The Vision Force

June 1, 2001

Twenty years from now, the Air Force could look very different in some respects.

When trouble begins at a distant location, stealthy Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles will come out of storage, be assembled, and be sent into action.

B-2 bombers, loaded with small-diameter munitions, will be able to strike 80 separate aim points on a single sortie.

Hypervelocity missiles, launched from standoff aircraft, will fly at six times the speed of sound to attack targets more than 500 miles away.

Space based radar will keep a constant watch on stationary and moving objects on the ground, anywhere on the globe.

The Air Force might be close to fielding a Space Operating Vehicle that could shuttle back and forth, several times a day, from low Earth orbit.

On the other hand, some parts of today’s force will still be around 20 years from now. F-15E and F-16 fighters will be in service. The E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System will still be flying. So will the B-52 bomber, cruising on toward its 70th birthday.

These are among the projections for the “Vision Force,” being developed by the Air Staff as a planning tool to implement the capabilities outlined in the Air Force vision, “Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power,” which was adopted last year.

The planners know the projection is inexact.

“The Vision Force is an attempt to build what we think the Air Force should look like in 2020,” said Maj. Gen. John L. Barry, Air Force director of strategic planning. “By stepping into the future, it is like looking backwards to see forwards. Another way to put this is ‘backcasting.’

“We know that we won’t get the future designs perfect; no one can accurately predict the future. However, it has been an extremely useful tool in ‘looking backwards’ to see what we need to work on today to have a chance of reaching the vision of Global Vigilance, Reach, and Power.”

From Theater to Global

The projection also picks up on two pillars of the vision statement. The focus is on Aerospace Expeditionary Force packages, tailored to specific needs and provided to joint force commanders. And the Air Force remains committed to the integration of air and space into an operational domain of “aerospace.”

A primary goal, Barry said, was to “flesh out” the capabilities of the AEFs. He summed up his orders from the Chief of Staff, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, for developing the Vision Force: “Do not be programmatically constrained. Do not be politically constrained. Do be technologically constrained. Don’t plan on some kind of rocket science weapon that we are not going to have. You’ve got to see if it is technologically feasible.”

For example, he said, one of the main projections is the movement of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities into space, but there are limitations.

“The scientists and technologists told us that we would be able to have GMTI [Ground Moving Target Indicators] in space-in other words, a replacement for Joint STARS-but not AMTI [Air Moving Target Indicators]” so the E-3 AWACS will remain in service.

“Probably the most important point,” Barry said, is that “we are going to move from a theater perspective to a global perspective.”

Today, the deep-look radar on a Joint STARS aircraft looks out a few hundred kilometers and tracks objects moving on the ground within its sweep. That is a valuable picture, but it is local. By contrast, a single space based radar will take in large portions of a continent.

“Imagine 24 of those, up around the planet,” Barry said. “You are talking about a clear global perspective. The cornerstone of global vigilance in the Vision Force is not fighters, bombers, tankers, things like that. It is space based radar.”

Another broad trend is that dependence on manned platforms will go down and dependence on unmanned platforms will go up, he said.

Last year, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) said that a reasonable goal would be to make one-third of all deep-strike aircraft unmanned within 10 years.

Whether unmanned and uninhabited vehicles will reach that level in the near future remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that their presence in the Air Force will grow.

From Space and In Space

The rising emphasis on space in the Vision Force projection shows up in the provisions for the “AEF Prime,” the Aerospace Expeditionary Force capabilities that do not deploy to theater locations.

Eventually, most of the radar and intelligence-gathering aircraft flying today will go away. “We’ll move it up into space,” Barry said. “We’ll put more on UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles].”

That shift will not be complete by 2020, but one of the big pieces, the space based radar, should be in operation by then. It will consist of a constellation of some 24 satellites to track mobile targets on the ground. It will permit coverage of areas-such as the interior of China, although Barry does not talk about specific locations-that radar aircraft and UAVs cannot reach.

In addition to its other uses, the space based radar would have a strong deterrent effect on the actions of potential adversaries, who would know that “engagement quality” surveillance was in effect at all times.

“Today, we know pretty much what a potential adversary is doing,” Barry said. “What the Vision Force will give us is a means to engage and create effects as well as know. It’s the difference between just advertising what the bad guy is doing and doing something about it.”

Well before 2020, the SBIRS (Space Based Infrared System) constellation should be up and working. It consists of about 30 satellites altogether, four in geosynchronous orbit (SBIRS High) for early warning of missile attack, 24 in low Earth orbit (SBIRS Low) to track the missiles after they are detected, and two in elliptical orbit for fine tuning.

Some of the most dramatic changes forecast for the Vision Force are ways to reach space and conduct operations there. As it works on new space systems, though, the Air Force will keep its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles to put payloads weighing from 25,000 to 45,000 pounds into low Earth orbit.

“We are not going to put our eggs all in one basket,” Barry said. “We’ve learned that time and time again. We will have an EELV capability. We’ll have a Space Operating Vehicle. NASA has backed off on some of the funding, so we are going to have to take a look again at some of our analysis here.”

Space Vehicles

In March, NASA killed its X-33 experimental reusable launch vehicle program, citing technical and cost problems. The X-33 was a lifting body designed to take off straight up, level out at an altitude of 60 miles, streak around the Earth at 13 times the speed of sound, and land at a military airfield.

The Air Force had hoped to draw on technology from that program and then to move beyond it. Lockheed Martin is developing a proposal to do just that, but USAF has no funding earmarked for such a project yet.

The Vision Force projects an eventual family of space vehicles, including a single-stage-to-orbit craft called the Space Operating Vehicle. “This vehicle is the truck that carries things into space and then comes back down again,” Barry said. “It is programmed to be launched three times a day.”

The X-33 was a suborbital first stage that was to throw off a Space Maneuvering Vehicle, which would have entered orbit, said Barry. For a first stage spacecraft to reach orbit, it must achieve a speed between Mach 17 and Mach 24.

Previously Air Force Space Command’s Strategic Master Plan, published two years ago, had forecast deployment of a Space Operating Vehicle by 2015.

“We do not believe the technology will be in place to build a single-stage-to-orbit vehicle in 20 years,” Barry said. “We are interested in evolving an X-33 type vehicle into a rapid launch and recovery space vehicle, but it would not be the X-33.”

Next in the Air Force family of projected spacecraft is the Space Maneuvering Vehicle, also reusable, which would ride into space aboard the SOV. “The SMV will stay in orbit for four to six months,” Barry said. “It could carry weapons. It could carry replacement satellites, or it could be a recoverable satellite itself. It could carry anything we want it to up there, and it can change orbit and inclinations to make it more survivable.”

“Microsats” are small satellites that would serve a variety of functions. They could be used against enemy satellites, but the approach would probably be to disable or disrupt rather than to destroy.

“To do space control from space, we want to move away from kinetic and pursue nonkinetic means,” Barry said. “We don’t want to blow stuff up in space. There is enough junk up there anyway. The SOV releases the microsat. It goes in where the enemy satellite is, blocks the transmission, cuts it off. The intent here is that we will either jam it, stick it, net it, whatever, to make that satellite inoperable.”

The intention is for the microsats to be resuable.

In addition, Barry said, “microsats could be flown in swarms to provide very large antennas as an alternative approach for space based radar, although the technology may be further out for this idea.”

Whereas the SMV and the microsats operate in space, the Common Aero Vehicle, also launched on the SOV, would re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and dispense munitions over a target area.

“It is released to go against the target anywhere on the planet,” Barry said. “When it gets down into its hypersonic re-entry, it splits open and it will have a wide-area attack munition or a small-diameter weapon that goes after the target. Ideally, if you had an SOV on alert, you can have this thing up into space and a weapon on target anywhere on the planet in less than an hour.”

What the Vision Force does not project for 2020 is the Space Based Laser. Controversy surrounds this weapon, which could keep large stretches of the Earth’s surface covered and knock down ballistic missiles in the boost phase. However, the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board has said that pressures for early deployment are not realistic.

“You can have some [Space Based Laser] testing up there by 2020, but you are probably not going to have a full robust capability, even if the politics allowed, the treaties allowed, and the money was available,” Barry said.

Stealth and More Stealth

In March, Maj. Gen. (sel.) David Deptula, Air Force national defense review director, told a House Armed Services subcommittee that “four platforms will define the stealthy Air Force of 2020”: the B-2 bomber, the F-22 fighter, the Joint Strike Fighter, and the Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle.

The feature they have in common is stealth.

The B-2 was so successful in the air war over Serbia in 1999 that there has been talk of reopening the production line, which closed in 1997. Only 21 aircraft were produced.

No airplane is closer to the Air Force’s heart than the F-22. It combines fourth generation stealth with supercruise-supersonic flight for sustained periods, not just in spurts–and the capability to operate above 40,000 feet. It can get around advanced enemy air defenses and perform a variety of missions.

The Air Force wants a mix of penetrating and standoff capability in order to field a “kick down the door” force that would clear the way for other land, sea, and air forces.

“This would include using the B-2 and the F-22 in a package to penetrate and other long-range assets to stand off outside the threat envelope if the risk of penetration is too high,” Barry said. “Standoff warfare is not designed to ‘win’ the war alone but rather to establish conditions for follow-on forces to arrive with less risk.”

The Joint Strike Fighter would come on as the workhorse of the “persistence force,” which Chief of Staff Ryan describes as “the pile-on, war winning force to be able to prosecute 24/7 in combat operations that sometimes will last for months.”

The Boeing X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle technology demonstrator rolled out last September. In operational form, it is designed to be stored unassembled in a container until it’s needed. Workers can unpack and reconstitute it in an hour. The X-45A is now in testing at Edwards AFB, Calif. UCAVs would be used for the most hazardous missions, such as knocking out surface-to-air missile sites.

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman are working independently on their own UCAVs. Northrop Grumman, which unveiled its Pegasus UCAV design in late February, is in competition with Boeing for a Navy requirement.

These four shooters-the B-2, the F-22, the Joint Strike Fighter, and the UCAV-augmented by a residual force of F-15Es and F-16s, will be the nucleus of the Aerospace Expeditionary Force in 2020.

The Vision Force also projects a new long-range strike platform, a wide-body aircraft that would attack from standoff distance. “This is not a penetrating bomber,” Barry said. “This is a truck carrying 120,000 pounds worth of cruise missiles.”

These aircraft will be “leveraged enormously” by new munitions, he said. That includes improved air-to-air weapons, but the most spectacular advancements will be in precision attack munitions.

In the Kosovo air campaign two years ago, the Joint Direct Attack Munition allowed the B-2 to strike an average of 15 separate aim points per sortie. In the near future, a “smart” bomb rack assembly will let the B-2 carry up to 80 JDAMs, each of which can be targeted independently.

The next step is the small-diameter bomb, at 250 pounds. Each can be directed at a different target. Although it is small, it will be sufficiently accurate to achieve effects previously associated with larger weapons.

It is small enough that the B-2, the F-22, and the Joint Strike Fighter can carry a considerable number of them. The stealthy UCAV will carry two.

The UCAV and other platforms will also use a wide-area attack munition. “This is the swarm weapon, with automatic target recognition against mobile targets or fixed targets,” Barry said. It is an air-to-surface weapon that will use laser detection and ranging to search for and engage targets.

More stealth shows up in a new long-range cruise missile, with a range of 1,000 to 2,000 nautical miles and carrying multiple, independently targetable conventional warheads.

Another eye-catching munition is the hypervelocity missile. It might be carried by several standoff platforms and used to strike when time is urgent. It will have a range of between 500 and 1,000 nautical miles, and it will get there at a speed of Mach 4 to Mach 6. The primary targets for this missile would be launch sites for theater ballistic missiles and cruise missiles but could also include “ground based lasers or anything else that is threatening our satellites and that you need to get on, and get on quickly,” Barry said. “The range for mobile targets is limited to about 600 nautical miles because of the target’s ability to move and hide.”

The first line of defense against theater ballistic missiles will be the Airborne Laser, a militarized Boeing 747-400 that can detect and shoot down enemy missiles from hundreds of miles away.

The Airborne Laser will patrol the edge of the battle area, flying at 40,000 feet. It will zap ballistic missiles in the boost phase with a short burst from the battle laser in its nose turret. The heat is enough to make the missile explode. Debris, including the warhead, will fall back on the area from which the missile was launched.

It will be able to destroy 20 or more ballistic missiles before landing to reload with laser fuel.

The first test shot will occur in September 2003. “Indications from all the scientists and the reviews and the technologists are that we have gone a long way toward solving the atmospheric problems and how to direct the beam,” Barry said. Some of the technology from the Airborne Laser will later be adapted for the Space Based Laser.

Four Pressing Decisions

Aerospace Expeditionary Forces in 2020 will be greatly influenced by a series of decisions the Air Force intends to make about competing requirements in the next year. Barry said that four such “fork-in-the-road issues” had emerged in the course of developing the Vision Force.

To the surprise of hardly anyone, the Pentagon’s latest mobility requirements study found a big shortfall in airlift. To close the gap, the Air Force may need to buy up to a third more C-17 airlifters than it had planned, depending on what it does with the older C-5As and C-5Bs.

To be determined is the mix of C-17s and C-5s, and whether both models of the C-5 get engine and avionics upgrades or if the modifications are limited to the C-5B.

(A Vision Force mobility projection not part of the fork-in-the-road agenda is the Advanced Tactical Transport, a medium short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that would eventually replace the C-130 for combat deliveries to austere airfields. Barry said it would be a “four engine prop job that can carry about 20 tons or 130 troops. This will be key to decreasing risk inside a threat area by using dispersed operations.”

The C-130s would still be in service in 2020 and for some time thereafter.)

n The KC-135 tanker fleet is 40 years old and is wearing out. Maintenance problems are increasing, and the aircraft are frequently in the depot for work.

These tankers are among the numerous aircraft built on aging Boeing 707 airframes. (Others include the E-3 AWACS, the E-8 Joint STARS, and the RC-135 Rivet Joint signals intelligence aircraft.) The Air Force would like to move all these functions to newer platforms.

A tanker requirements study, due out this year, will propose a replacement for the KC-135. A much-discussed option is a tanker/transport derivative of the Boeing 767 wide-body jetliner. Like the KC-10, this aircraft would perform both airlift and aerial refueling functions. Another option would be to adapt the C-17 for tanker duties.

“The reason this is important to the Vision Force is that tankers underpin our ability to get to the fight fast,” Barry said. The tankers establish the “air bridge” that permits the long reach of the kick-down-the-door force. They are also essential to USAF’s projected capability of deploying five Aerospace Expeditionary Forces within 15 days.

n The Air Force must decide soon what to do about the “fighter bathtub” problem. The “bathtub” refers to a projected depression in the fighter force structure chart, when F-16s will wear out and leave service before there are enough Joint Strike Fighters to replace them.

The F-16s have been flown harder and more often than expected. Cracking has shown up in wings and bulkheads. Without structural modification, part of the F-16 fleet will run out of service life much sooner than expected.

The decision will depend on what the Bush Administration decides about force commitments–a significant factor in the demand for flying hours–and aircraft modernization programs in general.

Options include modification of the F-16 and acceleration of the Joint Strike Fighter. In the event the Administration cancels the Joint Strike Fighter, the options would tilt toward buying more F-16s or even more F-22s.

n Three of the main Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance aircraft–AWACS, Joint STARS, and Rivet Joint-are among the modified Boeing 707 airframes the Air Force wants to shed as it moves capabilities to space and onto UAVs. “However,” Barry said, “we can’t get to space before these platforms wear out, so we will need a gap filler.”

One approach, with strong support in Air Combat Command, would be a “common wide-body” aircraft to replace the three platforms listed above, as well as the Compass Call signals intelligence/jamming aircraft and the Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Center, both of which are modified C-130s.

Alternatives include the narrow body Boeing 737 or various business jets. The smaller aircraft become more feasible if the large mission crews, which now fly aboard several of the ISR platforms, work on the ground with the data downlinked to them.

Unmanned vehicles, already performing well in battle area surveillance, are candidates for some of the work as well.

How many of the ISR functions can be combined on a single aircraft is not yet certain, but the Air Force believes the ultimate number of different platforms will be fewer than the present five.

“The Air Force has developed a sequenced approach to modernization–we’d like to do a lot more than our limited procurement dollars allow,” Barry said. “The reality of the situation is that the Air Force operates in a constrained environment: Modernization and procurement decisions are constrained by TOA [Total Obligation Authority] as well as political decisions made by the Administration and Congress.

“No decision is purely an Air Force decision. While we wish we could avoid a fighter bathtub, while we wish we could totally modernize mobility, while we wish we could modernize our combat air forces, the simple reality is that we’re on a tight budget. We cannot afford to do it all, and we certainly cannot afford to do it all now. Therefore, we are forced to make difficult decisions on how best to spend the limited procurement funds we do have.

“These are the fork-in-the-road issues that we are dealing with. These are the decisions that we are forced to make in order to balance funding constraints with military requirements so we can provide the nation with a broad range of aerospace power capabilities.”