. Looking forward, it gives other members of the wing the motivation to be involved in a project that has a larger influence on the community.”
“The worst thing we can ever do in the Air Force is hold our Airmen down,” said retired Col. Keith Ward, the former 163rd vice wing commander who helped stand up the HAIC at the behest of (then) Commander Col. Dana Hessheimer, HAF A2Q Director of Innovations, James Clark, and his deputy director for disruptive innovations, Chris McDonald. “I’ve always said, ‘Go outside your box.’ We limit our Airmen by our own regulations. I’ve met more 22- and 23-year-olds who understand that better than any of us.”
“What we’ve achieved is groundbreaking,” Ward said. “That we could push the feed from the Reaper to a general’s phone and show everybody exactly what was going on in a fire was amazing. But we can do more. The Reaper can do more – everything that is National Guard-related – in a heartbeat. All you’ve got to do is task it.”