AFRL Commander urges “AFMC Teammates” to participate in 2024 AFRL Commander’s Challenge

  • Published
  • By Gail L. Forbes
  • Air Force Research Laboratory Public Affairs
 WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) — Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, Commander Maj. Gen. Scott A. Cain announced in a letter addressed to the Air Force Materiel Command Feb. 29, 2024, that AFRL will host the AFRL Commander’s Challenge this year. The event, which is open to junior officers, enlisted military members and DOD civilians from across the entire Command, tasks competitors to develop low-cost solutions to intercept and defeat slow-moving, high-altitude aerial targets, Cain’s letter said.
“Since 2006, AFRL has hosted the AFRL Commander's Challenge to solve mission-critical problems, fill military readiness gaps, and address emerging threats to our nation’s security,” Cain said. “As these threats continue to evolve, we need talented individuals to step up to this year’s challenge and help drive the future fight.”
Cain’s announcement officially rebooted a longstanding AFRL tradition that has been on hold since 2020 due to complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The AFRL Commander’s Challenge amplifies warfighting culture, strengthens our team to deliver integrated capabilities that address crucial national defense needs, and supports the 2023 AFMC Strategic Plan,” Cain wrote. “Operating within fixed budgets and limited time frames, participants learn the rapid-innovation process, develop cutting-edge warfighting technologies, and produce fieldable solutions.”
AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation, or CRI, will manage and sponsor this year’s AFRL Commander’s Challenge with support from the Wright Brothers Institute. Challenge participants will be selected from a competitive applicant pool to serve on one of only six teams, each comprised of approximately six to eight members with varying STEM specialties and skills. Each team will pair up with an experienced lead mentor and work together to create and demonstrate workable prototype systems and solutions in response to this year’s challenge topic.
The event, which will officially commence in late spring 2024, will culminate in a final head-to-head competition approximately seven months from the kickoff date at a common proving ground where each team will demonstrate their proposed solutions as well as share plans for their possible future transition, Cain’s letter stated.
Individuals who wish to be considered for this year’s competition must apply by April 5, 2024. Applicants should submit to Anthony Ligouri ( and Bon Strout ( a short email indicating their interest and include a 1-page résumé reflecting their background, education, experience, and other qualifications, to include applicable extracurricular activities, Cain said.
Applicants are strongly encouraged to coordinate with their supervisors or branch chiefs prior to applying, as participation in the Challenge requires a significant time commitment away from their normal duties for the roughly seven-month duration of the project, Cain wrote.

In particular, the AFRL Commander’s Challenge targets AFMC’s junior military and civilian workforce  — loosely defined as those who have spent 10 years or less in government service — to help foster the Air Force’s next generation of leaders.
“This event strengthens the junior members of our force by equipping them with leadership experience and fostering collaboration across organizations, providing an opportunity to achieve their professional and personal goals,” Cain wrote. “I urge you and your teammates to consider contributing to this worthy endeavor.”

"This is a way to get these technologies moving faster, to get them through the red tape."
Commander’s Challenge 2024 Program Manager Anthony Ligouri

While the Commander’s Challenge is AFRL-led, it is intended to pool and leverage talent and valuable resources from across the entire Command, positioning AFRL to better solve mission-critical problems with national and strategic impact, said Anthony Ligouri, program manager for this year’s Commander’s Challenge and general engineer based in CRI.
“From a management perspective, certainly, we recognize that participation in this event requires a significant time commitment,” Ligouri said. “We are hoping that branch chiefs and other supervisors view this as an investment opportunity to strengthen the best and brightest amongst their staff.”
Challenge participants are likely to learn just as much about project leadership, team management and design methods and processes throughout the duration of the seven-month challenge as they might in seven years at their regular jobs, said Ligouri, who participated as a team lead in the 2019 AFRL Commander’s Challenge to improve maritime combat search and rescue in contested environments.
“It [the Commander’s Challenge] was some of the best career development experience that I have ever had,” Ligouri said. “When I went into it, I saw myself as an engineer. But I came out with tangible leadership skills that helped turn me into more of a project manager. That, I think, is what allowed me to eventually make that leap from just doing engineering research to taking on more of a leadership role within my own organization.”
In response to the 2019 challenge, Ligouri and his Wright-Patterson based team developed an Autonomous Advanced Rescue Craft, or AARC, which was named a 2019 AFRL Commander’s Challenge winner, and Combat Vision, a program currently housed at CRI.
Ultimately, the AARC technology transitioned through CRI to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, Ligouri added.

“Win, lose or draw in this competition, anybody who is willing to commit and invest at a personal level will change the trajectory of their career.”
Matt Sunday, Wright Brothers Institute Rapid Innovation engineer

“This is a way to get these technologies moving faster, to get them through the red tape,” Ligouri said.
Dr. John McIntire, a research analyst based in AFRL’s Sensors Directorate, represented AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing and co-led the Wright-Patterson team in the 2014-2015 Commander’s Challenge to improve active shooter safety. More recently, he served in the judging panel during the 2017-2018 Precision Air Drop challenge.
“I am so happy they decided to bring [the Commander’s Challenge] back,” McIntire said. “It has been one of the best parts of my career and truly is an unmatched learning experience for anyone lucky enough to be involved.”
McIntire, who has plans to support this year’s event in a mentorship role, said the AFRL Commander’s Challenge gives young scientists and engineers a rare opportunity to see a research and development project through virtually its entire lifecycle within a highly compressed time period. This, McIntire added, is what teaches participants how to quickly solve real-world, high-stakes problems of critical importance to the DOD.
“[Participants can go from] napkin drawings to development to field testing and demonstrating prototypes for Air Force leadership, all within six months,” McIntire said. “I loved learning the design innovation process that was part of the experience and I now use it regularly in my AFRL projects.  And I loved working on a fast-paced team and interacting with warfighters to help develop solutions for them.”
In addition to developing these skills, challenge participants can also expect to learn about the AFRL acquisition process, technology transition and the steps required to take an idea from concept to prototype to transition, Ligouri said.
“A lot of the time, the problems that we are trying to solve for the Air Force are very complex and very nuanced,” Ligouri said. “There are a lot of things that we, as scientists and engineers, just don't know — so we need to talk to the actual warfighters or other people doing the job to understand a problem completely. One of the most exciting things about the Commander’s Challenge experience is the potential for interaction with the warfighter and people outside of your own organization.”
Bon Strout, program manager for Rapid Innovation at WBI in Dayton, Ohio, manages a Partnership Intermediary Agreement that enables WBI to help technologies developed at AFRL transition to the industry. Strout, now retired from the U.S. Air Force after more than 20 years of service, teamed up with Ligouri to transition AARC technology following the 2019 challenge, and serves as co-program manager of this year’s AFRL Commander’s Challenge.
The competition is designed to provide active-duty and civilian S&Ts with a unique opportunity to address crucial national defense needs, Strout said.
“One thing that [AFRL and WBI] have in common is we are working together to get ideas from concept to combat deployment as rapidly as we can,” Strout said. “We iterate quickly and allow ourselves to fail fast and [learn from that failure] to then get something into the warfighter’s hands. And that is the spirit of the Commander’s Challenge.”
The value of gaining hands-on experience in the lab early on in one’s career cannot be overestimated, Strout said.
“It helps these young engineers to see the whole picture, and it inspires them and acts as a catalyst for their designs,” Strout said. “That’s why it is so exciting for me to get them away from their desks, away from their computers, get them out of their offices where they’re holed up working all day, and then take them out and say: Hey, this is what the real problem looks like. We want to get them close enough to the actual problem to where they can feel it, see it, touch it, and then they’re going to create a better solution.”
Ideally, the teams best suited to win the Commander’s Challenge are those whose members understand how to leverage their diverse skill sets and expertise to complement one another’s abilities, said Matt Sunday, Rapid Innovation engineer at WBI.
“You need your teammates to be strong in the areas where you are weak,” Sunday said. “And that goes both ways. You must think about how to best align your own talents with program objectives. So, part of this process is also learning the intricacies of being able to share responsibilities and trusting in your counterparts.”
And, credentials can only carry a person so far, Sunday said. At a certain point, he added, the ability to develop a truly viable solution boils down to adopting a service-oriented mindset.
“Win, lose or draw in this competition, anybody who is willing to commit and invest at a personal level will change the trajectory of their career,” Sunday said.
About AFRL 
The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 12,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit