Over the Horizons

Jan. 1, 2011

The Air Force budget to be released this winter will likely see a substantial increase in science and technology funding. The increase is driven in part by the findings of the service’s most recent technology vision paper, completed last summer. It calls for the Air Force to master a broad new set of technologies, aimed less at faster, higher-flying, or more agile aerospace vehicles and more toward generic, “must have” innovations that will enable quicker and more certain action. These technologies will have wide, cross-cutting application among the other military services.

The 150-page report, called “Technology Horizons,” forecasts a smaller, more capable Air Force in 2030. Many of the advances seem straight from the pages of science fiction: genetically enhanced airmen given over largely to supervising seemingly conscious, self-directed machines conducting operations at blinding speeds, manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum, controlling hypersonic vehicles and the instantaneous action of directed energy weapons.

Werner J. A. Dahm, USAF’s former chief scientist and director of the study, said the Air Force’s science and technology program is “expected to get a large plus-up” from the Office of the Secretary of Defense in 2012 in the areas of the budget known by their designators 6.1 (basic research), 6.2 (applied research), and 6.3 (advanced technology development).

Coalition troops watch an ongoing mission unfold at a combined air operations center in Southwest Asia. (USAF photo by SSgt. Derrick C. Goode)

“The current plan is for all of that plus-up … to go into Technology Horizons investment areas,” he said. He declined to say how big the increase will be, except to say that “the amount is substantial.”

Maj. Gen. Ellen M. Pawlikowski, head of the Air Force Research Laboratory, said, “We already have efforts under way in many of the areas highlighted by the study.” While some of the Air Force’s S&T efforts may receive “decreased emphasis” given the priorities spelled out in Technology Horizons, she doesn’t think anything now in progress will be terminated by virtue of being a lower priority; rather, “we … will refocus them to be more responsive to Technology Horizons’ recommendations,” she said.

As Technology Horizons gets translated in budget priorities—which was the intent of Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz in directing Dahm to do the study—it will be reviewed by the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board and will have to pass muster with OSD as well.

Senior Pentagon leaders have said in recent years that they want technology programs to be far less risky when transitioning into weapon systems, specifying a higher technology readiness level—specifically, TRL-6—before they’ll give programs a green light.

Pawlikowski noted that TRL-6 is the point at which AFRL hands off technologies to development organizations, but getting there requires “a different style of management” for each, depending on its idiosyncrasies and the difficulty involved.

Visions of the Future

Air-breathing hypersonic vehicles, she noted, are an example of a technology that takes “decades of effort, and [we] are just reaching a point of maturity where application to military needs makes sense.” Technologies have to make progress against “clearly stated milestones,” she said, and have to be weighed against potential benefits. Anything that doesn’t have “sufficient promise may be deferred” in order to build the best all-around technology portfolio.

As futuristic as some of the innovations in Technology Horizons seem, the track record for USAF’s previous technology visions suggests that they will, in fact, appear as predicted. The very first such vision document—prepared by Theodore von Karman for Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold in 1945—detailed a long list of innovations such as gas turbine engines, heat-seeking and radar missiles, new materials, solid-fuel rocket motors, new fuels, and ballistic missiles that were then in their infancy but became standard tools to ensure air dominance through 1965. Over the years, subsequent vision iterations have anticipated things such as spy satellites, supercomputers, stealth, and cruise missiles. The last report, produced in 1995, predicted a surge in the use of remotely piloted aircraft and cyber weapons, among other things.

Dahm noted that in briefing the study to an OSD-level organization last summer, one official “said to me, ‘You know, … this doesn’t look like a “blue” document.’ It didn’t have a lot of what that individual expected in an Air Force-focused document.”

USAF is “not the National Science Foundation” and is not in the business of developing technologies for the whole nation, he noted, but it develops technologies needed to carry out its assigned missions.

A number of key technology developments emerged as “critical” to the Air Force’s future, Dahm said. One of the chief ones will be automation, which will have a profound effect both in reducing USAF’s manpower costs by reducing the number of airmen needed, and by enhancing the service’s speed of action through operational knowledge.

Directed energy and long-endurance unmanned aircraft come together in this Northrop Grumman concept of a future ballistic missile defense aircraft. (Northrop Grumman illustration by Peter A. Barnett)

Autonomous machines will sift through intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data looking for patterns and doing the tedious work of watching the movements of units and individuals. Autonomous air vehicles will find their own way to a target, and react swiftly, on their own, to the various threats and conditions they’ll encounter, supervised in most cases by a single airman, who will also be simultaneously directing the actions of many other such aircraft. In most cases, his job will be “restating the operator’s intent when that is appropriate,” Dahm said. Autonomous machines will search through signals, juggle the use or jamming of various parts of the spectrum, and recommend the best course of action for commanders to take.

Hand-in-hand with automation will be validation and verification, the science of assuring the automated systems properly interpret their sensory data and render predictable, correct decisions on what to do about it.

While automation will come fairly quickly and easily, Dahm said—and adversaries will readily adopt it to keep up with the US—the “V&V” task is far more difficult, but is essential to making automated systems trustworthy.

Here in the US, “our regulatory environment is not going to let us field [or] fly systems that are highly adaptable, highly autonomous unless we can prove that they will function as they are supposed to,” he observed. A good example is the high bar the FAA sets for the operation of remotely piloted aircraft in civil airspace, to ensure they observe the rules of the sky consistently and reliably.

“That’s a very high barrier,” Dahm acknowledged.

Moreover, as automated systems suck up larger and larger amounts of sensor information, with a corresponding increase in their potential responses, so many degrees of freedom makes it “exponentially more difficult to test,” he said. The number of individual action-reaction possibilities becomes “near infinite.”

GPS Still Needed

Testing each possibility, which Dahm called the “brute force” method, is “out of the question. … It doesn’t work.” Software will have to be designed from the outset to test itself, quickly and comprehensively. It will also be necessary to “redefine what we mean by ‘an adequately verified system.’” He added that “if we’re willing to take on a tiny amount of risk, then the V&V challenge becomes much more manageable.”

Another key capability will be the development of tiny, chip-size devices that can measure precisely movement and time. These will be critical, he said, because the Air Force expects that in any future conflict, enemies will attempt to jam the Global Positioning System, and it’s “very, very easy to jam.”

Tiny inertial measurement and atomic clock units in all manner of vehicles will kick in once a GPS signal is lost, using the last certain position as a reference point. Although there will be some drift, the small inertial measurement units will offer near-GPS position accuracy for a “very operationally relevant length of time.” Early results “look incredibly good,” Dahm said, and the technology will preserve not only Air Force but other services’ abilities to navigate and hit targets precisely even if GPS is blocked.

The availability of such systems won’t signal the Air Force’s departure from maintaining the GPS constellation, though. In a non-denied GPS environment, the system will still be extremely valuable, Dahm noted.

Werner Dahm (right), then Air Force chief scientist, observes an engine instrumentation test with Capt. Chuck McNiel at Arnold Engineering Development Center, Tenn. Dahm led USAF’s “Technology Horizons” study. (Photo by David Housch)

We’re “augmenting GPS, not saying we don’t need it anymore,” he explained. “In fact, it’s likely that GPS will stay our reference point certainly for the 20-year time horizon of the report.”

Technology Horizons offers a number of cross-referenced graphs showing how 110 specific technologies will be applicable across the Air Force’s 12 core functions, such as nuclear deterrence; global mobility; air and space superiority; and global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

While 110 technologies seems like a lot, Dahm said, the Air Force is already pursuing about 1,000 different technologies, spread among some 7,000 individual projects. So in Technology Horizons, “we’re highlighting maybe 20 percent of what the Air Force is currently working on,” Dahm noted.

These are not the only things deserving of S&T funding, Dahm said, but rather “we’re saying that these are the things you have to make sure that you advance.” Automation, for example, is one where “we have almost no choice,” because there will never be enough manpower to do all the things an information-saturated force will have to do.

None of the technologies called out in Technology Horizons is a “clean sheet” initiative. To make the cut, all of them had to be in at least some stage of early investigation with credible evidence that they would yield useful capabilities inside 20 years.

Dahm said the study walked “a fine line” to balance the need for an unconstrained, what-if assessment of future capabilities and one that recognized the Air Force will likely be working with austere budgets through the rest of this decade and maybe well into the next—what he called “enduring realities” for the service. Consequently, the study put greater focus on technologies promising to cut manpower costs, reduce energy consumption, and generally slash basic operating expenses—things the previous technology vision studies largely ignored.

The 110 enabling technologies the study examined were further grouped into “potential capability areas,” or PCAs, that would allow them to be mapped against the Air Force’s core functions. The ones applicable to the most core functions will likely get the highest priority for funding.

The top PCA was inherently intrusion-resistant cyber systems. This technology will shift USAF away from a futile attempt to keep all intruders out of its computer networks and instead make it so hard to create mischief once inside the network that hackers will be deterred and won’t even bother to try. This will be accomplished by reconfiguring the networks semi-randomly, hundreds of times per second. A hacker gaining entry wouldn’t have enough time to exploit his success, and would leave bigger footprints for investigators to track.

Another key PCA is augmenting the performance of airmen themselves. Dahm said airmen might be screened for their natural, genetic suitability to certain kinds of tasks, and might be enhanced with embedded chips to create a better human-machine link to make the airman quicker, stronger, or more agile. Such systems will be necessary because processing power will eventually make it impossible for humans to keep up with what their machines are doing.

An artist’s concept of the Lockheed Martin unmanned aircraft called “Various,” which can take off and land vertically, using lift fans in the wings. (Lockheed Martin artist’s illustration)

Screening for natural ability could be a huge cost-saver, given the high cost of initial and recurrent training of airmen, Dahm said, the aggregate cost of which is “enormous.”

“People want to be good at something, so using genetic makeup to discover what they would be good at—I think that will become acceptable,” he said.

Dahm noted that autonomous systems themselves “are human performance augmenting technology,” and don’t necessarily involve anything invasive.

However, “we’re going to move away from screens and keyboard-and-computer mouse,” and instead interact with machines through the use of eye readers and devices that measure activities in certain parts of the brain—”brainwave coupling”—to speed up the interaction of man and machine. Computers will be able to know what the operator subconsciously wants to see or do, probably before he even realizes it himself.

That’s still in the early stages, but there is already impressive science in this area. Toys that capitalize on a primitive version of the technology are already being sold nationwide.

Subsecond to Subsecond

Dahm said people will probably accept chip implants, noting that such devices already enable injured soldiers to better control their prosthetic limbs. Genetic enhancement is likely to raise more questions, though. Adversaries, however, will no doubt quickly embrace such technology as soon as it’s available.

Concerns will inevitably be raised about human enhancement, Dahm said, but “in the broader debate, the desire to get the advantages is outweighing” the concerns.

Stealth as we know it today—achieved through materials, shaping, and a limited amount of spectrum manipulation—won’t become obsolete in the next 20 to 30 years, Dahm said.

However, low observable technology “will be augmented with a much more active set of things” to enable aircraft to penetrate enemy airspace and persist there in the face of formidable air defenses.

A common bottleneck in military capabilities over the past two decades has been bandwidth. With so many systems talking over ground, air, and satellite lines, frequencies have become crowded, and USAF frequently rations use—especially with the explosive growth of civil communications devices.

“The demand for spectrum is growing even faster,” Dahm said. As a result, Technology Horizons calls for new ways to more efficiently utilize existing spectrum. Some of these are called “dynamic spectrum access” and involve devices that sense the spectral environment and “look for gaps” either in frequency or in the time-spacing between impulses, “on a subsecond to subsecond basis,” and change frequencies to take advantage of it. Part of any transmission would then be “what my next frequency move is going to be,” he said.

Besides getting more traffic on the same frequencies, this technology would have benefits in secure communications and jamming.

Looking at a chart of how spectrum is used, it looks “really crowded,” Dahm noted. “But it tells a false story because the vast majority of that spectrum is being used maybe one or two percent of the time.”

Dynamic access has been tried before, but it turns out that it’s “not as easy as the early advocates of this have said.”

Dahm said the Air Force needs to be “very closely involved in the regulatory process,” regarding bandwidth use. That’s because the service has developed means to use frequencies “in ways that you cannot detect them,” and civilian agencies might assign frequencies to commercial entities not knowing USAF was already on them.

“A system that says, ‘OK, if I can’t detect a user there, there must be open space’—that can have tremendous negative implications.”

Working collaboratively with civilian agencies and taking advantage of unused spectrum “could buy ourselves maybe a couple of decades of spectrum use.”

The actual flying aspects of Technology Horizons are not surprising to those who have followed aerospace developments closely. They call for large airships to serve as ISR collection platforms—some at very high altitude, persisting for weeks or even permanently, like satellites but in a near-space environment. Some initiatives see use for “partially buoyant” aircraft that could transport very heavy gear by air, but do it in a much more cost- and fuel-efficient way.

Faster airlift would be accomplished by hybrid flying-wing-type aircraft similar to Boeing’s X-48. It would have greater fuel efficiency, greater range, and greater internal volume compared with today’s airlifters.

The study does call for a push toward “fractionated” systems, an approach being taken with the new long-range strike “family” of capabilities. This approach requires use of a large constellation of machines that collectively performs a function. The loss of any one part of the constellation wouldn’t knock it out, but instead cause a graceful degradation in overall performance. Thus, penetrating enemy airspace, for example, might involve a stealthy air vehicle supported by separate jamming aircraft, defense-suppression aircraft, off-board sensor systems, and the like, most of them flexibly autonomous vehicles.

An artist’s concept of a hypersonic aircraft that will be able to traverse the globe in hours, providing all-seeing, persistent global surveillance. (Artist’s concept by Erik Simonsen)

Getting Traction

Air-breathing hypersonic vehicles—at least in the form of missiles—may be available within 20 years, able to operate at speeds of up to Mach 6. A 79-foot vehicle with a range of 5,750 miles and a 2,000-pound payload could shuttle back and forth between Diego Garcia and Guam, and put within range targets that “might otherwise be immune,” according to the report. The vehicle’s speed would give it survivability.

A related technology could combine the kinetic power of a hypersonic vehicle with warheads that could make it highly useful against deeply buried, hardened targets. The penetration sequence would use a series of explosive- and electromagnetic-produced waves of destruction that the ultimate warhead could ride to the desired depth, counting the voids it encounters to explode at the desired level.

At the other end of the flight regime, the Air Force will need extremely small munitions able to kill very precise targets with no collateral damage. Because of new precision guidance with far finer resolution than is now possible, Technology Horizons anticipates a circular error probable of “near zero” in the next generation small munitions. The weapons could harmlessly self-destruct if the target moved or was already destroyed.

As enemy cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and remotely piloted vehicles advance, the Air Force will have to do more to protect its bases. Technology Horizons anticipates use of tactical lasers for this role. Chemical lasers have given way to solid-state lasers and soon will be eclipsed by “even more efficient fiber laser systems.” Their smaller size, weight, and power requirements will allow them to be deployed on fighters or ground vehicles, and flexible autonomy would mean an operator or pilot might not even have to participate in the targeting and firing sequence. In ground vehicles, the magazine of shots could be “near infinite.”

A two-stage-to-orbit capability has been called for numerous times, but Technology Horizons thinks it might finally arrive by 2030. A rocket would accelerate a vehicle to high speed, when a combined-cycle scramjet second stage would take over.

The report also anticipates “sniffing” systems that can rapidly identify biological signatures, advanced human and cultural behavior modeling, even more sensor data fusion, and new “metamaterials” that can change shape at need, heal themselves, enhance the efficiency of solar power systems, and perhaps even permit a degree of “invisibility.”

Dahm said he’s confident Technology Horizons will be translated swiftly and efficiently into S&T priorities for the Air Force. Because it was developed with inputs from the major commands, AFRL, and the Air Staff’s Strategic Plans and Programs and acquisition shops, he feels there was “buy in” from those organizations. With both a formal and informal process of getting consensus on the directions the study spells out, the study should get, in Dahm’s words, “traction.”

Dahm noted that Technology Horizons is “a vision document, … not a programming document,” which allowed it to be more ambitious than the study would have been if dollar amounts were assigned to everything in it.

“That’s why the Air Force only does these about once every 10 years,” he said. “We rarely have the ability to step back and do an almost completely unconstrained view of what the Air Force could have, if it chooses to make those investments.”