New Technology Horizons
Autonomous systems ... Computers plugged into the brain ... Chemically or genetically enhanced airmen ... Exotic new kinds of jet engines and directed energy weapons ...
These are among the advances the Air Force should aim for in the coming two decades, says a new service "vision" paper.
"Technology Horizons: A Vision for Air Force Science and Technology During 2010-2030" was prepared by USAF’s chief scientist, Werner J. A. Dahm.
This study, released in July, is the most recent of six Air Force technology forecasts since 1945. Dahm submitted it to Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz.
Technologies "to reduce manpower, energy, and sustainment costs" are the most worthy of investment, Dahm said, arguing that they are areas that have typically received too little attention. He suggested that the Air Force communicate the results of the study broadly and align USAF’s science and technology portfolio with the courses laid out in it.
A chief manpower-saving innovation will be superfast computers substituting for armies of human intelligence analysts, "connecting the dots" of sensor data to figure out what an enemy will do and recommending action to commanders.
A tough technology challenge will be developing the means to verify that what the computers come up with is reliable enough to act on.
Human beings themselves will have to change to keep up with the computers, Dahm said.
"By 2030, machine capabilities will have increased to the point that humans will have become the weakest component in a wide array of systems and processes." This will demand closer "coupling" of humans and machines—both through more intuitive interfaces and by "direct augmentation of humans themselves."
These enhancements might entail simply screening recruits for their specialties "based on brainwave patterns or genetic correlators," up to "drugs or implants," or "genetic modification itself."
Such methods "may appear inherently distasteful," Dahm wrote, but "potential adversaries may be entirely willing to make use of them."
The study found a growing need to be able to operate in "contested or denied" environments. USAF networks should be able to protect themselves, avoid corruption from outside intruders, and reconstruct themselves after attacks.
Electronic warfare threats will become more acute. USAF has to become a virtuoso at "electronic spectrum warfare," developing means to "increase resilience to spoofing and resistance to signal injection."
Other "key priority areas" for Air Force S&T investment include processing-enabled intelligent sensors, directed energy for tactical strike and defense, persistent space situational awareness, rapidly composable small satellite systems, and next generation high-efficiency gas turbines, Dahm wrote.
The S&T World’s Big 12
Dahm identified 12 "overarching themes" setting the course for USAF’s technology, illustrating a required shift in emphasis.
Many of these transitions have been under way for several years already. They are:
1. From platforms to capabilities: thinking in terms of results, independently of the devices used to obtain those results.
2. From manned to remotely piloted: increasing use of uninhabited vehicles and systems.
3. From fixed to agile: expeditionary, movable, and flexible assets rather than garrisoned or centralized.
4. From control to autonomy: systems and platforms that run themselves.
5. From integrated to fractionated: away from "exquisite" all-in-one, do-everything systems to a constellation of cheaper, easily replaceable units.
6. From preplanned to composable: decision-making on the fly, rather than set-piece operations.
7. From single-domain to cross-domain: capabilities that can perform a variety of functions as needed.
8. From permissive to contested: domination of any domain not assumed. USAF will be challenged in every domain and must be capable of prevailing under duress.
9. From sensor to information: seeing the big picture seamlessly, irrespective of the way it was generated.
10. From operations to dissuasion-deterrence: preventing combat by making it pointless.
11. From cyber defense to cyber resilience: making networks and information systems able to withstand attacks, changing constantly to make intrusions difficult, and generating inherent forensic evidence of where attacks came from.
12. From long system-life to expendable: using systems designed with a short, limited, and predictable lifespan, meant to be used up or expended in combat rather than built to last.
End of the Raptor Option?
After the last F-22 Raptor is delivered in early 2012, the Air Force will keep the production tooling at least until it figures out how it will make the 186-aircraft fleet last into the 2030s.
Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley informed Congress in late June that he intends to retain the F-22 tooling until the Air Force completes an analysis of "sustainment" needs for the aircraft. Typically, when an aircraft production line shuts down, USAF will either buy a supply of major structural replacement parts or preserve some tooling to fabricate new parts as needed. Sometimes, it does both.
The tooling could also permit a future service life extension program of the F-22 fleet by making possible the economical replacement of wings, bulkheads, spars, and other heavy load-bearing elements that wear out. Air Force leaders have suggested that the need for the first F-22 service life extensions will arise in the early 2020s.
Air Force Materiel Command has been studying sustainment and a future SLEP of the F-22 for some time. Although such a program is feasible in principle, the F-22’s structures are different from any previous USAF aircraft. The wings, for example, combine metal and composite materials with antennas in an integrated whole that might not easily lend itself to parts swaps.
Low observable materials on the F-22 will also likely be superceded by newer materials that are less costly and easier to maintain, potentially requiring substantial re-engineering of the aircraft.
Despite retention of the tools—which Donley said, citing a recent RAND Corp. study of F-22 production shutdown, could be done at "moderate" cost—he specifically ruled out the idea that the F-22 could ever go back into production.
Again citing the report, Donley said the one-time and recurring costs to restart F-22 manufacture would be "prohibitive." Lockheed Martin, which makes the F-22, has said as much in previous discussions of the fighter’s future, noting that the cost to clear and recertify workers and production methods and recertify suppliers and find new ones to replace those that have exited the industry would take several years and billions of dollars.
The RAND study pegged F-22 restart costs at $17 billion to $18 billion if the Air Force preserved the tooling.
Japan, Australia, and other allies expressed interest in obtaining F-22s, but the US has informed them that the F-22 will not be available for export.
Fiscal 2010 defense appropriation language, however, allows the development of an export version of the F-22 that would have less than USAF’s version’s full capability, while the 2010 authorization bill directs the Pentagon to study the ramifications of such foreign sales.
What-If Budget Drills
The Air Force has been looking at a number of "what-if" scenarios toward meeting defense leadership guidance to cut $28.3 billion from the Future Years Defense Program, but some—such as elimination of the B-1B bomber fleet, for example—are for comparative purposes, not serious consideration.
So said Lt. Gen. Christopher D. Miller, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs. Following a July Air Force symposium in Arlington, Va., Miller noted that USAF is considering more options "than you can shake a stick at," but that many are "not even close to reality."
A brief furor arose when it came to light that the Air Force was contemplating the B-1B retirement as a deep vertical cut to quickly reach outyear savings targets, but the service quickly reassured anxious members of Congress that no such plan will be put into action.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in ordering the cuts, insisted that the services and defense agencies look to overhead—process, layers of bureaucracy, repetitious functions, non-value-added reports, etc.—rather than force structure. Undersecretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter, in clarifying the guidance, said that the reductions must be "specific, actionable, and measurable," and that "across-the-board reductions are not acceptable."
The Air Force has to come up with $2 billion in savings for Fiscal 2012, and "we have to be very concrete" with plans on how to meet that target, Miller said. For the outyears, USAF has "time to adjust and figure out exactly how you get there."
He said that converting some programs into joint initiatives—thereby spreading cost, benefit, and risk—will be among the budget-cutting tools, but isn’t "a panacea" for flatline budgets.
"There are absolutely ... synergies" that the services can pursue, such as on the Global Hawk remotely piloted surveillance airplane, Miller said. There may also be opportunities in joint training and equippage "at the joint operational level."
However, joint programs present "challenges" in terms of deciding which service pays for what. Close coordination is needed in such instances because the budget machinations of preserving force structure and conducting modernization while cutting overhead are "pretty complex," he observed. If programs are made joint, we have to "make sure we get it right."
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, air power, and national security issues.
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