Bruce VanSkiver had his eye on the U.S. Air Force since he was a boy attending his first Thunderbirds airshow, sparking his life-long interest in flying. He sought a career path that led him to become a command pilot, and later, served in several senior-level operational commands within the USAF. His career culminated as Chief of the Mobility Acquisition Division on the Secretary of the Air Force staff responsible for modernizing the service’s strategic airlift, air refueling, and VIP aircraft fleets including Air Force One. Today, now on the industry side, VanSkiver still has his eye is still on modernization, helping the USAF rethink innovation and acquisition as Director of Air Force Programs, Government Operations for Collins Aerospace.
With the Air Force Association (AFA) Warfare Symposium on the horizon, we sat down with VanSkiver, also the former AFA President of the National Capital Chapter, to discuss his career path and how he sees the battlespace continuously evolving, and the impact that has on the USAF modernization priorities.
Here is what he shared with us:
The Modern Battlespace (TMB) Editors: Tell us about yourself and your career path.
Bruce VanSkiver: I grew up like most, with a few general areas that interested me, but without the crystal-clear vision of what the future looked like. That was until I went to an air show where the Air Force Thunderbirds flew, and the hook was set – I needed to fly.
That meant attending college and earning an engineering degree to qualify for commissioning as an officer and competing for pilot training, which was something that wasn’t on my personal growth path until that time. That challenge kept me focused on the goal that would create the critical foundation for everything that has happened since.
My U.S. Air Force career spanned 26 years, flying both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, and my passion for aviation continues today. That excitement now extends into what many of us with military backgrounds bring to the industry. That is to say, a firm understanding of the challenges of training and equipping the next evolution of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines & now Space Force Guardians. Our insights allow our companies to confidently invest in developing new technologies to meet emerging defense needs. It’s very rewarding work.
TMB Editors: As you look to the modern battlefield, what have been the biggest changes?
VanSkiver: The modern battlefield is ever-changing. Nation-states and in many situations, non-state actors, get a vote, which means the modern battlefield evolves rapidly over time. Our understanding of this multi-dimensional environment requires constant re-evaluation of the threat, our ability to adapt and counter, and the assurance that our force is constantly prepared to utilize the wide range of military options.
In less than 20 years, the modern battlefield has gone from a post-Cold War “peacetime” environment to one focused primarily on counterinsurgencies, and now forced to reshape again to directly address threats from nations such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The dynamic nature of the modern battlefield will always require changes in an organization, equipment, and training to ensure our military is prepared for the challenges they may face.
What is driving future defense technologies is an area the Department of Defense (DoD) was least prepared: software development and the hardware to host it. As with our personal cars today, software is the enabler that ensures the vehicle runs properly and promotes seamless operator interaction, including future technology upgrades. Software transcends today’s products, yet the DoD has been slow to adapt in the same way.
However, more recently, we have seen a significant change in how the DoD is refocusing efforts on software development, cyber protections, safe-guarding intellectual property, and a continuous developmental pathway. This capability will be paramount in creating a force able to effectively counter our adversaries at a cost our nation can afford.
TMB Editors: How are modern technologies helping the USAF today?
VanSkiver: Today’s technologies are a significant departure from the past. Think how GPS alone fundamentally changed the way we fight. We now know where we are anywhere on the earth and precise engagement allows us to employ effects with much more certainty. That singular piece of technology almost single-handedly revolutionized warfare.
Today, we’re seeing a similar revolution. The ability to observe actions around the world, often in real-time, allows warfighters to understand the environment and create options ahead of the enemy’s ability to act. This is the future we see the DoD launching into with programs such as ABMS and CJADC2, creating a network of sensors, communication gateways, cloud storage, and advanced data analytics where they can understand the environment and create strategic dilemmas for our adversaries.
This effort is creating real change in the way the DoD sets requirements and reforms their acquisition systems. Rapid prototyping, operational experimentation, and leveraging novel commercial capabilities in many ways have become the norm. As the modern battlefield is becoming more dynamic, the department is utilizing many relatively new commercial practices such as digital engineering, open system architectures, and DevSecOps. This results in rapid iteration of secure software code and is key to ensuring the system of today remains relevant for the modern battlefield of tomorrow.
The industry is all-in and the changes in DoD’s approach to acquiring new capabilities represent a real opportunity to meet the challenges ahead.
TMB Editors: The AFA Warfighter Symposium is themed “Accelerate and Innovate.” How do you see this speed and innovation evolving in the coming years?
VanSkiver: When Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, first stated his new imperative, “Accelerate Change or Lose,” it immediately resonated across the board.
Those of us in industry, especially those with a large commercial footprint, see how fast civilian sector technologies evolve. We see how that evolution directly relates to defense programs. Think advanced microprocessors, emerging networking and communications technologies such as 5G, and artificial intelligence, to name a few. All these play a direct role in the DoD’s ability to deter and defend.
The DoD, at Congressional direction, made significant strides in creating an “Adaptive Acquisition Framework” ready to take on these new challenges, and we’re seeing early signs it is working to accelerate the department’s efforts to align with commercial practices. Further, there has been strong outreach to non-traditional suppliers and leveraging venture capital to create a new defense marketplace. This is innovation and it’s highly encouraging.
There will always be a place for traditional defense acquisition processes. However, the speed of modernization and the ability of software-defined systems to rapidly adapt to change has made “accelerate and innovate” an easy concept to embrace across the department and with its industry partners.