Air Force technologists, the wizards in charge of conjuring
up weapons for the next century, are coming under pressure to work their magic.
Leaders of the Air Force's 8,000 scientists and engineers
working at fourteen major laboratories are marshaling forces to take on a
massive array of projects that will shape the service well beyond the year
They say that a drive to develop "revolutionary
enabling technologies" within the next several years will undergird the
Air Force's apparent plans for generating new military weaponry on an awesome
The scope of the ambitions embraced by the Air Force is evident
to those familiar with USAF's "Science & Technology and Development
Planning Program," a thirty-two-page list of arms concepts produced by Air
Force Systems Command (AFSC) officers.
Their concepts for the far future—that is, beyond the turn
of the century—include robotic air vehicles, automated attack systems,
advanced air-superiority missiles, autonomous antiarmor weapons, hypervelocity
munitions, high-altitude long-endurance vehicles, and automatic image interpreters.
In addition, planners envision multimedia radios, laser
communication systems, high-power microwave weapons, stealthy transport
airplanes, long-range conventional cruise missiles, laser satellite links, and
Even the weapons envisioned for deployment within the next
decade pose formidable challenges. Examples of such "next-generation"
concepts include the Advanced Tactical Fighter, multimission drones,
noncooperative aircraft identification systems, millimeter-wave ground-attack
missiles, long-range optical sensors, automatic target recognizers, and
Overall, AFSC's list of prospective twenty-first-century
systems to meet the Air Force's stated operational requirements contains no
fewer than 224 high-technology concepts in mission areas ranging from armament
AFSC leaders, aware that every weapon concept entails
development of many costly technologies at a time of harsh budgetary pressures,
are concentrating on those that promise a high payoff. Says Gen. Bernard
Randolph, AFSC's commander: "The challenge is to focus valuable science
and technology resources into areas that can achieve the greatest increase in
Across thirteen general areas such as air vehicles,
avionics, and the like, officers have selected ninety-one key "major
technology thrusts" for emphasis, each containing a number of individual
technologies. Specific examples of these technologies include:
• Photonics technologies that would permit a massive
increase in capacity of military computers and reduce vulnerability to
• High-temperature materials capable of retaining strength
in temperatures as high as 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Nonlinear optics technologies in which light could be used
in radically new ways for automatic tracking or elimination of atmospheric
• High energy density propellants, chemically bound
materials that might greatly increase fuel powers while reducing weight.
• Smart skins, surfaces whose embedded transmitting and
receiving functions would eliminate today's need for pods and domes, which
increase radar signatures.
• Knowledge-based systems that would use artificial
intelligence to perform human-type logic exercises in avionics and weapons.
Notwithstanding the promise of these and many other
technologies, Air Force officers acknowledge the magnitude of the weapons
challenge ahead. What follows is a full picture of the task, based on AFSC's
analysis of possible ways to meet Air Force needs in ten key mission areas.
The most clear-cut ambition focuses on improvements to the tactical
fighter forces that form the
bedrock of Air Force combat power.
The service's technological establishment envisions new air
supremacy and attack vehicles of unparalleled strength—stealthy, agile,
far-seeing, and resilient, yet possessing an abundance of power. All these
attributes and more, it is thought, will be needed to meet, in what promises to
be a harsh twenty-first-century environment, requirements set by Tactical Air
These requirements do not only include the capability to
fight at night and in foul weather, locate and destroy mobile tactical targets,
conduct airfield attack, survive in aerial combat, go after the hardest of
hard targets, and carry out long-range interdiction. In addition, the systems
must be reliable and easy to support.
At present, those needs are filled, with a greater or lesser
degree of success, by such aircraft as the F-15, F-16, F-4, F-111, A-10, and A-7,
based on earlier technologies that have led to improved reliability, secure
communications, tactical decision aids, and integrated information
processing. A need is foreseen for aircraft of greatly increased powers.
Some are expected to emerge in the "next
generation" of weapons to be in service around the turn of the century.
For the air-superiority role, the Advanced Tactical Fighter receives top
billing. The Agile Falcon makeover of the F-16 fighter, along with an
all-weather version of that versatile General Dynamics aircraft, are foreseen
as the most likely multimission complements to the ATF itself.
AFSC is also working toward new aircraft for the close-air
support, long-range attack, and defense suppression missions. Proposals include
the possible development of a multimission, remotely piloted drone for various
These air vehicles are expected to boast major advances in
avionics. One example: so-called "noncooperative" aircraft
identification systems able to perform the vital identification task by
passive means. Next-generation aircraft could have links for instantaneous
transmission of strike data, avionics suites capable of reconfiguring while in
flight, and integration of sensors and other functions on a grand scale.
Success in these areas is contingent on a number of key
technologies now emerging in AFSC labs. Chief among them are stealth properties
that help to reduce aircraft signatures across the board. Technologists are
striving to develop and perfect head-steerable target systems, multispectral
and multimode sensors, sensors hardened against radiation, self-repairing
flight controls, lightweight structures, and internetting of various
communications systems. Also in prospect are faster and greatly simplified
cockpit displays and night-vision devices.
For beyond the turn of the century, tactical aircraft
concepts pose greater technological challenges. Among those concepts are
robotic air vehicles for varied combat functions. Ultrasophisticated interdiction
aircraft and a new multirole fighter are also being studied. Backing these up
are such concepts as high-altitude/high-Mach protective equipment for crews,
the Super Cockpit of multiple, integrated functions, and a fully automated attack
system based on futuristic computer systems.
Making these concepts come to life will not be easy. The Air
Force will have to master technologies now in the earliest stages of development.
They include acoustic signature reduction, "few vs. many" air-to-air
automated engagement systems, and flight decision aids based on artificial
intelligence—systems that permit computers to conduct exercises in human-type
The tactical force of the future also would benefit from
successful development of the High-Performance Turbine Engine, a power-plant
envisioned as having twice the thrust of, and far less weight than, today's
most advanced engines, as well as short- and vertical-takeoff and landing
technologies, in-flight thrust reversers, and robotic servicing of aircraft.
An all-aspect head-up display and new systems that provide finely honed target
discrimination will also be required.
To complement what promises to be a greatly strengthened
aircraft force in the future, the Air Force is mapping improvements in armament
over the full range of combat missions.
The weapons now under study address requirements of
extraordinary magnitude. Air Force users, for example, want the capability to
employ weapons confidently at night and in poor weather. They want extreme
standoff range, resistance to electronic countermeasures, capability to
destroy heavily fortified targets, and greater ease of maintenance and
handling. They want to be able to "launch and leave," achieve
multiple kills with a single pass over a target, and yet be able to reduce the
pilot's work load.
In addition, the new weapons will have to be stealthier,
approach near-perfect accuracies, and have utility across a wider spectrum of
Today's weapons fall short of these requirements. Based on
older technologies of laser guidance, electronic fuzing, imaging infrared
seekers, and the like, they include such air-to-air weapons as the AIM-9
Sidewinder and new AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, as well as
a host of air-to-ground systems. While such weapons are effective today and for
the near term, the future will pose problems for them.
As a result, technologists are focusing on highly advanced
concepts, particularly for ground attack. Possibilities for relatively
near-term usage include a version of the Maverick missile that incorporates
millimeter-wave guidance. Also listed is an "autonomously guided
weapon" able to carry out its mission with no instructions from a pilot
Planners are also investigating new forms of conventional
cruise missiles, hard-target weapons, modular standoff weapons, munitions
containing advanced inertial guidances, and hypervelocity missiles capable of
traveling at least five times the speed of sound.
For air-to-air combat, the next generation of weapons is
expected to include the AIM-132 Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile and an
upgraded version of the AMRAAM weapon.
With respect to these next-generation arms concepts,
technology development has become particularly active. Work is proceeding on
autonomous guidance systems, powerful hard-target warheads,
"stealthy" rocket motors, lightweight and stealthy structures, and
multirole warheads. Also being pressed are new advances in algorithms that
would permit microcomputers to "recognize" targets within a mass of
data, as well as "smart" fuzing and low-cost components.
Computational fluid dynamics, a computer-aided means of optimizing
aerodynamic shapes (see "The Electronic Wind Tunnel," p. 62), is
expected to play a major part in weapons design.
Then come weapons for the distant future. For the time
period beyond the turn of the century, the Air Force is pursuing a different
set of technologies in hopes of achieving a big payoff in combat power. Now
getting major attention within the laboratories are technologies of
"brilliant guidance," which include such techniques as laser radar
sensors and exploitation of infrared and millimeter-wave signatures of targets
to enhance recognition.
Other key technologies pertain to development of materials
and design of hard-target penetrators and high-energy "insensitive"
high explosives—materials that resist accidental detonation due to fire or
blast. A family of technologies—hypersonic separation aerodynamics,
high-temperature materials, and hypersonic guidance integration—is obviously
germane to development of ultrahigh-speed missiles.
Based on the expectation that these and other technologies
will mature reasonably well, USAF has postulated some remarkable weapons for
the inventory of the early twenty-first century. It envisions development of an
"Advanced Air Superiority Missile" far superior to even the AMRAAMs
of tomorrow. For the air-to-ground mission, future forces might well be able
to call on fully autonomous antiarmor weapons, autonomous "high-value
target" missiles, hypervelocity sub-munitions, and advanced mines dispersible
over a wide area after release from an aircraft.
In the area of reconnaissance and intelligence gathering,
the level of sophistication that the Air Force seeks in its future systems is
evident in the performance goals that the service is setting for itself.
Stated Air Force requirements, although few in number, are
extremely challenging. Operational commands say they must greatly expand the
visual and electronic spectrum within which they are able to work, with
particular emphasis on passive detection measures. They seek highly advanced,
computerized correlation and fusion of reconnaissance data to provide, among
other things, instant, automatic recognition of targets.
In addition, USAF's operational users are asking
technologists to provide means for decentralizing full intelligence stations to
the unit level and for setting up robust, secure communications with a low
probability of enemy intercept.
This, the Air Force makes plain, will require systems
considerably more advanced than those deployed in its current generation of
reconnaissance and intelligence forces, which are based on earlier technologies
of digital data links, electro-optical sensors, digital recorders, multisensor
fusion, clutter rejection, and rapid software prototyping. Today's collection
platforms such as the RF-4C, TR-1, and SR-71, sensors such as the Joint
Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) multi-mode radar,
and associated processing and dissemination systems will have to give way to
more advanced concepts.
For the next generation, Air Force planners foresee development
of an advanced and possibly "stealthy" platform, known as the FX-R,
to take up the tactical recce duties of the RF-4C. To meet near-term
requirements, attention is also being given to a vast array of new, highly
sensitive sensors. Among them: a very-long-range optical sensor, advanced
electronic-intelligence-gathering systems, systems to provide time-correlation
of signal intelligence, advanced radar locators, and laser-detection systems.
At the same time, systems used to both process and pass
along vital intelligence data are due for upgrading over the next several
years. Processing concepts being studied include systems that manipulate images
in three dimensions, devices for mass storage and recording in wide bands,
correlators of cartographic images, and systems that perform as automatic
target "recognizers." Distribution of the final product will be
enhanced by antijam, high-frequency communications and integrated voice/data
The technologies that will form the basis of these systems
are among the most highly classified anywhere—parallel computer processing,
pattern recognition, photonics, low observables, and laser communications, to
name only the most obvious. Perfecting them is viewed as a major challenge.
Even more challenging will be the development of
technologies required for those reconnaissance systems that come later.
In the twenty-first century, the intelligence-gatherers may
well be deploying fleets of hypervelocity vehicles, capable of tremendous
speed and range. Other concepts include use of low-cost tactical drones and
high-altitude, long-endurance aircraft as collection platforms. Sensors are
expected to move into advanced-frequency domains and even become expendable.
On the ground, collected data may be analyzed by automatic,
expert image-interpreters and language translation and transcription machines.
Wideband, high-frequency radios, radios that convey data in multiple media, and
advanced, secure laser communications would be the means of transmitting the
product to combat commanders.
These devices would be the offspring of technologies now
glimmering in the distance. The laboratories will have to come up with the
keys to not only hypersonic and high-altitude aerodynamics, but also hypersonic
and high-altitude engines, instantaneous target recognition, and machines that
think like humans. Also required, in the view of AFSC planners, will be
so-called "smart" aircraft skins capable of precise sensing in all
directions and communications that are impervious to compromise and jamming.
If the proposals of Air Force technologists give an accurate
glimpse of what the future holds, USAF's multifaceted electronic combat forces
are due for a major strengthening.
Already, scientists and engineers are proposing concepts
that promise great advances over such systems as the F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft,
High-Speed Antiradiation Missiles (HARM), jammers, and a plethora of other
systems that make up the EC force of today. The concepts are intended to meet
expanding requirements of tactical users across a broad front, from self-protection
of combat aircraft to realistic simulation and training, from destruction of
enemy electronic combat forces to disruption and suppression of these threats.
Within the next decade, for example, new concepts in
self-protection systems are likely to be introduced. Proposals include warning
and assessment systems such as millimeter-wave devices, infrared search and
track systems, and laser scanners capable of giving precise range and bearing
of enemy aircraft. Such missile-thwarting systems as automatic chaff
dispensers and towed decoys are in the works, as are internal jammers capable
of going against all enemy signals.
In the same time period, the Air Force wants to begin
introducing new systems for demolishing enemy electronic threats. Planners see
a need for new aircraft to perform the "Wild Weasel" radar-killing
mission now carried out by an aging fleet of F-4G aircraft. The HARM would be
updated and strengthened with a new dual-mode antiradiation seeker suited to
missions against the most sophisticated Soviet radars. Destructive drones are
being studied for missions against enemy electronic warfare, ground-control-intercept,
and target acquisition systems as well as Soviet communications jammers.
Finally, plans call for stiffening the electronic-disruption
powers of US forces by expanding the frequency coverage of the EF-11IA
electronic warfare aircraft, providing self-defense for the EC-130H Compass
Call aircraft, and deploying jamming drones in abundance.
Making such systems possible are a number of key
technologies now in various stages of development. Scientists are working
hard, for example, on new millimeter-wave, electro-optical, and laser-sensing
technologies. They are also working on parallel processors that expand the
speed and capacity of computers used for processing threat signals.
Development of antennas that conform to the shape of
aircraft, thereby reducing radar signatures, is of key importance. The
so-called "fail-soft, fault-tolerant" generation of
electronics—layered systems that continue to work even if a single component
breaks—is critical. So is the technology of integrating various electronic
warfare functions into a single, robust system.
Technologists are working equally hard on the key
technologies for systems now on the far horizon. Those the Air Force considers
vital are means to detect stealthy or low-signature airborne threats,
high-power microwave technologies, and artificial intelligence for monitoring
and keeping track of vast amounts of data emanating from enemy aircraft and
emitters. These and other technologies will be used to feed an entirely new
generation of electronic combat hardware after the year 2000.
Among such futuristic concepts are totally integrated
situational displays for friendly aircraft, multi-spectrum expendables,
directional automatic dispensers, protection from lasers and high-power microwaves,
full-spectrum jammers, and radio-frequency weapons—all for aircraft
US capability to destroy enemy systems would be expanded by
concepts such as highly advanced signal processors and drones able to locate,
home in on, and destroy enemy sensors, whether they be microwave,
millimeter-wave, electro-optical, or laser in nature. For disruptive
activity, USAF may choose to pursue development of low-band advanced jammers,
unmanned air vehicles against all types of signals, and high-power
countermeasures to enemy electronic systems. Advanced communications
deceptions also are being conceptualized.
Strengthening the military air transport arm, too, is
emerging as a preoccupation of Air Force planners. In fact, airlifters and associated
support equipment that provide high mobility for conventional and special
operations forces (SOF) could undergo striking change.
What Air Force operators require seems clear enough: a fifty
percent increase in intertheater airlift, up to a minimum capacity of some
66,000,000 ton-miles per day; intratheater transports capable of hauling
heavy, outsize cargoes; better and more numerous combat rescue aircraft;
improved long-range transports and gunships for small-scale SOF activities;
and greatly expanded meteorological capabilities.
While the requirements are prosaic, some concepts for
meeting them are not. New, high-technology equipment seems destined to replace
or supplement the mobility force of today, which is built around C-5, C-141,
and KC-10 long-range lifters, C-130 intratheater lifters, and the various
fixed-wing and helicopter craft assigned to special operations duty.
At the heart of the "next generation" of
transport systems lies the proposed C-17 lifter, capable of performing both
long-haul and short-distance missions with equal effectiveness. Air Force
plans now call for producing 210 of these aircraft by 1998, although the
outlook is clouded somewhat by budget pressures.
Like the huge C-5 Galaxy, the C-17 will be able to carry
outsize cargo such as Ml Abrams tanks. Unlike the Galaxy, the new lifter will
also be able to deliver such cargo directly to small, austere airfields. C-17
plans call for a capability to land on a runway 3,000 feet long and ninety
feet wide. Thrust reversers will give it the ability to back up on the runway.
About fifteen percent of the C-17 will be made of lightweight composite materials.
Another new transport, the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft,
is aimed at improving the Air Force's ability to support special operations.
Able to hover like a helicopter and cruise with the speed of a fixed-wing
aircraft, it is designed to ease clandestine insertion and extraction of forces
behind enemy lines.
The next generation of meteorological systems—critical to
effective worldwide flying operations—is expected to bring major advances over
those of today. Concepts include an automated weather-data distribution
system, highly advanced radars, and a new, block upgrade to the existing
Defense Meteorological Satellite Program structure.
All these systems will draw heavily on key technologies
that have been, and still are, under development in numerous Air Force laboratories.
Artificial-intelligence systems, lightweight materials, multi-spectrum
sensors, parallel processors, reduction of infrared signatures, and
high-power engines are but a few of the technologies that will find their way
into mobility forces of tomorrow.
Beyond the next generation of aircraft will come systems
based on even more advanced technologies. Entirely passive means for reliable,
low-level navigation, techniques for autonomous landing, passive
self-protection devices, and ultralightweight materials are all being pursued.
High-performance turbine engines of greatly increased thrust, short and
vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, and, especially, advanced
low-observable technologies will come into play.
These types of technologies and others now in their infancy
are expected to permit the Air Force to develop and deploy, in the early
twenty-first century, what it calls the "Advanced Strategic
Airlifter" and the "Advanced Tactical Transport." Additional
concepts include new, high-technology versions of transports and gunships for
SOF missions. The latter could carry highly advanced forms of weaponry. These
aircraft are expected to inherit virtually everything Air Force technologists
have achieved in applying STOL and even stealth technologies to other planes.
Nowhere is the magnitude of long-range Air Force
ambitions—and the difficulty USAF will encounter trying to achieve them—more
evident than in the realm of strategic nuclear weaponry.
What service leaders want to accomplish over the next
decade or so seems challenging indeed. They hope to overcome present deficiencies
and achieve true capability to rapidly find and strike strategic re-locatable
targets such as Soviet mobile ICBMs and to strike deeply buried targets such
as hardened Soviet command bunkers.
In addition, they say they want to strengthen the
survivability of USAF's penetrating bomber fleet, deploy new ICBMs in ways that
make them relatively secure against surprise attack, and increase the refueling
capacity of the USAF tanker force. They are calling for ICBM warheads able to
penetrate layered defenses, should Moscow choose to deploy them. They assert a
need to integrate conventional munitions into strategic forces in a big way.
But the premier weapons for achieving the goals—new manned
bombers and superaccurate, mobile ICBMs—are expensive, politically
controversial, or both, especially in an arms-control era marked by calls for
deep reductions of superpower arsenals. Congressional approval is far from
Even so, planners believe they have the proper systems
concepts to strengthen a strategic armory now reliant on silo-based Minuteman
and Peacekeeper missiles, B-1 and B-52 bombers, KC-135 and KC-10 tankers, and
first-generation air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs.
Heading the list of "next-generation" nuclear
systems: Northrop's B-2 Advanced Technology Bomber, the stealthy, radar-foiling
flying wing rolled out last November in Palmdale, Calif. USAF wants to buy 132
B-2s, at an average cost of $516 million per copy, to confront future Soviet
air defenses. The B-2 currently remains in the development stage.
Concepts for strengthening the ICBM leg of the strategic
triad include Peacekeepers deployed in rail-garrison basing, single-warhead
Midgetmen based on mobile launchers, and movable Minuteman IV/V
intercontinental weapons. Also to be made available are new, earth- penetrating
warheads to dig out heavily defended bunkers.
Plans call for a new generation of bomber-borne weapons,
such as an upgraded short-range attack missile—SRAM II—and the radar-deceiving
Advanced Cruise Missile, both of them nuclear. New conventional cruise
missiles and "hard target munitions" also are in sight.
Underpinning these systems is a host of key technologies
brought into being in recent years—low observables, radiation-hardened devices,
enhanced chemical propellants, advanced materials, multi-mode sensors,
automatic target cuing, multisource data processing, and technologies that
reduce telltale signatures of nuclear reentry vehicles. None has reached full
maturity, though many are nearing that stage.
Beyond the next-generation systems, the ICBM leg of the
triad begins to seem problematic. Systems Command planners forecast no new
ballistic missile concept, only "enhancements" of the existing force,
presumably some combination of Peacekeeper, Midgetman, and Minuteman.
The future looks very different when it comes to manned
bomber aircraft. The lineal descendent of the B-2, in the Air Force's conceptual
view, may well be some form of hypersonic air vehicle capable of traversing
long distances and zooming from an airstrip into space and back again.
Supporting such a breathtaking aircraft would be a new
aerial tanker now known as the KC-X. Superseding the bomber missiles and munitions
of the next generation: hypersonic attack weapons.
To make these a reality, Air Force technologists will have
to score breakthroughs in hypersonics, combined cycle propulsion, ultra-high-speed
computer processing, high energy density propellants, Super Cockpit
technologies, superconductors, high-temperature and high-strength materials,
fast-burning propellants, and active cooling techniques.
As it surveys the military requirements for effective
strategic defenses—that is, protection of US territory from nuclear attack or
coercion—the Air Force perceives a broad array of needs.
In its view, large-scale improvements are in order for some
capabilities such as the ability to gain tactical warning of ballistic
missile attack, rapid assessment of the scope and nature of an attack, and the
like. Other needs—to conduct atmospheric and space surveillance and tracking,
to protect US space vehicles from attack, to intercept threatening aircraft at
long ranges and to intercept small air vehicles—are new.
At present, the Air Force bases its strategic defense effort
on a narrow array of systems whose utility is limited almost exclusively to
warning. The Satellite Early Warning System, Ballistic Missile Early Warning
System (BMEWS), Pave Paws radars, and the Nuclear Detonation Detection System
would provide notice of an ICBM attack and some assessment of its scale. The
North Warning System, Over-the-Horizon Backscatter Radar network, and Distant
Line would alert Washington to a bomber or cruise missile
assault. Ground-based deep space surveillance systems and space surveillance
radars would keep track of US and Soviet space assets. With the exception of a
few air defense fighters, no active means for resisting attack currently
A large number of emerging technologies is cited as the
basis for altering what is deemed an inadequate posture. Primary among them
are means to detect stealthy air vehicles, lightweight structures, sophisticated
multispectral sensors, radiation-hardened microelectronics, survivable solar
panels, parallel processors, adaptive optics, improved atmospheric
transmission codes, and clutter rejection techniques.
What kind of systems could emerge from these technologies?
For the next generation, concepts for ballistic missile defense systems include
a new system to replace the Satellite Early Warning network and major
modifications designed to improve the BMEWS network and Pave Paws radars.
For defense against air-breathing threats, the Air Force
foresees deployment of space-based radars, upgrades to the OTH radars,
upgrades to the air defense fighter fleet, upgrades of E-3C AWACS aircraft,
and use of an advanced aerial platform to monitor air corridors.
Space defense activities are focusing on concepts such as
Deep Space Surveillance Radar, a Satellite On-Board Attack Reporting System
for warning, and an air-launched antisatellite weapon to help deter the Soviet
Union from initiating use of its own "satellite killer" weapons.
The real leaps in strategic defense capability, however,
would not come until some time after the next generation of systems had been deployed.
In the conceptual view of Air Force planners, new
technologies would enable the US in the far future to confront missile attacks
in a more effective fashion. They envision advanced directed-energy
weapons—lasers, neutral particle beams—taking on waves of missiles and
warheads. It might also be possible to build highly accurate and effective
kinetic-energy weapons able to hurl projectiles great distances at high
speeds. Feeding in target data would be the Space Surveillance and Tracking
System, a network of satellites envisioned as having unprecedented abilities to
detect and pinpoint small objects in space. The Boost Surveillance and Tracking
System would serve a similar purpose with respect to missiles in the first
minutes after launch.
Other concepts are advanced as possible answers to the
long-term threat of attack through the atmosphere. Long-range hypersonic arms,
able to close rapidly on attacking aircraft, are one possibility, as are
interceptor missiles that could cruise at supersonic speeds. Another option for
the future: an advanced interceptor fighter.
Protection of satellite assets would get a boost.
Maneuvering "defensive" satellites, ground- based lasers to shoot
down hostile space vehicles, and space-based interceptor vehicles are but a
few of the possible options.
These systems will require technologies such as
"brilliant" guidance, noncooperative target recognition, precision
pointing and tracking, hypersonics, artificial ionospheric mirrors, directed
energy, and high-power microwaves.
Operations, and Services
From all appearances, the great advances that the Air Force foresees
for its earthbound forces might be replicated in space. The service is
signaling that improved space systems will be required if the US is to exploit
the possibilities of this high frontier to the fullest extent.
The increasing US reliance on space-based technology for
national security and civilian functions, USAF maintains, has upped the ante
for developers of space systems. Both the immediate and far future will
require more responsive operational launch processing, improvements in
on-orbit control of space vehicles, better space services, strengthened space
contributions to worldwide navigation, and more precise environmental monitoring
Already at hand are a number of key technologies that hold
the promise of providing the capabilities the Air Force maintains that it
needs. Key among these are those that focus on control of large space
structures, advanced orbit transfer propulsion, microelectronics hardened
against radiation, lightweight structures, spacecraft charge control, and
antennas for transmission of extremely-high-frequency signals. Also getting
strong laboratory attention are high-efficiency solar power cells, autonomous
guidance systems, and wideband communications links.
One projected result of the technological explosion:
advanced vehicles for launching payloads into space. That function is now per
formed in large part by the fleet of space shuttles and various Titan, Centaur,
and Delta rockets. The next generation of systems, however, will include
projects such as the Advanced Launch Vehicle, a new and more effective orbital
maneuvering vehicle, expendable orbital transfer vehicles, and reusable
orbital transfer vehicles.
The next-generation technologies hold out hope for
much-improved on-orbit control of space vehicles. The up-and-down
communications and control links between earth-based facilities and operating
satellites will become more survivable. Also possible are effective
cross-links between satellites.
In the area of space services, Air Force technologists
foresee developing, within the next decade or so, new and survivable forms of
solar panels for production of power as well as highly advanced nickel-hydrogen
batteries. A sharply upgraded version of today's Global Position System, known
as GPS IIR, will afford more precise and responsive navigation powers to
military forces on earth around the turn of the century.
Beyond the year 2000, improvements in the Air Force's
ability to conduct space operations will hinge on a variety of new technologies
now attracting the attention of scientists and engineers in a big way. The
object is to develop more effective technologies for spacecraft, space power,
propulsion, microelectronics, and communications.
Key among these will be what is termed robotic telepresence,
which is the use of dexterous manipulators such as mechanical hands controlled
and directed from great distances by humans. High energy density propellants,
which could yield up to sixteen times the energy density of existing propellant
materials such as liquid and solid fuels, might bring about a twofold increase
in launch vehicle lift capacity as well as a three- to fivefold increase in
upperstage orbit transfer capability.
Also in store are so-called "fail-soft,
fault-tolerant" computers, meaning that an individual failure within the
system will not inhibit continued operations. Photonics—the use of basic
particles of light as an agent of transmission—could dramatically increase the
speed and capacity of information transfer in computers while reducing heat generated
in the system.
The promise held by these and other futuristic technologies
leads service scientists to postulate remarkable, far-future space system
concepts. The current mixed launch force of manned space shuttles and unmanned
rocket boosters, for example, might be supplemented by manned,
single-stage-to-orbit vehicles that would be at home either in the atmosphere
or in space. On-orbit control would be enhanced by fleets of autonomous,
self-directing satellites and by survivable, jam-proof laser crosslinks tying
together numerous independent satellites. Also foreseen are on-orbit repair and
servicing of spacecraft and installation of microelectronics resistant to
Command and Control
The future foreseen by the Air Force implies an obvious need
for improvements to its command and control system—the nervous system of
radios, computer stations, and communications satellites that enables
civilian and military decision-makers to instruct the nation's strategic and
general-purpose forces in a timely fashion.
The service projects a menu of clear-cut requirements for
the decades ahead. It wants technologists to improve the Air Force battle
management powers that are based on information processing and decision aids;
reduce vulnerability of communications to electronic countermeasures,
electromagnetic pulse, and physical attack; integrate tactical warning and
assessment of missile, atmospheric, and space attack; and strengthen theater
surveillance functions such as detection, tracking, and identification.
For the relatively near future, USAF will base its efforts
on specific technologies already identified as critical. The laboratories will
push to perfect new breeds of parallel computer processors that are secure
from interference at multiple levels. They are at work on "smart,"
self-directing workstations involved in battle management. Laser communications,
artificial intelligence processing techniques, photonic devices, processors
for wideband extremely-high-frequency communications, and passive sensors capable
of recognizing targets at great distances all are considered essential.
The promise of these technologies leads the Air Force to
propose new system concepts across the board. In the area of strategic command
and control, USAF foresees the possibility of a sweeping strategic war
planning system, a center for rapid processing and correlation of target data,
an adaptive planning system for Strategic Air Command, and a mobile system
capable of providing warning, processing, and display of attack information.
In addition, USAF believes it will need to replace its present national
emergency airborne command post aircraft, devise tactical data-processing
stations, and come up with a command and control system for the mobile
Midgetman missile, should Washington choose to build it.
For next-generation general-purpose forces, the Air Force
has conceptualized an automated advanced planning system. The new Joint Tactical
Information Distribution System would permit multifunction dissemination of
target and other data across a wide range of forces. Adding to conventional
command and control would be a new combat identification sensor, a network
management processor, and a specialized mission support system.
A number of concepts are proposed to meet the needs of
strategic and conventional forces on a common basis. These include an upgrade
to the Defense Satellite Communications System, to the level known as DSCS
IIIC, plus antijam high-frequency communications, integrated voice/data
switches, and systems to provide multilevel security for communications and
gateways to multiple command and control networks.
The technologies of artificial intelligence and photonics
also will be vital in developing far-future systems. The Air Force sees high
potential in other technologies such as high-rate burst radio transmission,
"smart" aircraft skins, three-dimensional situation displays, and
detection and tracking of advanced, stealthy platforms, all of which are now
The systems concepts that these technologies would support
include ultrasophisticated command centers for ballistic missile defense
forces, command and control networks to manage the antimissile battle, and
airborne centers to provide processing and display of warning information.
That's in the strategic weapons field. For general-purpose
forces, what the Air Force is looking for are radios that can transmit in
multiple media, advanced airborne surveillance radars, and advanced tactical
surveillance radars. Conventional forces also would benefit from
multi-satellite networks, an advanced, secure satellite communications terminal,
and wideband high-frequency radios.
Air Base Operability
As it charts its many future requirements and their
associated systems, the Air Force has not neglected the critical need to keep
its air bases operating in time of war. This "mission," like
electronic combat, strategic offensive action, and other wartime business,
carries with it a demand for specialized. top-flight "weapons."
In an age of expanding Soviet long-range airpower, American
forward bases in Western Europe and Asia can no longer be viewed as
sanctuaries from which the Air Force could operate free from interference. The
upshot, in the view of Air Force planners, is a new requirement to prevent air
base damage by actively defending against the Soviet air and ground threat, increasing
the base's ability to survive an attack by providing passive defensive
measures, enhancing the base's ability to recover from an attack and get back
into action, strengthening its post-attack powers to generate combat sorties,
and bolstering the infrastructure that supports base operations.
Helping the Air Force to relieve the danger in the next
decade will be such technologies as survivable base communications systems,
easy-to-handle polymer concretes, means of detecting the presence of plastic
explosives, and systems to contain the effects of chemical and biological
These and other technologies underlie a number of new
system concepts proposed for possible future use. They will enhance the defensive
fighting positions from which US base-defense troops would try to ward off
commandos seeking to disable a base. To help the base survive an attack, there
would be infrared reflectors to confuse Soviet attack pilots, high-strength
shelters to protect base personnel, and personal cooling systems to use in protective
In addition, the Air Force is working on transparent patches
to repair cockpit canopies damaged in an attack, new substances to patch
craters in runways, and vehicles called Oracle, Flail, and MARV/ SMUD that
would be used to clear runways and taxiways. Revetted shelters and special
munitions storage systems would help the base start operations quickly after
an attack. Underlying the entire process are redundant utility cables and
pipelines and precise, easy-to-use, handheld data-burst systems for base
Even greater advances are sought in the far term, by which
time technologists are expected to have mastered rapid repair of advanced aircraft
materials, robotic operations in hostile environments, and other base repair
techniques. Forthcoming advances in short takeoff and landing technologies
will greatly ease the task of keeping an air base functioning after attack.
Aircraft will simply need less to land on.
For the twenty-first century, concepts include advanced
intrusion barriers that could supplement or replace manned fighting positions.
New forms of deception, the ability to relocate high-value base targets, and a
new, impermeable protective suit will all contribute to the survival of base
systems and personnel. After an attack, the base and its aircraft might be
brought back to life by using self-repairing avionics systems along with
robotic and remotely controlled systems to disarm and dispose of unexploded
ordnance. New treatments for biological agent contamination are in the works.
Other concepts to help base personnel weather an attack
include collocation of fuel tanks within aircraft shelters, development of
weapons containing "insensitive" high explosives, and other advances.
Throughout the air base, currently vulnerable infrastructure would be replaced
with hardened utilities, hardened vehicles, robotic fire-fighting systems, and
fiber-optic communications cables armored for protection against blast.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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