In Focus: The Swarm Option

Jan. 1, 1986

Washington, D. C., Dec. 2—Following in the footsteps of such pi­oneering technolo­gy stocktaking as the post-World War II “New Horizons” and early 1960s “Forecast I” studies, Project Forecast II, the Air Force’s current search for technologies that can revolutionize future warfighting concepts, has al­ready scored major initial payoffs. These include advanced concepts for cost-effective, survivable, space-based radar systems and hypersonic flight vehicles. As AFSC Commander Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze puts it, “The Air Force is ready for a quantum leap—via technology—into the twen­ty-first century. The time is right for another hard technology push, Proj­ect Forecast II.”

Initiated last fall at the direction of the Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Forecast II is being car­ried out under AFSC aegis by eigh­teen panels of experts who were told “to avoid being hamstrung by evolu­tionary approaches to technology re­search and to plot a course that is not driven by requirements.” Because of this unfettered license, the AFSC Commander predicts, “Forecast II can expose opportunities not deliber­ately sought—the same way Stealth technology emerged.” The Air Force, he points out, “never said, ‘We need invisible airplanes.’ Researchers who were thinking more about technical capability than about operational need recognized the possibility of building an aircraft that could evade electronic detection.” Forecast II, in similar fashion, has been told to look “for the art of the possible.”

Forecast Il’s eighteen specialty pan­els are delving into such “high-lever­age” technology fields as new fuels and propulsion technologies that could produce 20:1 thrust-to-weight ratios; materials that can be tailored at the molecular level; “photonics,” meaning command control and com­munications (C3) systems and avi­onics that use light rather than elec­tronic signals and that are hence impervious to electronic warfare mea­sures and interference; and revolu­tionary artificial intelligence uses.

“By tapping the best minds in the military, academia, science, and in­dustry, we have uncovered about 1,500 ideas. The panels will [ferret] out the most promising, and by next February we will end up with a list of about twenty high-leverage technolo­gies and system concepts options.” General Skantze explains that “the senior leadership of the Air Force will [then] select the candidates to put money on.”

Forecast II’s timing is especially propitious, because over the twenty-some years that have elapsed since its original namesake study was com­pleted, “the Air Force has undergone major organizational and force struc­ture changes,” including emphasis on space, in the AFSC Commander’s view. The art of the technologically and economically possible is in­grained in the Forecast II process: “To discern what doors technology can open, my people have devised a struc­ture relating technologies to the sys­tems they [make possible] and sys­tems to military capability. Pushing technology and breaking away from the cycle of responding to the pull of force requirements pave the way for revolutionary system concepts.” Stressing that technology determines the realm of the possible, General Skantze suggests that military opera­tional commanders may well need systems and weapons that they have not even defined or deemed feasible. In that category may well be “swarm,” a system concept that “gets us away from thinking too much like earth­lings about what we can do in space.”

The US approach to space systems in the past revolved around small numbers of highly capable, expen­sive, ultrareliable, and relatively vul­nerable satellites. “Swarm,” the AFSC Commander points out with visible excitement, “suggests another way of using space, [to wit], putting up large numbers of small, relatively inexpen­sive, less vulnerable spacecraft with high capability in the aggregate. Each might have phased arrays with panels dedicated to navigation, radar, com­munications, and other gear. The panels could be electronically syn­chronized for autonomous, surviv­able operation. And the more small [space]craft we put up, the more ca­pable the system. A relatively small ‘swarm’ could answer the defense re­quirement for precise identification and location of targets on earth—like [naval] cruisers and tank formations. As enemy targets show smaller and smaller radar cross sections, larger ‘swarms’ would be required.”

The feasibility of such a space-based radar whose individual ele­ments would be sufficiently dis­persed so that attacks could only de­grade but not disable the system hinges in part on economics. As Gen­eral Skantze points out, “Although nothing is cheap in orbit, a ‘swarm network’ may offer economies of scale, and proliferation could relieve us from the cost of the last few per­cent of reliability that is out of sight. The ‘swarm’ concept is not new, but Forecast II is taking a deep look to see if it’s an option now.”

Swarm’s implications for force structure tradeoffs form an intriguing aspect, according to the AFSC Com­mander: “An alternative to locking ca­pability into one or two expensive spacecraft means we can put up what we can afford at a given [moment], deploy more for more capability [in stages], and have some flexibility when it comes to tradeoffs, say, be­tween aircraft and elements of ‘swarm.’

For the time being, however, the Pentagon is not likely to make a deci­sion on when to launch a full-scale development program for a space-based radar system, according to

General Skantze. The main reason for deferring go-ahead is that the rela­tionship between costs and capabili­ties needs further study. In technical terms, it would not be difficult to com­mit to the development of a space-based radar with sufficient resolution to cope with targets whose radar cross sections are in the twenty-­square-meter range. But when the cost of such a system is taken into consideration—possibly as high as $10 billion—potential users are tempted to ask for higher resolution levels to detect even low radar cross section cruise missiles. Accomplish­ing that adds “another dimension to the challenge,” especially in terms of the density and, hence, the cost of the arrays that need to be deployed.

The Air Force, he suggested, is not yet at the point of such a decision, but within “five or six years, we probably will be.”

The Advanced Aerospace Vehicle

Senior Administration officials re­cently told a congressional panel that the White House plans to decide in January 1986 whether or not to launch a comprehensive $500 million effort to establish the feasibility of an Advanced Aerospace Vehicle (AAV), also known as the aerospace plane. If the technical feasibility of such a vehi­cle is established at the end of the program’s first phase, the Air Force—in concert with other Defense Depart­ment elements and NASA—would, about three years from now, start the development of a prototype flight re­search vehicle, the X-31, at an esti­mated cost of between $2 billion and $3 billion. Flight testing of the AAV might begin in the early 1990s, if the current schedule is maintained.

The initial funding approach to the AAV project, whose military portion is code-named “Copper Canyon,” envi­sions a cost-sharing arrangement in­volving the Defense Department—which would pay for about eighty per­cent of the cost—and NASA, whose share would cover the remaining twenty percent.

General Skantze credits AAVs with meeting a host of potential future re­quirements by SAC, TAC, MAC, and the unified Space Command. The US Navy has also formally expressed a long-term interest in the aerospace plane program. The central traits that attract the Pentagon to AAV, accord­ing to General Skantze, are that it re­sponds “with the speed of an ICBM and the flexibility and recallability of a bomber.” In fact, the AAV is a “plane that can scramble, get into orbit, and change orbit so the Soviets can’t get a

reading accurate enough to shoot at it. It offers strategic force survivability, [because a fleet of AAVs] could sit alert like B-52s.” Among the host of potential missions that such a vehicle could perform, one stands out from the military point of view, according to the AFSC Commander: “It could mean low-cost, reliable access to space—precisely what’s needed to open up the space frontier for routine operations.”

Forecasts about just how much AAVs might be able to lower the cost of delivering payloads to orbit vary at this time, but in general envision re­ductions from current levels that ex­tend from twentyfold to about a hun­dredfold. According to James Teg­nelia, acting director of DARPA, an air-breathing AAV could shed about 4,000,000 pounds compared to the rocket-propelled Space Shuttle’s 4,500,000-pound takeoff weight and still deliver roughly the same payload to orbit. The Shuttle carries along its own oxydizer; the AAV, by contrast, burns the oxygen in the air.

The AAV project, White House Sci­ence Advisor Dr. G. A. Keyworth II told the Congressional Aviation Forum re­cently, could serve a range of national interests that extends on the civil side from future hypersonic transports to space transports and in the military sector from vehicles serving in tac­tical and strategic missions to space launchers. Recent work by NASA, DARPA—the latter involving several Air Force laboratories—and industry has led to the realization that, in the civil transportation sector, AAV tech­nology “may allow us to … literally skip a generation of aircraft and spacelaunch technology.”

According to DARPA’s Mr. Tegnelia, AAV technology is likely to branch out into two basic areas: vehicles that come under the heading of hyper­sonic aircraft—nicknamed the “Ori­ent Express,” that would operate in the Mach 12 range at altitudes be­tween 120,000 feet and 150,000 feet—and aerospace planes that reach speeds of Mach 26 and operate at al­titudes of about 350,000 feet. The hy­personic transport sector might be subdivided into a lower-speed re­gime—below Mach 10—that uses methane as a fuel and systems that operate above that speed and that use liquid hydrogen.

Fanning the technical community’s optimism with regard to AAV technol­ogy are recent advances in three ge­neric areas. One is the advent of such advanced materials as carbon/carbon composites that get stronger as they get hotter rather than weaker. That is the bane of metals, including even ti­tanium. The new composites, which are used in ballistic missile reentry vehicles and the Space Shuttle, can withstand temperatures well above 3,000 degrees on a sustained basis.

Secondly, new approaches to ram­jet/scramjet propulsion have been tested out, with encouraging results at speeds of about Mach 10. Lastly, revolutionary advances in simulating aerodynamic flowfields in three di­mensions with the help of recent dra­matic advances in computer capabili­ty virtually eliminate the need to design such advanced aerodynamic shapes on a trial-and-error basis.

Congressional Interest in ATBM

The European NATO nations as well as the US are becoming increasingly concerned over the as yet modest, but growing, Soviet capabilities in the field of defense against US tactical ballistic missiles—the US Army’s Per­shing IIs—and against USAF’s ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs). NATO’s level of apprehen­sion over these capabilities—residing in the main in the Soviet SA-12 weap­on system—is being exacerbated by continuing, massive deployments of the Soviet Union’s own theater inter­mediate-range nuclear forces (lNFs), consisting, in addition to the MIRVed SS-20s, of SS-21, SS-22, and SS-23 medium-range ballistic missile sys­tems.

The initial counter to the growing offensive and defensive INF capabili­ties of the Soviet Union might well come in the form of a response in kind, meaning modification and pro­liferation of the US Army’s Patriot sur­face-to-air missile systems to cover also the role of an antitactical ballistic missile (ATBM). This is precisely what the Soviets are doing with their SA-12s. Western intelligence credits these brand-new Soviet weapons with the ability to intercept not only air-breathing systems but rates them similarly effective against the Per­shing II medium-range ballistic mis­siles and certain types of SLBMs.

The need for US ATBM systems, es­pecially in the context of NATO/War­saw Pact conflict scenarios, is being questioned, however, by some Pen­tagon analysts who hold that ad­vanced command and control coun­termeasures might be just as effective as actual ATBMs. This minority view stems from the notion that the com­mand and control facilities and pro­tocol associated with the release of Soviet INFs are vulnerable to NATO countermeasures. Exploitation of these alleged vulnerabilities through NATO countermeasures could pre­vent the effective employment of So­viet INFs, according to this school of thought, but sole reliance on such an unprovable abstraction would entail risks that most NATO planners on both sides of the Atlantic seem to find unacceptable. As a result, momentum for the development of US ATBMs is building.

In the political sphere, Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.), a member of the Sen­ate Armed Services Committee and of its strategic and intermediate-range nuclear forces subcommittee, is building a case for ATBM. In a discus­sion with this writer, he pointed out that the traditional Soviet penchant for comprehensive defensive capabil­ities superimposed on massive offen­sive forces is creating new, critical threats for NATO in the INF sector: “The threat is there, and we had better come up with a response. The logical response, in my view, is an ATBM de­fense.”

The requirement to counter Soviet or Soviet-supplied short- and medi­um-range ballistic missiles is not con­fined to Europe, in Senator Quayle’s view: Israel faces a ballistic missile threat from Syria. It is likely that Israel therefore will become more inter­ested in ATBM [systems developed by the US], which would give the issue additional political clout on [Capitol] Hill.” Korea and Japan are other non-NATO countries that eventually might seek ATBM defenses against ballistic missile threats, he suggested.

The case for expeditious develop­ment and deployment of US ATBMs, he said, pivots on four “good reasons. For one, it meets the immediate threat of Soviet [theater] ballistic missiles; secondly, it recognizes that the Soviet Union has defensive [ATBM] capabili­ties in place; thirdly, it does not repre­sent a violation of the ABM treaty [that constrains defenses against strategic nuclear weapons]; and fourth, it will show the Europeans and everybody else that [we are working on] the proper balance between offensive and defensive forces.”

Development of ATBMs should be carried out as part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), Senator Quayle recommended. This would as­suage European concern that SDI will erect a defensive shield over the US and, hence, cause this country to “forget Europe.” By folding ATBM into SDI, this country could allay

these fears in NATO Europe, “since we would provide a defensive shield for both Europe and ourselves.” Stress­ing that ATBM development is the nat­ural first step toward evolving a lay­ered strategic defense, he pointed out that theater and strategic defenses share a number of common technolo­gies. The US, he said, “should push ahead quite forcefully on ATBM. Once we can clearly see the viability of such a system, the process of deploying SDI in this country will be a lot easier.”

At his initiative, the strategic and theater nuclear forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Com­mittee is about to launch hearings on the ATBM question in order to call national and international attention to the potential deterrence value of such weapons as well as to convince the Administration of their merit: “We are finding a sympathetic echo to our recommendations in the Administra­tion, but they haven’t organized yet to put ATBM on the front burner.”

Support in Europe for pursuing ATBM technology as part of the SDI program is growing, with “Germany and Britain interested in and tenta­tively committed to some form of R&D partnership,” according to the Indi­ana senator. His first goal is to estab­lish ATBM as a national priority, to get it funded, and to secure overseas sup­port for such an endeavor: “A lot of people are interested, but we need to provide a focus for such a program.”

Washington Observations

ê The new Soviet ballistic-missile-­launching Typhoon submarines—three of which are operational at this time, carrying twenty SS-N-20 SLBMs each—are designed for operation un­der the polar ice cap to enhance their survivability. These SSBNs are suffi­ciently hardened to “shoulder” their way through thick ice, launch their missiles, and then “disappear” under the ice, according to the Defense In­telligence Agency’s Deputy Director for External Affairs, A. Denis Clift.

The Soviets, he told an AFA sympo­sium recently, are “closing the gap that the US enjoyed for so many years” in SSBN and SLBM technolo­gy. The new Soviet cruise-missile-car­rying nuclear-powered Oscar-class submarines have no Western equiv­alent. These 14,000-ton submarines carry twenty-four “sea-skimming, 500-kilometer-range, supersonic cruise missiles.”

Modernization of the Soviet ICBM force continues unabated, with devel­opment of a sixth generation of ad­vanced weapons under way. Included here is a follow-on to the world’s largest and most lethal ICBM, the SS-18, whose throw-weight is twice that of the not yet operational MX Peacekeeper. The SS-18 follow-on has an even greater throw-weight than the SS-18-308 of which are de­ployed in six complexes across the USSR and which carry a combined total of 3,080 high-yield warheads—and yet better accuracy.

Lastly, the little-noticed but inten­sive Soviet ICBM enhanced harden­ing program has resulted in some 818 “extremely hard” Soviet ICBM silos—out of a total of some 1,400—that have a “very good chance of surviving at­tacks by our present ICBM force,” ac­cording to the DIA official.

ê Two of the critically important pay­loads to be orbited by the first Space Shuttle flight from Vandenberg AFB—now postponed until about July 15,1986—are Teal Ruby and CIR­RIS 1A. The latter acronym stands for cryogenic infrared radiance instru­mentation/Shuttle and is part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) pro­gram.

Purpose of CIRRIS 1A, according to Lt. Gen. B. P. Randolph, USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for R&D and Ac­quisition, is to probe “earthlimb air-glow and [its] effect on space object surveillance, infrared background changes caused by auroras, space targets of opportunity, [as well as] … infrared contamination around the Shuttle and how it would affect potential on-board sensor experi­ments.”

The Teal Ruby payload has an on-orbit life span of a year and can be retrieved during subsequent Shuttle missions. Purpose of this experimen­tal sensor is to prove the detectability of such “dim targets” as aircraft, ships, and missiles in a “bright back­ground” from space. Teal Ruby, ac­cording to General Randolph, “will use a step-stare operation, whereby the sensor stares at a point on earth. As an object goes through the surveil­lance fence, the sensor steps to a new point on earth. Background scenes are ‘imaged’ by stepping detector zones in different spectral bands to the same point on earth. There are up to forty targets and 150 background experiments planned.” Teal Ruby, he added, is about to complete final test­ing at a Rockwell International facility “ahead of schedule.”