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.
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.”
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.”