Ripe Technologies

June 1, 1989

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 stealth.

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.

Improving O&M

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 system.

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 joint-exercise training.

Enhancing Communications

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 multifunction dis­plays.

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 eventuality.

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.

Possible Programs

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 winning capability.

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.