Government, RDTE Programs | October 2, 2023

Air Force Vanguards Program Overview

This information is pulled from the OFFSET research platform – where this information is available on all Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT/E) programs of record.

Program Overview

The Air Force Vanguards program, or “Future Integrated Technology Demos” (Program Element # 0603032F) is a well-funded and strategic Research, Development, Test & Evaluation (RDT/E) Air Force program. Below is the program budget schedule (in millions):

Mission Description (as found in the DOD justification book)

“This Program uses a deliberate, data-driven strategy-to-investment approach to develop and deliver transformational operational capabilities through advanced technology solutions. These capabilities focus on the DAF Operational Imperatives and five strategic capabilities: Global Persistent Awareness; Resilient Information Sharing; Rapid, Effective Decision-Making; Complexity, Unpredictability, and Mass; and Speed and Reach of Disruption and Lethality.

A multi-disciplinary WARfighter – TECHnologist (WARTECH) process and analytics are used to understand and validate Department of the Air Force (DAF) Future Force priorities. Teams examine emerging technologies and recommend those which could produce new transformational capabilities. This approach allows the DAF to rapidly respond to emerging S&T opportunities within the budget cycle. Technologies needing concept refinement become Vanguard Pathfinders to better define capability concepts. Current Vanguard Pathfinders are Integrated Electronic Warfare, Integrated Networks, Advanced Emulation for Test and Training, and Enabling Technology for Agile Basing. Promising technologies with defined concepts are accelerated and matured as Vanguard Prospects.

The DAF Technology Executive Officer partners with Air Force Futures (A5/7), USSF (CTIO, USSF/S5B), and the Deputy Assistant Secretary (Science, Technology and Engineering) to identify these technologies. Current Vanguard Prospects are Resolute Sentry, Fight Tonight, Long Range Kill Chains, and Area Effects Demonstration. Matured technologies evolve into integrated system-of-systems concepts with transition partners and fielding strategies, known as Vanguard Programs.

Vanguard Programs – high risk by design – are focused, priority initiatives with enterprise commitment aiming to answer specific questions to inform future acquisition programs, identify gaps, and areas for additional research. They are commissioned by the Under Secretary of the Air Force, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Vice Chief of Space Operations as a Department of the Air Force (DAF). The current Vanguard Programs are Navigation Technology Satellite 3 (NTS-3) and Rocket Cargo. NTS-3 will demonstrate technologies and tactics involving space, control, and user equipment for advanced satellite navigation, in order to provide robust and resilient, agile augmentation to the GPS system. Rocket Cargo will demonstrate new trajectories and ways to fly large rockets, the ability to land rockets at austere locations, and design & test an ejectable pod for air drop.

This program is in Budget Activity 3, Advanced Technology Development because this budget activity includes development of subsystems and components and efforts to integrate subsystems and components into system prototypes for field experiments and/or tests in a simulated environment. This program is in Budget Activity 3, Advanced Technology Development because this budget activity includes development of subsystems and components and efforts to integrate subsystems and components into system prototypes for field experiments and/or tests in a simulated environment.”


NTS-3 builds on the legacy of NTS-1 and NTS-2, which were launched in the 1970’s, and it will push the boundary of today’s space-based position, navigation, and timing (PNT) technology to pave the way for a more robust, resilient, and responsive architecture for satellite navigation (SATNAV) technology.

Skyborg is an autonomous aircraft teaming architecture that will enable the Air Force to posture, produce and sustain mission sorties at sufficient tempo to produce and sustain combat mass in contested environments.

The Department of the Air Force is exploring rocket cargo transportation capability for DOD logistics. Based on advertised commercial capability and business objectives, the Air Force Research Laboratory is currently assessing emerging rocket capability across the commercial vendor base, and its potential use for quickly transporting DOD materiel to ports across the globe.

Golden Horde, a DAF Vanguard Program, is aligned with the Program Executive Officer for Weapons. Its original objective was to demonstrate Networked Collaborative and Autonomous (NCA) weapons by creating an integrated weapon system of systems where weapons autonomously work together to increase survivability and lethality.

The Opportunity

While this is a principally internal selection and vetting process for new starts, as seen in the above attached, there is an opportunity for both industry and other Defense stakeholders.

The CONOP process is a critical step in the equation. OFFSET is preoccupied with research to unlock prescient CONOPs to derive future Defense architectures. Through the process of determining a CONOP – a technology or technologist can gain a functional understanding of the constraints, interfaces, environmental factors, and a basic operational vignette that drives Defense program offices. To get in the running – and gain advocacy for internal government processes – like Vanguards – is the ability to show where a system/solution fits in the CONOP architecture.

Quick thoughts on pathways to get involved

Industry: Align your capability with a known or presumed CONOP and demonstrate how you both increase its efficacy. And to what sub-system, component, or subcomponent the technology will be deployed. If it’s a platform/system-level solution, what is the concept of employment – how will the CONOP put the platform to work – and what is the integration cost to interface with other existing systems? Resolve that and enact a sales development campaign, adjust as required based on feedback, and don’t stop until you meet resistance with rationale (a quality reason why it’s not a fit now).

Defense Capability Program Managers (PMs): Reach out to AFRL and other Air Force stakeholders and identify common concepts in existing RDT/E program elements and/or a narrative as to how your program is in alignment with a Joint warfighting concept that warrants “vanguard” speed to delivery – and be prepared to align budgets to accelerate development and funding. The critical aspect for PMs is whether your warfighter mission partner DOTMLPF is aligned with the new systems or not – and whether or not the ICD and DOTMLPF assessment is not too far from what is envisioned in your prospective “vanguard” program.