New military capabilities spring from several roots. One is
the conventional, well-understood requirements process, in which the
operational commands specify the features and characteristics they desire in
weapon systems for the future. There is much to be said for this approach, but
it tends mainly to seek improved variations on existing systems.
Another source of new capabilities is the push by zealous
advocates for some technological opportunity, frequently in the face of a
"show-me" attitude, or even a negative attitude, on the part of the
operational community and approval authorities.
I worry that if we depend too much on the former
"pull" process to the exclusion of the latter "push"
stimulation, we will become trapped in incrementalism and fail to achieve
important outflanking capabilities. It was pursuit of technological
opportunity in the past that led to the development of ballistic missiles,
space surveillance and communications systems, AWACS, cruise missiles, and
Despite the declining condition of the technology base (see
accompanying box), opportunities today are ripe or ripening. For practical
reasons, it is useful to divide them into two categories: technologies that can
deliver benefits in the next decade and those that hold promise of dramatic new
capabilities in the early twenty-first century.
The lengthy defense acquisition process probably precludes
the fielding of any significant new weapon system capability in this century
unless development has already begun. The defense budget outlook exacerbates
that problem. Shorter lead times are still possible, though, in the case of
lesser system capabilities or improvements to existing capabilities.
The Department of Defense and the Air Force are already
committed to a substantial acquisition program for much of the next decade.
In fact, it will be a major challenge to maintain support for all of these
programs. At the same time, the services must assimilate the numerous new
systems and capabilities they have acquired recently, plus those that will be
coming out of development in the next few years.
It seems clear that there will be little room for additional
major acquisitions. That being the case, my list of ripe technologies for the
next decade emphasizes those that could aid with the assimilation of new weapon
systems or those that might enhance their planned capabilities.
First, consider how technology could improve the
productivity of maintenance and training, achieve a substantial reduction in
operations and maintenance costs, and ameliorate the budget problem.
The technology is at hand for big improvements in every
aspect of maintenance. All maintenance requirements and diagnostic and repair
procedures could be managed in a distributed digital network system. This
system would be supported by a common distributed database containing all
weapon system design and configuration information needed for Air Force
purposes. It could also satisfy the data needs of contractors and suppliers.
The networks would extend all the way to the maintenance
technician on the flight line. His tasks would be accomplished with the aid of
a small interactive terminal by which he could obtain all necessary
instructions and diagnostic assistance. This same system would be linked with
the supply system to call up replacement parts. Paper would be eliminated. The
system will also facilitate changes and improve responsiveness.
Training would be simplified and skill requirements would be
reduced. I believe that new trainees could learn and adapt more readily to
such a computer-based system than to our current paper-intensive maintenance
The long-term O&M savings potential is very great. The
challenge is how to introduce such a change into our large, existing, multi-weapon-system,
paper-dependent logistics environment.
Much of industry has already made such a transition. Some recent
Air Force initiatives have taken a step in that direction, but widespread
implementation still lies ahead. It is clear that the force will operate in
this manner in the future. The only question is: How soon? The investment,
although not in- consequential, could be amortized over a few years, after
which large savings would result.
Technology is also available to ease the problems of rising
costs and environmental constraints on realistic combat training. DARPA and the
Army have made considerable progress in multiplayer exercise training,
linking together many low-cost simulators by means of a high-data-rate digital
network called SIMNET. They have proven that this system provides valuable
individual and team training to tank and helicopter crews.
A similar approach could be useful in aircrew training. An
easy first step could be taken in close air support and battlefield
interdiction. Low-cost aircraft simulators might be linked not only to each
other but also to Army simulators. In addition to its training value, the
network would be a tactics development tool. The concept could be expanded
into other air operations areas as users gain experience. Several companies,
including McDonnell Douglas and British Aerospace, have already started
"linked simulator" systems for air-to-air combat.
Still other simulation schemes are within sight, thanks to
the availability of relatively low-cost, high-capacity digital data links and
remarkable advances in digital scene generation and projection.
For example, with the avionics data bus architecture of our
current-generation aircraft, it would be possible to link the cockpits of
operational aircraft to a simulation module, enabling pilots to rehearse
their planned mission. By linking several such cockpits together, a capability to
develop and practice team tactics might be created. I am aware of the concern
that increased use of simulators may threaten the essential flying training
program, but I believe that it can and should be viewed as a supplement that
helps offset the limited opportunities for realistic combat-crew and
In another area, technology is available to close the
intelligence/ operations gap. Great strides in sensor development have
produced an ever-increasing wealth of real-time threat information and precise
target location data. Unfortunately, there has not been similar progress in
the effective use of this information by the combat elements.
Despite past skepticism based on disappointing results of
earlier efforts, I am now convinced that communication, artificial
intelligence, and processing technology are adequate to synthesize this
information and present it to decision-makers in useful form in near-real time.
Equally important, technology will support affordable data communications
from the command centers to elements of the strike force for real-time
transmission of targeting and threat-awareness information. Means will soon
exist in most aircraft to provide such information to crews on their
The opportunity is near at hand to break out of the
twenty-four-hour planning/execution cycle that we have been saddled with since
World War II.
That leads to the broader area of command and control. No
one doubts that there is plentiful technology to achieve major improvements.
Despite the rhetoric, false starts, and the expenditures over the past decade
or so, not much progress has been made. This is particularly true of tactical
command and control. The problem is not the lack of enabling technology but a
fault of the requirements and acquisition processes. Existing technology
could provide each command and every operating level with appropriate access
to current threat data, automated tools of high quality for planning and
decision-making, and real-time information on friendly and enemy forces presented
on a situation display suited to that operating level.
One could argue that the 1990s ought to be the
"munitions decade." There is no area where ripe technology promises
more leverage in the near term. Continuing progress in sensors, microelectronics,
and microprocessing makes the goal of affordable "brilliant"
weapons both possible and urgent. Admittedly, these new assured-kill weapons
will cost much more than older "dumb" bombs, but their effectiveness,
combined with the reduced exposure of the strike aircraft, warrant the
investment. More important, weapons with increased killing power are the most
effective means to offset constrained force structure.
Fortunately, now we can do it. Millimeter-wave technology is
sufficiently advanced from both a technical and cost viewpoint to provide a
highly effective night and adverse-weather, precision-guided munitions
capability. Long-range tactical standoff weapons can be made every bit as
effective as direct-attack guided weapons, since infrared, millimeter wave,
laser radar, and synthetic aperture radar technologies make possible accurate
waypoint-fixing in midcourse as well as high-value fixed target discrimination
from natural background in the target area.
We know how to reduce the observability of weapons for
compatibility with our stealthy aircraft and also how to reduce the weapons'
vulnerability to countermeasures. We are acquiring a complete new stable of
aircraft for all mission areas. Now we have the opportunity to multiply the
effectiveness of that new force with far more capable weapons. The funding
requirement for such an initiative is relatively small.
Now, let's shift our focus to the longer-term technologies
that hold promise for use in systems of the next century and deserve careful
nurturing and demonstration today.
An Eye On the Future
Since major new system starts will be few in the coming
decade, it is likely that a number of pressing needs, requiring accelerated pursuit,
will emerge once funds be come available. Therefore, we should attempt to
minimize the technology maturation phase so frequently required today. This
dictates a strong science and technology program during the 1990s. It should
include key technology demonstrations to lay a solid base for follow-on
engineering development programs.
We cannot know with assurance which technologies will be
critical to the capabilities we will be pursuing in the next century. A great
deal can happen in ten years. For perspective, consider that a decade ago we
had just begun the stealth programs, the birth of SDI was still three years
away, parallel processing was in its infancy, 64K RAM had just emerged, and
superconductivity was only achievable at liquid helium temperatures.
Acknowledging that we cannot predict all of the technologies that will be
important in the early twenty-first century, we can still identify a few now
that we know will be important.
Given the long, unbroken pattern of the Soviets mirroring
our new capabilities, it is only a matter of time before they present us with
a low-observable threat. It is essential, therefore, that we develop means to
cope with such a threat. We are in a good position to focus our broad stealth
technological base and our advanced sensor technologies on means to detect,
track, and intercept low-observable systems. We must not let enthusiasm and advocacy
for our own stealth programs inhibit an aggressive quest of countermeasures.
We should pursue a priority program to prepare for the time when—not
if—countermeasures are required.
Next, we should strongly support the National Aerospace
Plane. Although it is now apparent that the original vision of an "Orient
Express"—or even of a low-cost, single-stage-to-orbit capability—is unachievable
in this century, we must continue the effort to extend our aeronautical horizon
into the hypersonic.
It is easy to imagine exciting possibilities. An aerospace
plane would obviously compress the time required for operations. More important,
though, the aerospace plane is one of those special multidiscipline programs
that by its nature advances a large number of technologies as it moves
forward. Propulsion will take a giant step with the development and
flight-testing of the hydrogen-fueled scramjet. The program will extend and
validate hypersonic computational fluid dynamics codes, the aircraft and
propulsion designer's basic design tools. It will accelerate the development of
higher-strength materials and new approaches to structural design. It will
force the development of advanced integrated flight and propulsion control
concepts and systems. It will require advanced cooling concepts and mechanisms.
I can't think of another program that promises to open up more exciting opportunities.
Today, we acknowledge the great strategic value of DSP
(Defense Support Program) satellites that monitor ballistic missile activity
and provide warning of attack. A complementary capability for surveillance of
airborne threats would be of great value. It appears that all of the requisite
technologies—radar and infrared sensors, power generation, on-board signal
processing, and spacecraft construction—to make that possible and practical are
near at hand. They will be a reality early in the next century. This capability
should be a high-priority candidate for technology development.
The increasing role of space systems in military operations
makes it unconscionable that we are denied a means to destroy such systems during
war. High-powered lasers, beam forming and control, adaptive optics, and power-generation
technology will soon be available to construct a highly effective,
ground-based antisatellite system out to geosynchronous altitude. Just a few
sites would provide the necessary coverage.
Such a system would have much better altitude and coverage
capability than was provided by the abandoned F-15 miniature homing vehicle
system. It seems to be an ideal candidate for technology maturation and
demonstration during the next decade. Our political leadership will surely
come around to acknowledging its military necessity. It also seems apparent
that this is an area where we should expect aggressive defensive countermeasures.
Therefore, we should pursue a vigorous technology program to cope with that
We have seen electronics take over the management and
control of all the inner workings of our systems—the operation of the
aircraft's flight control system, the control of the engine, the weapon
delivery, the missile guidance and fuzing, and the processing and display of
nearly all of our information. It's been happening as well in ships,
helicopters, tanks, artillery, and even the individual soldier's equipment.
There has been a relentless trend toward miniaturization of sensor elements,
microcircuitry, solid-state RF devices, microprocessors, and micro-memories.
We see the same trends in Soviet and Soviet-bloc equipment.
One of the most serious design challenges with
microelectronics is protection against spurious, unwanted signals. This
characteristic of enemy equipment—and ours—is one that technology enables us to
exploit. Pulse power generation and microwave amplifier and transmission
technology make a high-power microwave weapon a distinct possibility. A first
step could be a capability to disrupt and upset critical electronic
components, followed by a capability to burn out and destroy enemy systems. We
should aggressively pursue this potential high-payoff technology to position
ourselves for later full-scale development.
It is likewise obvious that we must develop means to reduce
our own vulnerability to similar measures from the other side.
Given the improbability of new aircraft development starts
in the next decade, it is especially important that we pursue an advanced
technology air vehicle program. The ongoing turbine technology and materials
programs promise to double the thrust-to-weight capability of turbine engines
by the end of the next decade while reducing specific fuel consumption by fifty
percent. I feel comfortable with that prediction.
Remarkable advances are being made in the use of advanced,
lightweight composite materials in load-bearing aircraft structures. An
all-composite high-performance aircraft is now close to reality. About fifty
percent of an aircraft's weight today is in the fuel and engine system.
Imagine the combined effect of doubled thrust-to-weight, halved specific fuel
consumption, and alllightweight-composite structure.
It could give us short takeoff and vertical landing in a
supersonic airframe, an F-15-sized machine capable of sustained speeds
greater than Mach 3—or a smaller fighter with truly spectacular performance.
Such possibilities mandate one or more advanced technology demonstration
programs during the next decade to advance and confirm the technology base to
support the full-scale development programs that are sure to follow soon after
the turn of the century.
Those are some, but not all, of the opportunities. There are
others, including noncooperative target recognition, unmanned vehicle applications,
and autonomous guided weapons. I have deliberately avoided the topic of
ballistic missile defense because I see technology supporting only a limited
terminal defense of questionable value in the next decade. I do, however,
support the steady pursuit of technologies that could make possible a highly
capable, cost-effective system after the turn of the century.
Nothing has been said here about superconductivity,
extra-smart unmanned vehicles, highly maneuverable space vehicles,
directed-energy weapons for combat aircraft, or superenergetic propellants and
explosives. I feel sure that most of these are in our future, but they require
further development in the technology base. I wonder, though, if they might
have been on my list had the technology base received stronger support over the
past decade or two.
Our Store of
Technology Is Becoming Sparse
Today, we are reaping the fruits of wise technology
investments made in the past. Our current generation of military systems and
the even more capable ones now emerging would not have been possible had it not
been for the technology base.
These systems are the outgrowth of tech base projects in
such areas as inertial guidance; advanced turbine technology; fly-by-wire
controls; terrain comparison and matching guidance; composite,
high-temperature, and radar-absorbent materials; forward-looking infrared
sensors; synthetic aperture radars; and multimicro detector focal plane arrays.
Now, however, there are disquieting indications that the
health of our technology base is not what it should be and that the favorable
development conditions we enjoyed in the past may not exist in the future. Air
Force investment in the technology base in constant dollars has declined since
the early 1960s. Except for a short period of modest growth—four percent a
year—from 1982 through 1986, it is still declining.
The OSD annual assessment clearly shows that our lead over
the USSR in a number of important military technology areas is dwindling. The
more pronounced narrowing of our lead in comparison to many friendly nations in
the world is equally disturbing. Although some might disagree with the
evaluation of our current relative position in specific technology areas, none
denies the dramatic decline of our lead over the short period of the last ten
to twenty years.
As we embarked on design of a new capability in earlier
years, we were seldom limited by technology in establishing such criteria as
the accuracy, range, or combat margin required. In most cases, the challenge
was to make cost-effective choices between competing technical approaches.
Usually, there seemed to be plenty of technology on the shelf to construct a
Increasingly in recent years we have had to precede our
systems efforts with a technology maturation phase. We see it in the Advanced
Tactical Fighter, the Strategic Defense Initiative, space-based radar, Joint
STARS, the hypervelocity missile, the B-2, the National Aerospace Plane, and
other programs. We refer to this effort by such names as pre-full-scale
engineering development, risk reduction. demonstration/validation, and just
plain technology maturation. But the purpose is the same: to mature the key
technologies involved to a point where we have sufficient confidence to proceed
with a reasonably low-risk, full-scale engineering and development program.
These efforts are becoming more intense and are taking longer.
Some would argue that we are reaching further with today's
systems and that technology maturation is needed for that reason. I say that
our store of technology on the shelf is becoming sparse.
Gen. Robert T Marsh,
USAF (Ret.), former Commander of Air Force Systems Command, served twenty-four
years in various capacities with AFSC and a total of forty-one years in the Air
Force before his 1984 retirement. He is currently chairman of AFA's Science and
Technology Committee. His most recent contribution to AIR FORCE Magazine was "Oversight Is
Overdone" in the October '86 issue.
Daily Report: 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.
Tweets by @AirForceMag