USAF in the Twenty-first Century

Aug. 1, 1986

Tom Swift of the long-ago, fic­tionally famous “flying machine” and many other marvelous inventions would have loved USAF’s Project Forecast II.

He would have been right at home with antiproton propulsion, com­puters that “think,” aircraft that double as spacecraft, space satel­lites that work together in clusters and are defended by others, super-sleek airframes with microsensors studded throughout their skins and built of materials with artificially aligned molecules, and missiles so smart that they need no external guidance and can hardly miss.

The Project Forecast II study came up with all this and much more in opening the curtain on the Air Force of the future.

Forecast II gives star billing to thirty-nine technologies and thirty-one advanced systems concepts that it says “will revolutionize the way the Air Force carries out its mission in the twenty-first century, guaranteeing continued technologi­cal supremacy over any potential adversary.”

In promulgating Forecast II, the Air Force is not fooling around with fanciful notions. It has officially es­tablished the study’s chosen tech­nologies and systems concepts as no-nonsense “initiatives” for Air Force Systems Command to pursue and for operational commands to support.

Forecast II does more than fore­shadow the makeup of USAF’s ma­chines to come in air and space, however. It serves notice, in the face of increasing pressure on the US military to revert to simpler, pre­sumably cheaper systems, that the Air Force will continue to be com­mitted to high technology as the touchstone of combat capability and to footing the bill for it even under increasing budgetary duress.

Forecast II also signals USAF commanders to look ahead to the reorientation of force structures and missions that its initiatives are expected to make possible if brought to fruition wholly or in part.

By and large, those initiatives smack of realism. Some may be of the gee-whiz genre or may border on it, but most shape up as solid stuff.

In fact, many are far enough along to be put into effect fairly soon if the funding that AFSC intends to devote to them holds up and if operational commands stand fast with requirements for them.

There is at least a fighting chance that this will happen. Gen. Law­rence A. Skantze, Commander of AFSC and the leader of Forecast II, has succeeded in establishing most­favored-funding baselines and pro­jections for the project’s research endeavors. Moreover, the opera­tional commands were Forecast II insiders and are more likely to re­main its boosters as a result.

The Forecast II team was made up of eighteen technology, mission, and analysis panels composed of 175 military and civilian members from AFSC, the Air Staff, and the operational commands. Over eight months, they sifted more than 2,000 ideas originated by Air Force labo­ratories, industry, academia, and the Forecast II participants them­selves.

The upshot, says the Forecast II report, is “a menu of the ‘art of the possible’ in future warfare.”

Tomorrow’s Air Force

Forecast II was the focus of a symposium, “Designing Tomor­row’s Air Force,” at the Air Force Association’s Gathering of Eagles in Las Vegas, Nev., earlier this year. General Skantze and his product di­vision commanders made up the panel.

“From time to time,” the General said on that occasion, “we must re­configure the science and technolo­gy baseline to focus on emerging technologies that have the potential for a revolutionary leap forward. We, in effect, can reposition science and technology advancements for the greatest technical leverage. This was our purpose in Project Forecast II.”

The Forecast II report assorts the study’s initiatives into the broad cat­egories of propulsion and power; ve­hicles, structures, and materials; electronics and optics; weapons; in­formation, computation, and dis­plays; and systems acquisition and support.

All across that spectrum of tech­nologies and systems, the makings are there for the maturation of even the most exotic. The reason is that the Air Force R&D community has already done the necessary spadework.

Many Forecast II initiatives in­volve microstructures of one kind or another, as in electronics and ma­terials.

One example is “smart skins.” The Forecast II report comments on them as follows:

“We believe the Air Force will be able to build aircraft with ‘smart skins’—outer skins containing embedded phased arrays to permit the aircraft to sense and communicate in optical and other frequency bands and in any direction from any aircraft attitude.”

This, says the report, would “enhance stealth by allowing the elimination of pods and domes on aircraft” and would be “remarkably survivable to all but catastrophic damage to the aircraft.”

Far out? Not at all. Advances in microelectronics and in aircraft-fabrication technologies may make smart skins as attainable tomorrow as very-high-speed integrated cir­cuits (VHSIC) chips, now in pro­duction, were considered to be just yesterday.

As to advanced structures and materials, the Forecast II report notes that the Air Force will cap­italize on improvements in alumi­num and titanium alloys and on the development of lightweight metallic compounds, heat-resistant carbon/ carbon materials, and damage-toler­ant ceramic materials.

Then comes the pièce de résis­tance. “Another important develop­ment,” says the Forecast II report, “is in the creation of ultralight, ultra-strength materials that are tailored at the molecular level to achieve re­quired mechanical, thermal, and electrical characteristics.”

Arranging molecules (maybe even atoms) to create unique, spe­cial-purpose materials is not so fan­ciful as it may seem. It is somewhat analogous to what goes on in genet­ic engineering. Microelectronics re­searchers have already modified sil­icon at the molecular level to give it conductive properties that they sought.

As another example of prece­dence that is even more to the point, Aeronautical Systems Division’s Materials Laboratory is developing a family of “ordered polymers.” In this effort, the huge, stringy, tangled molecules characteristic of poly­meric materials are “ordered” into chains and spun into fibers of sur­passing properties.

Beyond Brainstorming

Breakthroughs in materials tech­nology are among those that have transformed the National Aero­space Plane from a farfetched idea into a practical project.

“Of all the ideas offered,” General Skantze told AFA’s Gathering of Eagles symposium, “the National Aerospace Plane program drama­tizes the rationality and utility of Forecast II. Forecast II confirmed that the enabling technologies to support the demonstration of large, transatmospheric vehicles are now within our reach.”

The NASP is also seen as the eventual repository of a host of Forecast II technologies. Along with materials, these include super­sonic-combustion ramjets, super­computers, and all such technolo­gies to be explored in the NASP program’s concentration on hyper­sonics.

General Skantze described the NASP as an example of some Fore­cast II initiatives that are “larger than life.” Others, he noted, “are less glamorous but have tremen­dous ramifications—an example is the initiative for smart, built-in test devices for electronics that could eliminate false alarms in electronic equipment.”

The development of such devices depends in great measure on the use of VHSIC chips and micro­processors and is well under way.

Many other Forecast II initiatives are also beyond the brainstorming stage and approaching likelihood.

One is the “super cockpit,” in which pilots would see their com­puter-generated displays on the screens of their helmets and would not have to look at scopes and dials while flying and fighting.

The super cockpit is seen as the culmination of all the research that ASD has done in recent years on cockpit technologies, much of which has focused on replacing dials with cathode-ray tubes and head-up displays. Research on hel­met-mounted sights is also a leg up for the super cockpit.

Aimed at helping aircrews man­age their increasingly demanding workloads in high-performance air­craft on ever-tougher missions, re­search on cockpit technologies is now being concentrated in ASD’s program to develop USAF’s Ad­vanced Tactical Fighter for deploy­ment in the mid-1990s.

Lt. Gen. Thomas H. McMullen, who retired as ASD’s Commander last month, told the audience at the Gathering of Eagles symposium that ASD is “excited about being a big

part of the Forecast II implementa­tion process” and is “enthusiastic about the high payoff of the technol­ogy and its potential for influencing future systems.”

New Ideas for Space

Space plays a big part in the Fore­cast II study. Among systems envi­sioned there are “distributed ar­rays,” meaning coveys of relatively small, inexpensive satellites, all em­bodying phased-array sensors and communicating with one another in a multinode network that would be tough to put out of action in an at­tack.

The deployment of such systems would enable the US to quit relying on small numbers of extraordinarily capable, multipurpose, increasingly expensive, and—because they are so few—overly vulnerable satel­lites.

Each of the satellites in the forma­tions envisioned by Forecast II would be less capable than each of those now in space. Combined, however, they would be at least a match for each existing satellite and would have many other advantages.

Says the Forecast II report: “One very interesting idea . . . involves placing large phased arrays in space with major components of the ar­rays not rigidly connected to each other.

“If we can achieve electronic co­herence among those components, phased arrays can be spread out over very large volumes in space, giving them an unprecedented de­gree of survivability.

“It therefore may be possible to create a phased-array device (a space-based radar) that we can place into space and enhance simply by adding more relatively inexpen­sive elements whenever the threat increases and budget pressures per­mit.”

This would be “a totally new way of doing business in space,” de­clares the Forecast II report.

After all, why not? The main thing that space offers as an operating me­dium is plenty of room, and Fore­cast II figures that the Air Force might as well take advantage of it.

The various phased arrays dis­tributed throughout the clusters of satellites in the Forecast II system concept “could be dedicated to spe­cific tasks, such as radar, naviga­tion, or communications, and their panels could be synchronized for autonomous, survivable opera­tion,” explains a Forecast II-related document.

As with many other Forecast II ideas, there is nothing all that dream-worldly about this one. AFSC’s Electronic Systems Divi­sion has been working on it for some time and in fact was instrumental, as a prime Forecast II participant, in promoting it as one of the study’s select system concepts.

The Air Force Space Technology Center is also at work on active and passive “sparse aperture” infrared sensors.

At AFA’s Gathering of Eagles symposium, Lt. Gen. Forrest S. McCartney, Commander of Space Division, ascribed “near-term po­tential” to “a radar system that we envision could consist of a distributed, sparse array of satellites” and to “a space-based surveillance system that we envision would use medium-orbit satellites with long-wave infrared sensors—as well as perhaps visible light sensors—that would allow us to detect, identify, track, and catalog space objects.”

Brilliant Guidance

The concept of smaller, more numerous satellites operating as surveillance teams in space is also said to have been buttressed by research performed by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) on optimum numbers and capabilities of satellites that will be needed for all ramifications of space defense.

The Air Force is the workhorse in SDI research on space-based and space-oriented weaponry. The syn­ergism of the potential benefits to be reaped by USAF and SDIO is sug­gested in the unclassified executive summary of the Forecast II report, as follows:

“We will also pursue the weap­onization of directed energy, espe­cially high-power microwaves and lasers, and we anticipate break­throughs in long-range, high-al­titude, very-high-velocity impact weaponry for use against a variety of hardened targets.

“The close-to-zero flight times of such systems offer particular ad­vantages in conceptual simplifica­tion of fire-control systems.

“High-power directed-energy weapons give special benefits in defensive space applications, allowing for further investigation of space craft-defender and on-orbit ASAT [antisatellite] system concepts.

“Taken together, these technologies will result in highly effective, very lethal point and area weapons for global use.”

Forecast II officials foresee space-defender satellites armed with directed-energy or kinetic-en­ergy weapons escorting constella­tions of distributed-array satellites in the same manner as warships es­corted troopships and cargo ships in convoys during World War II.

Future weapons in more familiar domains are also the business of Forecast II.

Maj. Gen. Gordon E. Fornell, Commander of AFSC’s Armament Division, told AFA’s Gathering of Eagles symposium that “the bottom line” of the study from AD’s stand­point “is what I will call brilliant guidance.”

“By that,” General Fornell con­tinued, “I mean the ability of a weapon to autonomously guide, ac­quire, track, drop, find—all those things—[against] a wide spectrum of targets, both air-to-air and air-to-­ground, independent of the standoff-distance, in any environment, and without any postlaunch communications from the launch aircraft.”

Forecast II’s emphasis on the need to develop such brilliant weapons should serve to stimulate AD’s work on them. General Fornell noted that such work still faces “formidable technical challenges” in the development of the high­speed processing, high-resolution imagery, and robust, sophisticated software that brilliant weapons re­quire. Moreover, he said, USAF must make such weapons “afford­able,” which is no small task.

Even so, the General said, “We have done a lot. We have found that we cannot fight tomorrow’s wars with today’s weapons. The enemy won’t, and we shouldn’t be ex­pected to.”

According to Forecast II, techno­logical help is on the way. The study is bullish about brilliant weapons.

“One very exciting technology,” says the Forecast II executive sum­mary, “involves monolithic inte­grated circuits that will combine electrical, optical, analog, and dig­ital capabilities with signal pro­cessors and micromechanical de­vices on single chips.

“We believe we will be able to produce very effective, less-expen­sive chips that will allow us to con­vert almost any ‘dumb’ weapon into a ‘smart’ weapon.”

Taking note of great advances in sensor technologies “across the en­tire electromagnetic spectrum, par­ticularly in the infrared and milli­meter-wave areas,” the report said that these, when combined with progress in optical-processing and pattern-recognition technologies, “will give us truly brilliant weapon­ry that can be launched with total autonomy.”

RVs and Antiprotons

Strategic weapons have their day too in Forecast II. Many of the tech­nologies identified in the study are conducive to future air-breathing and ballistic strategic systems.

A striking example is the technol­ogy of reentry vehicles, having to do with their maneuverability and ter­minal guidance.

At the Gathering of Eagles sym­posium, Maj. Gen. Aloysius Casey, Commander of AFSC’s Ballistic Missile Office, noted that solving the “random errors of reentry” is a “dominant” R&D challenge.

“We have been measuring [such errors] for years on our instru­mented reentry vehicles,” General Casey said. “The next step is to take them out.

“We also understand how to fur­ther confound defenses by employ­ing stealth technology. Now, if you add the capability to maneuver the RV, using some of that tremendous energy that is already there [in its glide], that allows evasion of de­fenses as well as providing the abili­ty to remove those random errors.

“So enhanced effectiveness of the ICBM is certain. The only question is who will do it and when.”

General Casey also declared: “Maneuvering reentry vehicles with terminal guidance and, perhaps, earth penetrators can erode the ef­fectiveness of superhardened silos in the long run.”

Given the many years of research on Advanced Maneuverable Reen­try Vehicles (AMARVs) that pre­dated Project Forecast II, their technology would seem ripe for ap­plication.

In his talk at the AFA sympo­sium, Space Division’s General McCartney concentrated on the “exciting” work, pegged to Forecast II, that lies ahead for SD’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory on varieties of high-energy, high-density chem­ical propellants.

“But even those fuels pale in com­parison to something farther out that’s known as antimatter,” Gener­al McCartney declared. “I kind of smiled when they told me about it, but the more you think about it and the more you see the research that has been done on it, particularly overseas, the more you can see that, indeed, it is not beyond the imagina­tion.”

In the propulsion research com­munity, “antimatter” is currently synonymous with “antiprotons.”

Unless USAF explores anti­proton propulsion, it “will never get there or never know,” General McCartney declared. Forecast II makes such exploration a certain bet.

“We are enthusiastic,” says the Forecast II report, “about an admit­tedly high-risk search for ways to use antiprotons. These unusual par­ticles, currently produced at several locations throughout the world, will, when combined with protons, release enormous amounts of ener­gy—far greater than that produced from any other energy source.”

Propulsion systems driven by antiprotons would cut the time needed for a trip to Mars from two to three years to two to three months, the report predicts.

In such propulsion, negatively charged hydrogen particles called antiprotons would be joined with positively charged—their natural state—hydrogen protons. They would annihilate one another and produce pure energy for rip-roaring rocket thrust.

There is no doubt that antiprotons can be made, and Forecast II offi­cials warily note that the Soviet Union is hard at work on them.

One of the challenges in such work is storing the antiprotons in a medium that will maintain their un­naturally negative charges. Magnet­ic bottles may be the answer, and it wouldn’t take many such bottles to go to the stars.

Size of an Oil Barrel

In this time of public skittishness about the safety of nuclear power, the Forecast II report makes a bold statement. “We believe,” it de­clares, “that we can now produce a nuclear propulsion system that is both sale and compact.”

Called a “particle-bed nuclear re­actor,” the system would encapsu­late nuclear fuel in small ceramic pellets. Hydrogen would then be passed over them. Heated in the re­sulting nuclear reaction and driven through an ordinary nozzle, the hy­drogen would provide prodigious thrust.

“The system has two key safety features,” says the report. “The moderator [hydrogen] can be trans­ported into space independently of the nuclear fuel pellets and mated [with them] while in orbit, and the spent nuclear fuel [would be] re­tained inside the ceramic pellets in­stead of being released through the nozzle with the hydrogen working fluid.”

This “very simple technology” is worth cultivating, because it “may produce a 50,000-pound-thrust en­gine about the size of an oil barrel,” the report proclaims.

All propulsion technologies sin­gled out in Forecast II have meaning for future aerospace vehicles. Along with the National Aerospace Plane, several such vehicles are postulated, including heavy-lift launchers and “swift aircraft with inherent VTOL [vertical takeoff and landing] capabilities for special operations and other missions.”

With respect to such missions, Forecast II also touches on technol­ogies and prospective systems for countering terrorism. Guns that would radiate electromagnetic ener­gy are sometimes mentioned in this regard.

As a result of its likely pervasive­ness in a plethora of Forecast II’s projected systems, artificial intelli­gence gets big play in the study. (See also “Machines That Think,” p. 70, July ’86 AIR FORCE Magazine.)

AI systems “are critical to almost every situation where large quan­tities of information are being man­aged—in areas such as battle man­agement, training, aircrew opera­tions, and manufacturing,” says the report.

“One extremely important area,” it continues, “is in the guaranteed preservation of very large data bases and functions—for example, our strategic warning and strike management systems.”

Forecast II also sets store by ma­chines that will be able to respond to voice commands and eye-motion signals.

“Man and machine must interact to share the sense of touch,” the report also declares.

“Robots with good eyes and strong arms but virtually no brain-power” are seen as the solution to operating in environments unsafe for humans—chemical/biological/ radiological environments, for ex­ample—and in remote regions, most definitely including space.

Keys to the Kingdom

The Forecast II report identifies the keys to the technological king­dom that it seeks for USAE

“Electronics and optics provide the technological underpinning for virtually all our aerospace sys­tems,” the report asserts.

USAF, it says, should “substitute photonic devices for electronic de­vices wherever feasible to defeat electromagnetic pulse (EMP), radi­ation, and electronic warfare threats.

“The goal is to produce sys­tems—like strategic or tactical bat­tle-management work stations—that employ photons instead of elec­trons to sense, compute, process, and transmit signals.”

Taking note of Forecast II’s pen­chant for photonics, Lt. Gen. Melvin F Chubb, Commander of ESD, told AFA’s Gathering of Ea­gles symposium that ESD “has al­ready started the work to build what we call ‘optical jukeboxes’ ” for processing data.

General Chubb said that they would be the next step beyond elec­tronic processors and that they would give ESD “the ability to liter­ally process ten trillion bits of data in a few seconds.”

“We have digitized the entire world and put it on 50,000 magnetic tapes, and it takes us a few days, sometimes, to recover data,” Gen­eral Chubb said. “With this optical jukebox, we’ll be able to put all that data on a console right on your desk, and you will be able to retrieve the data in a few seconds.”

Mastering photonics will be no easy trick. It will require, says the Forecast II report, “the integration of optical fibers, optical materials, optical sensors, and optical kill mechanisms, plus a significant in­vestment in optical processing.”

As an Air Force captain, General Skantze was a member of the team that carried out USAF’s original Project Forecast in 1964 under Gen. B. A. Schriever, the first Command­er of AFSC.

“Our recommendations ad­dressed materials, propulsion, flight dynamics, nuclear weapons, and major systems concepts,” General Skantze recalls. “Eventually, Proj­ect Forecast helped to produce large cargo aircraft like the C-S and commercial jumbojets, reusable space-launch vehicles like the Space Shuttle, and improved ICBM guidance.

“I have little doubt that our next-generation Air Force will be built around the technology and systems highlighted in Project Forecast II.”

General Skantze has laid the groundwork for channeling a full ten percent of USAF’s science and technology budget into Forecast II projects each year through Fiscal Year 1993. The S&T budget now ac­counts for 1.6 percent of USAF’s total obligational authority and is projected to climb to and remain steady at 2.3 percent of TOA by FY ’88, courtesy of the additional fund­ing for Forecast II research.

The going may be difficult. Gen­eral Skantze acknowledges that the Air Force, up against tightening budgets, will naturally want to de­vote hefty funding to sustaining the procurement of systems and spare parts that have had the benefit of the big defense budgets of recent years.

In this context, AFSC has its work cut out in keeping its Forecast II projects sufficiently solvent.

In the early 1970s, the late Gen. George S. Brown, then the Com­mander of AFSC and later to be­come USAF Chief of Staff and, fi­nally, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed a thought that is pertinent to the problem of finding the money to follow through on Forecast II.

It was this: “The impact of sci­ence and technology on strategy is almost infinite, since no strategy can really be postulated at all, or carried out, except in terms of the instruments that science and tech­nology make available.”

Forecast II at a Glance

The Technologies

High-energy-density propellant Particle-bed nuclear propulsion High-performance turbine engine Combined-cycle engine

Space power

Advanced deception

Rapidly reconfigurable crew station Acoustic charge transport

Wafer-level union of devices


Full-spectrum, ultraresolution sensors Fail-soft, fault-tolerant electronics Survivable communications network Adaptive control of ultralarge arrays Smart skins

High-temperature materials

Broad-spectrum signature control Satellite protection

Ultrastructured materials

Cooling of hot structures

Ultralight airframes

STOL/STOVL/VSTOL technology Hypersonic aerothermodynamics Brilliant guidance

Directed-energy technology

Advanced manufacturing technology Unified life-cycle engineering

Smart built-in test (BIT)

Robotic telepresence

Knowledge-based systems

Virtual man-machine interaction Distributed information processing Antiproton technology

Ultrahigh software quality and productivity Aircrew combat mission enhancement (ACME) Nonlinear optics

Antiterrorism technology

Plasma defense technology

Low-cost, high-speed military computer technology

The Systems Concepts

Direct-ascent antisatellite system (ASAT) Manned space station

Reusable orbit transfer vehicle

Spacecraft defender

Distributed sparse array of spacecraft Space-based surveillance system

Multistatic surveillance system

Airborne surveillance system

Theater air warfare command control communications and intelligence (C3I) Super cockpit

Artificial ionospheric mirror

Space object identification system Multirole conventional weapon

Battle management processing and display system

Imaging system

Intratheater VSTOL transport aircraft Multirole global-range aircraft

Supersonic VSTOL tactical aircraft High-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft

Hypersonic interceptor aircraft

Special operations aircraft

Autonomous antiarmor weapons

Autonomous high-value target weapons Long-range air-to-air missile

Hypervelocity weapons

Long-range boost-glide vehicle

Tactical low-cost drones

Multimission remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) Hypervelocity vehicle

Advanced heavy-lift space vehicle Advanced antisatellite system (ASAT)