Foundations for the Future

July 1, 1988

The US Air Force of the future is taking shape today at a network of laboratories and contractor sites around the country under an emerging Air Force philos­ophy that makes science and technology the corner­stone of the acquisition process.

“Our investment in advancing technology today will define the limits of systems we will field at the turn of the century and ultimately determine our global stance,” declared John J. Welch, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, and Lt. Gen. George L. Mon­ahan, Jr., Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, during their presentation to Congress this spring on the FY ’89 Air Force Acquisi­tion Statement. “Thus the Air Force science and tech­nology [S&T] program is the foundation for the future Air Force.”

This pivotal role of S&T was established with the Forecast II studies completed in early 1986, which ele­vated S&T to equal status with the big hardware pro­grams. Alone among the services, the Air Force has recognized that S&T in the aggregate has as much im­pact as such major weapon systems as the B-1 bomber and MX Peacekeeper missile, explains Alan B. Gold­stayn, Director of Plans and Programs, DCS/Technolo­gy and Requirements Planning, Air Force Systems Command. “We really think we have our act together in the Air Force in managing S&T,” he adds.

As a measure of its commitment, the Air Force is earmarking for S&T about 1.5 percent of its total obliga­tional authority in a manner analogous to that of corporations in the high-technology industries, which realize that investments made today can determine future per­formance. “Stop-and-start funding kills technology planning,” Mr. Goldstayn notes. “We need stable, con­tinuous funding.”

The legacy of Forecast II, which involves both prod­ucts and processes, is a continuing search for high-leverage technologies and candidate systems, Mr. Gold­stayn continues. Some of the enabling technologies are so pervasive that they are likely to appear across the board in the systems of the future, comments Lt. Col. Francis Buchan, Chief of the Technology Planning Divi­sion at AFSC. He cites three: photonics, advanced ma­terials, and computational science.

The S&T organization now in place within the Air Force consists of fourteen laboratory centers employing more than 8,000 people, of whom 5,000 are professional scientists and engineers. One-third are military and two-thirds civilian.

Brig. Gen. Charles F Stebbins, DCS/Technology and Requirements Planning at Hq. AFSC, is the Program Executive Officer for the entire Air Force S&T pro­gram. As a codirector of the Forecast II study, he had a big hand in seeing to it that S&T received proper empha­sis in the study. General Stebbins will be retiring in August.

In FY ’87, the S&T organization managed $1.4 billion in various efforts, of which thirty percent was con­ducted in-house and the balance contracted out to indus­try and universities. These efforts embrace the spectrum of S&T, from 6.1 (basic research), 6.2 (exploratory development), and 6.3 (advanced technology develop­ment), but Mr. Goldstayn notes that the focus is on the 6.2-6.3A advanced segment.

Three Goals for Systems Command

Gen. Bernard P. Randolph, Commander of Air Force Systems Command, has established three goals for AFSC: meeting the needs of the using commands, achieving acquisition excellence, and enhancing techno­logical superiority. All are a continuation of the Forecast II process.

In this year’s acquisition statement, the Air Force highlighted a dozen programs as representative of the kind of investments it intends to make in the future. Although the twelve are presented in a more or less random fashion, they can be logically grouped into pro­totype systems (five of them), enabling technologies (another five), a management technique (unified life-cycle engineering), and a vehicle (the X-30 National Aerospace Plane, or NASP) that has been called the “flagship” of Forecast II (see “Shortcuts to the Future,” October ’87 issue, p. 70).

The five systems are battle information management system, high-performance turbine engine, smart skins, sparse arrays in space, and supercockpit. The technolo­gies are integrated photonics, high-energy density pro­pellants, advanced materials, knowledge-based sys­tems, and nonlinear optics.

NASP, the lone complete system on the list, evolved out of the Copper Canyon studies begun in 1982 under sponsorship of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and moved into high gear with Presi­dent Reagan’s call for an “Orient Express” in his 1986 State of the Union address. The program envisions an entirely new family of hypersonic vehicles capable of operating within the atmosphere and providing low-cost access to space through the use of a single-stage-to-orbit craft.

NASP and its derivatives are intended to operate from conventional runways, taking off and landing horizon­tally, and will push state-of-the-art aerospace technolo­gies across the board. This means advanced hydrogen propulsion systems, structures made of new materials capable of withstanding high temperatures, optimal aerodynamic configurations, and leading-edge avionics employing fiber optics and components from the very-high-speed integrated circuit (VHSIC) and microwave and millimeter wave monolithic integrated circuit (MIM­IC) programs.

With last fall’s selection of the major X-30 contractors (General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, and Rockwell International on the airframe, Rockwell/Rocketdyne and United Technologies/Pratt & Whitney on the propul­sion system), the program has entered Phase II, in which the contractor teams will build actual engine modules and design vehicles. A technology readiness review is planned for 1990, which could lead to flight tests of prototype vehicles by early 1993.

All five of the technologies on the Air Force’s short list could contribute to NASP and to such Air Force programs as the Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF). Two companies are now developing flying ATF prototypes: Lockheed with its YF-22A and Northrop with its YF-23A. First ATF flights are scheduled for early 1991. This program provides even greater impetus to push the enabling technologies.

Integrated photonics, for example, is aimed at even­tually replacing today’s electronic information-process­ing systems with a new generation of powerful, light­weight optical computers. These computers possess the additional benefits of immunity to electromagnetic inter­ference (EMI) and electromagnetic pulse (EMP), which threaten to negate today’s electronic warfare systems. The research is centered at Rome Air Development Center (RADC) and is proceeding from a technology base built on advances in materials research, wafer level integration, laser diodes, and optical fibers.

A Trillion Bits in a Cubic Meter

Reporting on results to date, Mr. Welch and General Monahan in their acquisition statement singled out the development of an optical read/write/erase memory that will soon demonstrate trillion-bit capacity in military computers less than a cubic meter in size. Mr. Goldstayn added that he expected to see optical computers and optical radio systems within the next ten years. The combination of high bandwidth and invisibility to elec­tronic detection (because optical systems don’t radiate electromagnetic energy) makes this technology ideal for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Basic research in another optical technology—non­linear optics—is aimed at creating new airborne arrays for automatic pointing and tracking and secure commu­nications. Nonlinear optical phenomena can automati­cally correct for atmospheric effects so that a laser can transmit maximum energy through the atmosphere. An optical Doppler radar, according to the acquisition state­ment, could provide long-range automatic tracking, identify all objects in a given airspace, and recognize the most significant threats. The section of Forecast II de­voted to nonlinear optics stresses, however, that the program “will be application-driven, not material/phys­ics-driven.”

Knowledge-based systems loom as the tangible em­bodiment of research under way for decades in the field of artificial intelligence. Enhancements of performance are anticipated across the board in future weapon sys­tems, but the acquisition statement cited three emerging systems that could soon benefit from the ability of such systems to provide real-time assistance to decision-making: battlefield information management, the super-cockpit, and smart skins. Knowledge-based systems can also make an immediate contribution toward en­abling lower-skilled flight-line maintenance personnel to support advanced weapon systems under combat condi­tions.

The aerospace vehicles of the future will need new propellants. The S&T program includes an effort in atomic and molecular chemistry aimed at creating stable excited-state materials up to sixteen times more efficient than the most efficient propellant combination used to­day—liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The research team at the Air Force Astronautics Laboratory stresses that this is a “revolution in operational rocket propulsion,” one that could reduce total system weight by more than ninety percent to launch the same payload. The search for new kinds of high-energy, high-density matter could also yield a new class of explosives.

“No initiative crosses more technologies,” states the acquisition statement, than the effort in advanced mate­rials. NASP is at the top of the list of potential users, and the effort includes “aggressively” developing materials capable of withstanding temperatures of 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit. These include oxidation-resistant carbon/ carbon and damage-tolerant ceramic composites. Other research efforts are aimed at achieving temperatures of 800-900 degrees Fahrenheit for aluminum alloys and 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit for titanium.

Even more futuristic research is under way to build electronic and opto-electronic materials a single ang­strom (one ten-millionth of a millimeter) thick. “Semiconductor materials have been grown one atomic layer at a time,” notes the Project Forecast II section on ultrastructured materials. “The natural extension of these technologies is the tailoring of the materials at the molecular level so that the properties of the molecule are echoed at the macro level.”

Why Battle Management Is Critical

Among the prototype systems on the S&T list, battle management is critical to SDI—some say the sine qua non of a successful SDI. This effort is really a focal point for such critical technologies as advanced displays, arti­ficial intelligence, and simulation—all integrated into a viable system architecture capable of processing mas­sive amounts of data in real time in order to provide users with only the information needed for decision-making.

“The battle manager of the future will be able to view a realistic near real-time three-dimensional perspective of an entire region of tactical or strategic concern, interact naturally via voice interaction and touch, and commit forces rapidly to an ever-changing environment,” the acquisition statement notes. A key ingredient is the expert systems being developed at RADC, Mr. Gold­stayn notes, and a new stress is emerging on multi-spectral, multimode sensors, both passive and active.

The high-performance turbine engine effort builds on work under way for the past forty years at the Air Force Wright Aeronautical Laboratories (AFWAL). This work has enabled the Air Force to go from a 1:1 thrust-to­-weight engine to greater than 8:1 for current fighter aircraft. Now, according to Dr. Bob Hall, Director of Propulsion Technology at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), there is an opportunity to jump to 20:1 by the turn of the century. The key to this revolution in propulsion, he contends, is high-temperature materials that simultaneously elimi­nate the need for complex cooling and reduce the engine parts count (by a factor of four or more).

“The modern turbine engine has been developed over the last forty years and has been basically a ‘metal’ engine,” Forecast II notes. “With the recent advances in composites, ceramics, and three-dimensional computa­tional fluid dynamic computer codes, a composite ce­ramic-and-metal engine is now possible.” Although the obvious application is for NASP, Dr. Hall points out that materials advances can also contribute to turboprop engines that would enable patrol aircraft to achieve long endurance. In addition to AFWAL, NASA is participat­ing in joint studies under Air Force management.

Smart skins, an idea that has been around for years, would make the aircraft surface an active part of the overall weapon system. The idea is to integrate the antennas, sensors, processors, and cable into the skin as part of aerodynamically efficient conformal arrays rather than “cutting holes in the skin” to insert the necessary avionics. Key supporting technologies in­clude fiber optics and the new class of gallium arsenide integrated circuits for use as sensors being developed under the MIMIC program. Load-bearing structures (perhaps composites) would carry signals from the sen­sors to communications systems, according to Mr. Gold­stayn, who sees integration of these concepts into sys­tems to be about fifteen years away. The applications in stealth and other “black” programs are obvious.

Sparse arrays in space, which Mr. Goldstayn calls “a concept, not a program,” could lead to an economical, flexible space-based radar (SBR) that would compare in importance to SDI with advanced battle management systems. In this concept, each of many small spacecraft would serve as an autonomous phased-array radar with its own power, thrusters for attitude control, and on­board communications. Flexibility is achieved by adding spacecraft incrementally as the SBR grows to meet future requirements. Economies of scale are possi­ble by producing large quantities of similar spacecraft.

The Supercockpit—High on the List

The supercockpit, which has long been high on the Air Force’s wish list, involves the development and testing of a family of virtual cockpit subsystems. Infor­mation from the advanced sensors being developed un­der other research programs is fused, organized, and presented to the crew within a panoramic visual and auditory display. “The near-term objective is to demon­strate a full head-up display and head-aimed fire control with night vision for the ATF,” the acquisition statement notes.

The one nominally nontechnological item on the list of twelve may actually prove to be the most important—and the one that makes all the others possible—Mr. Goldstayn predicts. This is called unified life-cycle engi­neering (ULCE), and it involves the integration of com­puter-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, and computer-aided supportability (CAD, CAM, and CAS) with knowledge-based systems.

The advantage to the system designer, he explains, is that this approach enables him at the beginning of a program to trade off the last five percent of performance to achieve 100 percent maintainability. In any complex program, many small decisions made over a period of time have a cumulative effect on overall reliability and maintainability that cannot be anticipated by the people working day-to-day on the project. “The bottom line is [that] ULCE can answer these questions [in a] timely [manner] so that a better system can be fielded at a lower cost,” the acquisition statement concludes.

These twelve high-visibility S&T programs have been targeted for what the Air Force believes is the “right” investment strategy of balancing current user needs against opportunities to apply fundamental advances to future systems. “It is a balance between the evolution­ary and the revolutionary,” the acquisition statement notes, “[between] the lower-risk, near-term return on investment and the high risk [and] high potential for technological breakthrough.”

In striking that balance, the Air Force of today is creating the Air Force of the future.

John Rhea is a free-lance writer based in Woodstock, Va., who specializes in military technology topics. He is the author of SDI—What Could Happen, published in May by Stackpole Books, Harrisburg, Pa. His most recent article for this magazine, “Fly by Light,” appeared in our March ’88 issue.