A Preview of the Technology Revolution

Aug. 1, 1984

For more than three decades now, the United States has relied upon its qualitatively superior weapon systems to deter aggression. In effect, we have relied upon our technological and industrial superiority to offset the numerical advantages enjoyed by our adversaries.

Our strategy has not changed — but the threat has. Through the 1950s and early 1960s, America’s dominance of world technology was unchallenged. Our defense capabilities were vastly superior to those fielded anywhere else in the world, and no one dared risk the retaliation that our superior capabilities could inflict.

For the US military, unchallenged technological superiority led to a sense of complacency. We were able to meet the developing threat easily with technology that was either already on the shelf or readily at hand. It was as if we had a storehouse full of technology just waiting to be applied.

As the Soviets developed better and more sophisticated weapons systems, we simply reached into our technology storehouse for whatever technologies were needed to upgrade our own capabilities — a better radar, a better fire-control system, more accurate missiles, smaller computers, stronger metals for our airframes, or more powerful and reliable engines.

We became inattentive to the research and development efforts required to keep our technology storehouse well stocked. While we were occupied with Vietnam, then with rebuilding public confidence, and most recently with the immediate modernization of our capabilities, our technological lead slipped.

Today, our technology storehouse shelves are more empty than ever before. We have seen no real growth in our research and development funding since 1965. In fact, in constant dollars, our technology base investments today come to only about seventy-five percent of what they were in 1965. In a recent ten-year period, the Soviet Union out-invested us in military R&D by more than $120 billion in real dollars.

The result is dramatic. A decade ago, we estimated a ten- to twelve-year lead over the Soviet Union in computers and microelectronics. Today, we estimate a three- to five-year lead. Soviet capabilities have caught up to ours rapidly: in MIRVs, in missile accuracies, in aircraft performance, ad in dozens of other areas. And in directed energy, the Soviets historically have maintained three to five times our level of effort.

Reestablishing Leadership

This situation gave rise to the challenge that we now face — reestablishing our technological leadership and increasing it sufficiently to expand our qualitative edge of military superiority and to ensure a high-confidence deterrent capability for future generations of Americans.

Edward Teller described the challenge facing us: “we are not engaged in an arms race but rather a race of technology.” In a real sense, we are now engaged against our adversaries on the technological battlefield. As the Air Force’s combat arm on the technological battlefield, Air Force Systems Command faces three specific threats — the immediate, near-term, and far-term threats.

The immediate threat is essentially the one that the United States will face into the 1990s. Our efforts to meet that threat are largely complete. We have systems in being, in production, or in the final states of development to counter our adversaries in the immediate future. The acquisition efforts now under way will provide sufficient military capability to meet the immediate threat. Among those efforts are the B-1B, the Peacekeeper missile, cruise missiles, various low observables resulting from Stealth technology efforts, new electronic warfare capabilities, improved munitions, and a variety of capability-enhancing modifications to the weapons systems already deployed.

Toward the 1990s

Considering the erosion of our technological lead, the more difficult challenge in meeting the threat beyond the 1990s. Toward that end, AFSC has a number of R&D efforts underway that are designed to provide the technologies that will yield dramatically improved capabilities in the 1990s. In some cases, these will be revolutionary capabilities — capabilities that can change the character of warfare in the same way that thermonuclear explosives, the advent of the airplane, or solid-state electronics changed the nature of combat in the past.

To appreciate the importance of our R&D efforts aimed at the capabilities of the future, it s essential to understand the length of time it takes to develop the new technology required to produce a new weapon system.

Consider, for example, that in Vietnam we employed laser-guided munitions for the first time. However, the technology development effort that brought us those capabilities actually began with basic research and development work in the early 1950s.

Fly-by-wire capabilities are another example. The F-16 Fighting Falcon (the Electric Jet, as it is called by some of the pilots) entered operational service only three years ago. Yet, AFSC began developing fly-by-wire technologies in the late 1950s and early 1960s — more than twenty years from initial R&D to deployment. It is essential to understand this relationship in order to develop realistic expectations for technology and the resulting capabilities.

A number of basic technology efforts are now under way that will provide the capabilities required to maintain our qualitative required to maintain our qualitative edge in the near-term future. Increasingly, electronics re key to the capabilities of the future. Electronics are becoming even more capable and enabling us to move into a variety of new areas.

One vital area of electronics for the future is Very-High-Speed Integrated Circuits, or VHSIC. VHSIC technology is now beginning to be inserted into new electronic systems. It will provide an order of magnitude increase in computational ability, use only twenty percent of the power now required, be one-fourth the size and one-fourth the weight of existing circuits, cost one-tenth of what circuits now cost, and be at least ten times faster.

The implications for the Air Force are truly remarkable. VHSIC has the potential to increase our capabilities across the board. It will allow us to put real smarts into much smaller packages — enabling development of true launch-and-leave weapons, greater integration of electronics systems, more useful on-board computers, better electronic warfare capabilities, and a variety of other improvements.

Smarter Weapons

AFSC has taken initial steps toward the development of uniquely capable weapons. We demonstrated the WASP missile, for example, with its ability to acquire a target independently after begins launched. Our Extended Range Anti-armor Munition, or ERAM, program provided another step in the same direction. ERAM consists of a series of individual weapons that deploy from a fighter-dropped container — looking very much like pennies spilling from a penny roll. After parachuting to the ground, ERAM deploys seismic and acoustic sensors and lies in wait for a passing tank. When the target is in range, ERAM launches a munition that flies over the tank and fires a self-forging fragment round down into it. The results are spectacular and very effective. The application of VHSIC to systems like these will provide even more impressive capabilities.

VHSIC will have a major impact within the cockpit as well. With VHSIC-equipped computers, we will move closer to the fully integrated aircraft — putting sensors and flight-, fire-, and engine-control systems into constant communication with each other. There is great potential here to increase the efficiency of our aircraft, their accuracy, their survivability, and their overall capability.

We have taken the first steps in this direction. We are working with variable-geometry turbines to provide variable-bypass ratios that will allow the aircraft to maximize its engine performance according to the characteristics of the particular mission being flown. We are integrating flight controls and sensors to demonstrate flat turns, pointing the nose without changing course, vertical movement without pitch, etc. These have been demonstrated in the Advanced Fighter Technology Integration (AFTI) F-16.

Recently, we demonstrated the Integrated Flight and Fire Control (IFFC) system program. It used an F-15 with integrated flight and fire control to minimize tracking error and to increase air-to-air and air-to-ground accuracies. The results have been promising, winning praise from the pilots who tested it. In one test, the IFFC F-15 shot down a drone with non-explosive target ammunition in a really tough shot — fast closure rate, 135-degree angle, in a turn pulling four Gs.

With the application of VHSIC technology, capabilities will progress even beyond this stage. The application of VHSIC technology also raises new vistas for computers themselves — and the sophistication of the software that can be used. Just as important is the potential of VHSIC for reducing the cost of the capabilities required for the future — enabling us to procure sufficient numbers of highly capable systems and weapons.

Artificial Intelligence

Another area where there appears to be truly great potential is in artificial intelligence and “expert systems.” Artificial intelligence, or AI, is being peddled by many today — but few understand what it actually is or how we might be able to use it. In fact, there is still much debate over what the term means.

In the Air Force, we approach AI as a technology that will allow us to design computer programs to manipulate large blocks of information rather than individual numbers. We can then program computers to accomplish similar kinds of “logic” functions that people use.

The possible applications for AI are limitless. The first steps in this direction, steps we are now taking, are “expert systems” — or advisors. Basically, these are computer programs designed to accomplish logical analysis of data. For example, we can see the day when the aircraft mechanic will approach a broken aircraft with a terminal in hand, rather than reams of tech manuals. The technician will input what is known about the aircraft’s failure, and the computer will initiate an interactive question-and-answer series with the technician — the technician supplying answers to the computer’s question. The computer will identify the problem and tell the technician how to fix it.

This interactive process will increase the efficiency of our flight-line maintenance. But expert systems will have broader application. For example, we also see value in using expert systems to relieve the workload of commanders and command post controllers in the battle-management arena.

AI can help in handling the immense amounts of data generated in support of the battle commander. Sorting through the huge amount of data being received from intelligence and reconnaissance units and other friendly forces, identifying important and required information, and analyzing it and applying it to make decisions are increasingly becoming tasks. Further, as new and better sensors come on line, this task will grow even larger.

With the development of AI software and VHSIC-equipped supercomputers, the data can be sorted and evaluated before being displayed for commander. In some cases, preliminary analysis may even be performed by the system. Thus, the commander will have what is required, in real time and in a usable format. Further, some required products can be automatically generated — frag orders, for example, which are complicated but which follow specific rules.

Finally, AI may find a most important application in creating software. Currently, software is one of the most challenging of technical areas. It is labor-intensive, expensive, and time-consuming. With AI, we may be able to design software that can generate software — applying the same kind of logical processes that we use to develop the software in the first place. It may also be used to perform the very complicated task of ensuring that the software does what it is supposed to.


R&D in the 1990s will also provide dramatic improvements in the strength and heat resistance of materials. We are going to see the development of an all-composite aircraft — using Kevlar epoxy compounds or self-reinforcing plastics with four times the specific strength of the metals used in the aircraft of the late 1960s.

Turbine components will be made from directionally solidified structures to gain the added efficiencies and power possible with engine temperatures in the 1,800° Fahrenheit range. That’s a 300- to 400-degree improvement over the aircraft of the 1960s and early 1970s.

With lighter, stronger, more versatile airframes plus a more efficient, adaptable advanced turbine, and the potential of system integration through electronics, we will be moving toward remarkable new aircraft capabilities.

Such things as a supersonic cruise ability and a multi-mission aircraft will enter the realm of feasible concepts in the 1990s. Further, the Stealth or low observables work now being done will also be paying off. Adding electronic warfare and countermeasures improvements, which will also be facilitated by VHSIC and other electronic improvements, we can anticipate increased survivability in hostile environments. And that’s more important for both the strategic and tactical mission.

But these are just first steps. We have indications today that the research and development effort of the 1990s will give us dramatic improvements and revolutionary capabilities in the far-term future, well into the twenty-first century.

The Twenty-first Century

Our capabilities in the twenty-first century will be molded by the same key technologies as are our capabilities in this century. However, as these technologies continue to mature through the 1990s and into the next century, we are going to see dramatic improvements — improvements that open whole new realms of capabilities.

The development of new materials is really going to enable us to build larger, more versatile, and stronger space structures that will provide greater survivability than those now in use. Beyond the 1990s, additional engine possibilities and the ability to exploit new aerodynamic potential will result from the application of molecular composites. In fact, as the 1990s draw to a close, we are going to see molecular composites providing ten times the relative strength of the aircraft of the 1950s and 1960s, and temperature tolerance above 2,000° F.

A little farther down the road in the twenty-first century are amorphous metals-metals with a random molecular structure rather than the ordered crystal matrix structure now being used. In addition to being three orders of magnitude stronger than steel, these metals will also be highly corrosion-resistant, since the absence of defined boundaries leaves no room for corrosion to start.

The potential of these new materials is boundless: large space structures, new aircraft designs, higher engine temperatures, and the ability to investigate new fuels — to name just a few. However, the greatest potential advantage for new materials may not be in structural design, but in electronics.

Electronics will be even more pervasive and central to military systems in the future. Improvements in the electronic arena will increasingly translate into improvements in many military capabilities.

Electronics and Computers

A new class of high-quality electronic materials will be available with strained-layer of different composites. The major advantage offered by strained-layer super-lattices is the ability to make semiconductors with tailored properties optimized for the mission. For the Air Force, this means more easily manufactured electronic components optimized for use in such things as high-powered microwave radars, optoelectronic devices, solid-state lasers, and long-wavelength infrared detectors.

Computer hardware will also be dramatically improved in the next century with the application of new materials. One of the challenges here is to overcome the limitations of current memory technology. A promising development at the California Institute of Technology, called a matrix memory, may be the foundation of the computers of the next century. Basically, the matrix memory provides a new parallel input-output associative memory with information stored in a matrix that can handle garbled inputs.

Further, the limitations of silicon based memory technology may be overcome with the development of new materials. Among the most promising avenues now being pursued is the development of thin film organic and organo-metallic semi-conducting and conducting materials. In addition, thermionics technology — essentially solid-state vacuum tubes based on cathode emissions — may provide dramatic increases over current transistor technologies. Thermionics may be faster than transistors, provide improved radiation hardness, and be able to operate effectively in extreme temperatures.

Another innovative approach to improving computer capabilities is found in molecular electronics. Molecular electronics, which involves actually storing information on an individual molecule, appears to hold great promise as a means of overcoming the fundamental packing density limits of the semiconductors in use today. Research into the solution behavior of conductive polymer molecules indicates that a truly revolutionary concept, the biochemical computer, may be possible in the next twenty to fifty years. Such a computer would have relatively low energy requirements, tremendously computing power, a random access memory, and parallel processing capabilities.

Superenergetic Materials

Basic research now under way also provides evidence that superenergetic materials have great potential as the fuel, power, and explosive sources of the future.

One potential energy source is metastable helium, or MSH. MSH is helium with its electrons raised to an excited state — a state in which energy is stored — and stabilized in that state. Currently, it appears that this material can be produced by bombarding liquid helium with electrons to achieve the energized state, applying a polarized laser to align the spic of the atoms, and then using a magnetic field to facilitate stabilization of the new material. Theoretical work suggests that this material will have strong bonding between atoms, resulting in a solid with a high melting temperature and a usable life span of measured in years. The right trigger mechanism will cause the MSH to return to its normal state while releasing a tremendous amount of energy.

As an energy source, MSH will offer a number of advantages, including its being manufactured from materials readily available in the United States. It can be used for electrical power. Its energy density is more than 1,200 times that of lithium batteries. Further, it may be useful in powering lasers.

MSH has more than five times the stored energy capacity of TNT. An MSH munition will outperform a TNT weapon — with thirty times the overpressure on a target of a TNT munition of similar weight at the same miss distance.

Perhaps the most exciting potential use of MSH or another superenergetic material is as a fuel source for aerospace vehicles. MSH will have about six times the propulsion efficiency of a liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen mixture. In addition to saving weight and space, it will be more easily stored and handled than the fuels now in use, and its byproducts are environmentally inert.

True Aerospace Vehicle

Among the potential twenty-first century capabilities forecast by AFSC is the development of a true aerospace vehicle.

The Aerospace vehicle will be possible from the integration of the technologies described above: new structural materials for better engines and a space-capable airframe similar in size and configuration to those of current Air Force experience; new computer capabilities to assist in flying the aircraft, perform the complex navigational tasks required to handle transatmospheric missions, and integrate the flight, fire control, sensor, and propulsion systems; and a superenergetic fuel capable of providing the power required for exoamospheric flight in a horizontal takeoff and landing vehicle.

The capabilities resulting from a true aerospace vehicle may be truly revolutionary. The aerospace vehicle could take off, climb out of the atmosphere, and achieve a partial orbit on its way to the target; possibly even attack an enemy’s low-orbit space-based assets while in orbit; reenter the atmosphere and attack a ground-based assets while in orbit; reenter the atmosphere and attack a ground-based target; and leave the atmosphere again and orbit to return to its home base. Strategic missions would take about the same time that tactical missions d today.

Space, Laser, and Directed Energy

There is no question but that our military future is heavily tied to space. The payoff from space-based assets is great today and promises to be even greater in the next century. The technologies discussed above will have a dramatic impact on the kinds of space-based capabilities that will be possible.

Hardened electronics, computer systems, and new materials for large space structures will make enquiring space systems a reality. Sensor systems, including space-based radars, jamproof secure communications, and increased mobility of space assets make space an even more lucrative medium for military missions in the future — perhaps command and control missions, communication missions, and defense of our own space-based assets. In addition, the possible application of these technologies to build space-based warfighting capabilities cannot be discounted from a military point of view.

Directed energy offers great promise for the future. There already are indications that lasers will have significant utility in the military arena. The feasibility of their use as weapons has already been demonstrated by our Airborne Laser Laboratory program, in which a laser successfully intercepted air-to-air missiles and a target drone. Lasers and other forms of directed energy have great potential for application as both strategic and tactical weapons.

Major improvements to the tracking and pointing capabilities required for future directed-energy systems may result from phase conjugate mirrors that incorporate the ability to correct for distortion. The potential exists to develop adaptive optics hardware that would facilitate revolutionary developments in laser and imagery system.

In addition, lasers also have application to sensing devices. Our work in CO2 lasers, for example, is providing the basis for the development of a CO2 laser radar that could result in a new guidance system for unmanned vehicles — feature navigation. Feature navigation, using topographical features and predetermined reference points, will have a number of advantages over existing terrain/contour-matching navigation. It may, for example, be smaller, weigh less, and use less power.

Various particle beam research efforts indicate that beam technologies have great potential to provide new generations of weapons systems in the future. Also, our R&D efforts in the 1990s may develop useful weapons applications for other energy sources.


A number of potentially revolutionary capabilities may also result from the basic work now under way in biotechnologies. Among the most significant is the development of the biosensors to detect chemical/biological warfare agents. Also, microorganisms and enzymes can be developed to accomplish the decontamination mission by destroying biological and chemical agents at will.

Other biotechnology work indicates there is potential for a biofuel using immobilized enzymes or whole cells to produce an electrical current by oxidizing a readily available substrate, such as glucose or methanol. Devices built on this technology may have application as auxiliary power-sources in space. In addition, hydrogen has been produced as a by-product of a biological process. This work indicates that we may be able to generate primary fuels from a biological process in the future.

Very strong molecular-level adhesives can be developed with application not only in the manufacturing of various military systems, but also as weapons — actually binding an enemy’s hardware in place. There is also weapons potential to be realized from the future development of very fast, powerful solvents and corrosives.

The technologies discussed above could also be applied to the development of unmanned systems of all types in the twenty-first century. The fuels, electronics, computers, and structures will be available to build cost-effective, mission-enhancing unmanned systems for air operations, robotic ground service in contaminated environments, patrol of a base perimeter, reconnaissance, and a variety of weapons — both standoff capabilities and offensive counterair capabilities.

The role of unmanned systems requires definition. That will largely come as capabilities are demonstrated. However, unmanned systems clearly provide a potential complement to manned systems in a variety of important areas. They will also contribute immensely to the survivability of manned resources in the future.

Not Buck Rogers

The technologies and their potential applications that I have just described may appear to be rather fantastic dreams. I assure you they are not. But they are not just around the corner either. Long-term research and development efforts are required to achieve these technological capabilities.

Surely they are no more fantastic to us than the Peacekeeper missile, the B-1B, and the Space Shuttle would have been to the Air Force Association’s members of twenty-five years ago — when the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch was in its second anniversary, B-47s were still on the front line, and the F-100 was recognized as the world’s best fighter.

In light of the Soviet Union’s continued pressure upon the qualitative edge and the long lead-time required to develop these capabilities, we have no choice but to pursue them now. We must now seek the revolutionary technologies of the future — the “big wins” on the technology battlefield that will provide future generations of Americans with the same qualitative edge that we have enjoyed.

R&D Funding Trends

The technologies I’ve described on these pages and the applications available are proof positive that the United States is capable of maintaining and expanding its qualitative edge in the future.

We cannot, however, expand that edge without sufficient support for our technology base efforts. Unfortunately, our track record in this area is not very good. Dr. John S. Foster, jr., a former Director of Defense Research and Engineering, described the status of R&D funding effectively when he noted that, in 1960, the US and Soviet Union expenditures on R&D were equal percentages of their military budgets. By 1974, Dr. Foster estimated, the percentage was three times as high in the Soviet Union as in the United States.

The Air Force R&D funding trend tells the same story. When viewed as a percentage of total obligational authority (TOA), technology base funding accounted for just under 2.5 percent of Air Force TOA in 1965. In FY ’84, technology base funding accounts for about 0.8 percent of Air Force TOA. In fact, when tech base funding is plotted in 1965 dollars, we find that we are spending just over $200 million today, compared with just under $400 million in 1965.

These funding trends are now being changed. The Air Force is protecting its tech base funding. It is moving toward to meet the challenge of the future and to ensure that future generations of American have the benefit of the same qualitative edge that we do.

Technology Funding Trend: Basic Research and Exploratory Development

(In Millions of 1976 Dollars)

Through the 1960s and into the ‘70s, the funding for tech base efforts declined. Recover, though modest, is underway.

Gen. Robert T. Marsh has been Commander of AFSC since February 1981. A 1949 West Point graduate, General Marsh’s early Air Force career was concerned with atomic weapon projects. He is a graduate of both Air Command and Staff College and Air War College and has served in key planning posts in the Pentagon. He was first assigned to Hq. AFSC as Deputy Chief of Staff for Development Plans in June 1973.