There are many ways people can serve their country without joining the military. One is to develop technologies that can be used to defend their nation against adversaries. That’s what Steve Walker has been doing his entire career.
The IEEE senior member 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‘s 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 by 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 went into my career with a sense of patriotism and national security awareness.”
The attacks of 9/11 in 2001 further strengthened his resolve. 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, for nearly three decades he has been working behind the scenes to fund a variety of important projects for the military and civilians. The projects have developed fast bombers and fighter jets, inexpensive launch vehicles for satellites, and the mRNA technology used in coronavirus vaccines. He is continuing his focus on military technologies at Lockheed Martin.
When Walker was a teenager, he hoped to serve in the Air Force. He joined its Junior ROTC at his high school in Dayton, Ohio, and won a scholarship from the corps to attend the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. He participated in the university’s USAF ROTC program before earning a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering in 1987. He was to be commissioned as an officer upon graduation; however, at the time the branch already had too many officers, and Walker was encouraged to get a civilian job with the Air Force. So he returned to Dayton and got an engineering job at the AFRL’s Air Vehicles Directorate working on air acoustics and designing exhaust systems for military airplanes.
“After studying engineering for four years in college, I wanted to make sure that my first job was an engineering job in research and development,” Walker says. “I was able to put my training in college to good use 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 an Air Force reservist on weekends and pursued a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Dayton. He got the degree in 1991. Thanks to the Air Force’s tuition assistance program, he also earned a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Notre Dame.
Walker says that degree set him up for “tactical leadership in the government.”
After getting his Ph.D. in 1997, he moved east to manage an aerodynamics and hypersonics research program at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, in Arlington, Va. Hypersonic weapons fly at low altitude trajectories 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 U.S. Defense Department.
Walker left in August 2001 to work in the Pentagon as special assistant to the director in the Office of the Undersecretary 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 jump-started his long career at DARPA, which he joined in 2002.
Walker’s first job at the agency was as a program manager for its Tactical Technology Office, where he performed hypersonic research. One project he approved in 2003 was the US $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-duration hypersonic flights. The other was to create a low-cost launcher that could quickly loft satellites into outer space. DARPA awarded SpaceX $8 million to demonstrate that latter capability using its Falcon 1 launch vehicle. After a successful fourth launch of the Falcon 1, SpaceX went on to develop its Falcon 9 launch capability, which is now sending astronauts to the International Space Station.
“SpaceX has gone on to really be a fantastic capability for our country,” he says. “I’m proud of that accomplishment.”
Walker left DARPA in 2010 to serve as deputy assistant secretary of 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 science and technology 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 Biological Technologies Office, which oversees basic and applied research in such areas as gene editing, neurosciences, and synthetic biology.
“We were really focused on taking advantage of all the technology, development, and biology and trying to turn those into an engineering discipline,” he says.
“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 large initiatives that directly affect IEEE members. One is the AI Next campaign, which has a multiyear investment of more than $2 billion that began in 2018. It aims to increase the robustness of existing artificial intelligence programs and develop new technologies to ensure the United States stays in the lead, especially when it comes to AI in defense applications, he says. The other was the Electronics Resurgence Initiative, a five-year, $1.5 billion program launched in 2019 to remake the U.S. electronics industry.
Walker left DARPA in January to join Lockheed Martin, in Bethesda, Md. Reflecting on his long tenure at the agency, he says, “I feel blessed because DARPA is a really incredible, very unique place. It’s a small government agency relative to others that is focused on developing technologies for national security. That’s basically the mission. In my opinion, they’ve done pretty well.”
THE PRIVATE SECTOR
At Lockheed Martin, Walker is responsible for the company’s technology strategy, global research, mission development, and emerging operations technologies. Some of the projects he’s involved with include building a 5G network for the military using commercial off-the-shelf technologies. The dedicated network would enable information to be passed securely from platform to platform.
Another priority for Lockheed Martin is to develop AI and machine learning applications for aerospace 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’s most valuable benefit is IEEE Spectrum.
“I read it religiously because it’s just so good. The articles are great. I learn a lot from them,” he says. “I’m not an electrical engineer, so Spectrum is my window into the electrical engineering world.”
Lockheed Martin has been a strong supporter of IEEE for several years, Walker says. The two organizations signed a corporate membership and sponsorship agreement in 2018 to collaborate on several areas of mutual interest. They include workforce development programs, discounted IEEE membership for Lockheed Martin employees, and sponsorship by the company of selected IEEE projects.