Howard University Snags $90M Air Force Research Contract

Howard University has won a $90 million contract from the U.S. Air Force to create a University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) that will focus on tactical autonomy.

While the Air Force deal is big news for the university on its own, it’s also making history for both the institution and the Department of Defense (DoD).

The contract award marks the first time that a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) has been selected to lead a UARC and the first such center to be funded by the Air Force.

“Being awarded this contract is a historic and tremendous accomplishment for Howard University,” university President Wayne Frederick announced to students and faculty on Jan. 23.

“This center puts Howard University at the forefront of progressive science and technology efforts,” Frederick said. “While the primary goal of the center is conducting valuable research for the Air Force and Department of Defense, this center is also meant to help Howard and the consortium schools increase their research capacity.”

Development of the UARC will be paced with awards of $12 million per year in funding from DoD over the next five years. The new center will “conduct research that will contribute to the development of efficient, affordable, trustworthy human-machine teaming and systems-of-systems with autonomy and artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities that fall within the U.S. Air Force, Space Force, and DoD’s modernization priorities.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hailed the contract award both for its technology aims, and for broadening the circle of HBCUs that are getting involved in DoD work.

“Today as we work to build enduring advantages for our brave men and women in uniform, we must seek the latest innovations in science and in engineering. That means building more bridges to America’s outstanding STEM community,” Austin said.

“Only a tiny fraction of our department’s research funding goes to HBCUs,” Austin explained. “To sharpen America’s technological edge and to strengthen America’s outstanding military, the department is committed to investing in even more HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. Today, we are taking that commitment to a new level.”

In carrying out the contract, Howard will serve as the 15th UARC nationwide and will lead a consortium of eight other HBCUs that will participate in the research center.

“HBCUs graduate 30 percent of African American science, technology, engineering, and math [STEM] professionals and more than a third of African American STEM PhD holders have earned their undergraduate degrees from an HBCU,” said Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. “DoD had historically not done enough to connect with such an incredible depth of talent, expertise and potential.”

The UARC will also implement programming intended to spark curiosity in STEM education amongst K-12 students to ease their path to a career in AI, cybersecurity, tactical autonomy, and machine learning.

The Howard UARC also will enable the university to create a pipeline for students from elementary to post-graduate education.

“This UARC will be critical in our efforts to continue to recruit, mentor, and graduate students who are prepared for high-paying jobs in the future,” said Danda Rawat, director of Howard’s Data Science and Cybersecurity Center and executive director of the UARC. “For decades Howard has produced highly skilled, highly credentialed STEM professionals and the support of the Department of Defense and the Air Force will allow us to do at a higher level than ever before.”