There are many ways in which people can serve their country without joining the military. One is to develop technologies that can be used to defend their nation against opponents. That’s what Steve Walker has been doing all his career.
A senior member of the IEEE worked for more than 30 years in the U.S. civil service, first for the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and then for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. Department of Defense research arm.
Last year, Walker joined the private sector as vice president and chief technology officer at defense contractor Lockheed Martin.
As a high school student in the early 1980s, he was concerned about the hostage crisis in Iran and the Cold War, he says.
“My desire was to join the Air Force and help build technologies to secure the nation,” he says. “I entered my career with a sense of patriotism and awareness of national security.”
The attacks of 11 September 2001 further strengthened his determination. They gave him “a real mission to focus on for the rest of my government career,” he says. “Solving problems for the DoD to protect our nation is what I really enjoy doing.”
Although Walker is not fighting on the front lines, he has been working behind the scenes for almost three decades to fund a number of important projects for the military and civilians. The projects have developed fast bombers and fighter jets, cheap launch vehicles for satellites and the mRNA technology used in coronavirus vaccines. He continues his focus on military technologies at Lockheed Martin.
When Walker was a teenager, he hoped to serve in the Air Force. He joined his Junior ROTC at his high school in Dayton, Ohio, and won a corps scholarship to attend the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. He participated in the university’s USAF ROTC program before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1987. He was to be commissioned as an officer by graduation; by that time, however, the branch already had too many officers, and Walker was urged to get a civilian job with the Air Force. So he returned to Dayton and got an engineering job in the AFRL’s Aircraft Directorate, which worked on air acoustics and the design of exhaust systems for military aircraft.
“After studying engineering for four years in college, I wanted to make sure my first job was an engineering job in research and development,” Walker says. “I was able to leverage my college education there in the early years of my career, so it all worked out.”
“Solving problems for the government and for the DoD to protect our nation is what I really enjoy doing.”
While working full time at the AFRL, he was the Air Force reservist over the weekend, pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton. He graduated in 1991. Thanks to the Air Force’s teaching assistance program, he also received a PhD. in aerospace engineering from Notre Dame.
Walker says that degree set him up for “tactical leadership in government.”
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1997, he moved east to direct an aerodynamic and hypersonic research program at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, in Arlington, Va. Hypersonic weapons fly in low-altitude orbits at more than five times the speed of sound. When their speed is combined with high maneuverability, hypersonic missiles are difficult to defeat, according to the US Department of Defense.
Walker left in August 2001 to work in the Pentagon as a special assistant to the director in the office of the Department of Defense for research and engineering. He was in his Pentagon office on 9/11 when a plane hit the complex. His office was not damaged, but the attack started his long career at DARPA, which he joined in 2002.
Walker’s first job at the agency was as program manager for its Tactical Technology Office, where he conducted hypersonic research. One project he approved in 2003 was a $ 500 million joint program between DARPA and the Air Force to develop the Falcon. The project had two goals, Walker says. One was to develop technologies for long-term hypersonic flights. The second was to create an inexpensive launch pad that could quickly ceiling satellites out into outer space. DARPA awarded SpaceX $ 8 million to demonstrate the latter capacity using its Falcon 1 launch vehicle. Following a successful fourth launch of Falcon 1, SpaceX continued to develop its Falcon 9 launch capability, which is now sending astronauts to the International Space Station.
“SpaceX has really become an amazing capacity for our country,” he says. “I’m proud of that achievement.”
Walker left DARPA in 2010 to serve as Deputy Assistant Secretary to the Air Force for Science, Technology and Engineering. During his nearly three years on the job, he was responsible for developing the technology investment strategy for the Air Force’s annual $ 2 billion scientific and technological program and managing more than 14,000 military and civilian scientists and engineers.
He returned to DARPA in 2012 as Deputy Director. In 2014, the Agency established its Office of Biological Technologies, which monitors basic and applied research in areas such as gene editing, neuroscience and synthetic biology.
“We were really focused on taking advantage of all the technology, development and biology and trying to make them an engineering discipline,” he says.
Out of the office came the Pandemic Prevention Platform, which helped fund the development of the mRNA technology used in Moderna and Pfizer coronavirus vaccines.
“A lot of work done by the National Institutes of Health and DARPA 10 years ago is now bearing fruit for the country and for the world,” he notes.
In 2017, he was appointed DARPA Director. Shortly thereafter, he funded two major initiatives that directly affect IEEE members. One is the AI Next campaign, which has a multi-year investment of more than $ 2 billion that began in 2018. It aims to increase the resilience of existing artificial intelligence programs and develop new technologies to ensure that the United States stays at the forefront, especially when it comes to AI in defense programs, he says. The other was the Electronics Resurgence Initiative, a $ 1.5 billion five-year program launched in 2019 to transform the U.S. electronics industry.
Walker left DARPA in January to join Lockheed Martin, in Bethesda, Md. Reflecting on his long tenure with the Agency, he says: “I feel blessed because DARPA is a truly incredible, very unique place. It is a small government agency compared to others focused on developing technologies for national security. That’s basically the mission. In my opinion, they have done quite well. “
THE PRIVATE SECTOR
At Lockheed Martin, Walker is responsible for the company’s technology strategy, global research, mission development and new operational technologies. Some of the projects he is involved in include building a 5G network for the military using commercial off-the-shelf technologies. The dedicated network would make it possible to pass information securely from platform to platform.
Another priority for Lockheed Martin is to develop AI and machine learning applications for airlines and defense companies in partnership with commercial companies.
“The ultimate application in my opinion,” he says, “is to use AI and machine learning on the battlefield to help make decisions faster.”
A STRONG SUPPORTER
For Walker, IEEE is the most valuable asset IEEE spectrum.
“I read it religiously because it’s just so good. The articles are good. I learn a lot from them,” he says. “I’m not an electrician, that is Spectrum is my window into the world of electrical engineering. “
Lockheed Martin has been a strong supporter of the IEEE for several years, Walker says. The two organizations signed a corporate membership and sponsorship agreement in 2018 to collaborate on several areas of common interest. They include employee development programs, discounts on IEEE membership for Lockheed Martin employees, and company sponsorship for select IEEE projects.