Shortcuts to the Future

Oct. 1, 1987

The Air Force’s Project Forecast Ills looking a lot less radical than it did at its unveiling early last year. The distant future that the study foreshadowed has turned out to be visible to the naked eye.

Evidence is mounting throughout Air Force Systems Command’s re­search and engineering shops that many of the thirty-nine new and nascent technologies identified in Forecast II as essential to Air Force systems of the future are more man­ageable and more mature than they seemed.

In consequence, many of the thir­ty-one air and space systems that Forecast II portrayed as represent­ing “the art of the possible” in USAF combat capability beyond the year 2000 are shaping up instead as the art of the probable.

Those systems were billed in Forecast II as having the potential to “revolutionize the way the Air Force carries out its mission in the twenty-first century, guaranteeing continued technological supremacy over any potential adversary.”

They were the stuff of science fic­tion not all that long ago. Among them are aerospace planes, hyper­sonic aircraft and strategic missiles, engines driven by antiprotons and by other exotic fuels, tactical mis­siles that see and think for them­selves, aircraft with multimode sen­sors built into their “smart skins,” and unjammable, speed-of-light communications.

In the advanced materials and fuels that are prerequisite to much of this, scientists and engineers will rearrange the molecules, atoms, and electrons of nature’s own mate­rials and gases. And they know how.

It now seems likely that many of Forecast II’s technologies and sys­tems will be ready for demonstra­tion and even for operation before the turn of the century. These in­clude the supercockpit, the Nation­al Aerospace Plane (NASP) in the form of its X-30 test-bed aircraft, autonomous missiles, advanced materials, hypersonic strategic mis­siles, highly energetic rocket pro­pellants, and at least some elements of a battle management and com­mand control communications and intelligence (C31) setup using artifi­cial intelligence and photonics.

Rome Air Development Center (RADC) of AFSC’s Electronic Sys­tems Division has already built tiny sensing and processing devices that represent the first step—in the form of hardware—toward aircraft smart skins studded with sensors of sev­eral descriptions.

In all such examples of the fore­shortening of the future as envi­sioned in Forecast II, history seems to be repeating itself. The same thing happened the last time the Air Force marshaled its technological assets and force-marched them for­ward.

The First Forecast

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, the Air Force stepped back and sur­veyed all available technologies, identified those of brightest prom­ise, tagged them as top priority, and pictured the air and space systems to come of them.

The vehicle for this was a 1963-64 study called Project Forecast. Its conclusions turned out to be truer and timelier than anticipated.

Project Forecast paid off hand­somely and quickly. The technolo­gies of aerodynamics, propulsion, materials, and sensors that it ear­marked for special grooming led to, among other systems, the B-1 bomber, the C-S transport, the Space Shuttle, and laser-guided and TV-guided weapons—all of them the products of the following de­cade.

In some cases, even where Proj­ect Forecast was off the mark, it was eventually redeemed. For instance, it set store by advanced materials to be reinforced with boron filaments. Boron never made it as an aircraft body builder—but Project Fore­cast’s emphasis on the need to de­velop new structural materials in general resulted in the graphite ep­oxies of wide application in modern airframes.

The Air Force reexamined the Project Forecast report after it was issued and found that “virtually across the board, it had been ex­tremely conservative,” says Maj. David Glasgow, chief of AFSC’s Project Forecast II program control office. “Much more had happened than the study had predicted would happen—and we perceive the same coming true with Project Forecast II.

“We see terrific synergism be­tween where we are now and where we are going in technologies and in systems concepts. Avenues are al­ready opening up that we never thought of. I believe the results will be revolutionary and that we will be much farther ahead twenty years from now than we thought we would be.”

The original Forecast study was somewhat off the mark in one im­portant arena. It did not recom­mend that the Air Force invest heavily in developing advanced computers and software.

The reason for this was that the Air Force expected the US elec­tronics industry to make sure that its research and development would be in tune with future military re­quirements for increased speed and computational capability in main­frame computers. This happened, but the industry’s companion devel­opment of integrated circuits for mi­croprocessors was oriented much more to commercial markets than it was to the military market. This is why the Defense Department even­tually had to strongarm it to under­take such vital projects as the one to develop very-high-speed integrated circuitry (VHSIC) for small data and signal processors aboard weap­on systems.

VHSIC is the key to the integration of all avionics aboard USAF’s Advanced Tactical Fighter and to the success of a great many Fore­cast II endeavors in electronics, some of which, such as the super-cockpit, may well wind up in the ATF.

Flagship of the Project

Computational capability is per­vasive in Forecast II technologies and systems concepts and is funda­mental to just about everything. The National Aerospace Plane (NASP) program makes the point.

At an Air Force Association sym­posium on space earlier this year, Brig. Gen. Eric B. Nelson, AFSC’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations, described the NASP as “the flagship” of Forecast II and of the entire Air Force science and technology program, which has come to be dominated by Forecast II initiatives.

The NASP program was made possible by the advent of supercom­puters for calculating the hyper­sonic aircraft/spacecraft’s ex­tremely complicated fluid dynamics and for designing its airframe and engines accordingly as a thoroughly integrated system. Furthermore, supercomputers with software ori­ented to artificial intelligence will almost certainly be central to the aerospace plane’s avionics.

There is no longer any doubt that supercomputers can be made small enough for carriage aboard aircraft and spacecraft. RADC is fashioning one that will look lilliputian along­side the mainframe supercomputers that are today’s standards for size.

The RADC supercomputer will be made up of a stack of superthin silicon wafers in a container the size of a three-pound coffee can. It will be capable of performing more than one trillion computational opera­tions per second and will need only thirty watts of power. Thus, it will be up to 100 times quicker than existing supercomputers and will require only about one eight-thousandth of their power.

RADC began devising the “wafer­stack”—or “3-D”—supercomputer last August after Hughes Aircraft delivered a proof-of-concept model.

“We’re developing new architec­tures for building 3-D computers in a variety of ways,” explains Col. Charles E. Franklin, RADC’s Commander. “We’re excited. We expect tremendous capability to come of our work.”

RADC is also heavily involved in work on photonics. This has to do with replacing electrons and elec­trical wiring with light beams—made up of photons, which are also the essence of lasers—and optical fibers in computational and commu­nications systems. Photonics re­search and development got a big boost from Forecast II and is being funded to the hilt.

The Air Force has no intention of scrapping electronic systems and replacing them with photonic sys­tems. It intends, instead, to develop hybrid systems of electronics and photonics that will take advantage of the best of both.

The first step will probably be to replace electronic switches and cir­cuitry interconnections, both of which slow down transmissions, with optical varieties, which would permit the transmissions to proceed through such intersections at the unimpeded speed of light.

Photonic systems are awfully tempting, though, largely because they can’t be jammed and are imper­vious to radiation and to electro­magnetic pulse (EMP). Thanks to Forecast II’s having focused on them, they are moving rapidly to­ward reality.

Photonics research and develop­ment under the auspices of RADC, four other AFSC laboratories, and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) is expected to result in an optical phased-array an­tenna communications processor in 1990, a memory-storage system of massive capacity in 1991, a digital optical computer in 1993, and an optically implemented surveillance and communication system in 1994.

Protected Funding

Such research is far from singular among Forecast II initiatives as an example of aggressive Air Force funding. USAF can now prove that it meant what it said nearly two years ago about giving those initia­tives strong and sustained shots of budgetary support across the board.

At the outset, AFSC committed ten percent of its Fiscal Year 1988 science and technology budget, which now stands at $1.5 billion, to Forecast II projects. It plans to compound that ten percent each year through Fiscal Year 1992.

Things are working out even bet­ter than anticipated. Impressed by Forecast II, the Air Force leader­ship granted AFSC an additional $147 million for its science and tech­nology budget for Fiscal Year 1988. Even though that budget took a net cut of $19 million as a result of con­gressional actions, the Air Force in­sulated Forecast II programs against harm.

Having taken notice of USAF’s earnest money in support of Fore­cast II, the US aerospace and elec­tronics industries are demonstrably bullish about their own undertak­ings attuned to Forecast II projects.

Not long ago, AFSC contacted twenty-four companies with a com­bined investment of $2 billion in in­dependent research and develop­ment (IR&D) for the Air Force to find out how much of that invest­ment is being committed to the fur­therance of Forecast II projects. The answer: nearly $870 million.

Major examples of programs re­ceiving big industry IR&D money are the supercockpit, photonics, knowledge-based systems (A!), bat­tle management/C31, space-based wide-area surveillance, information processing, ultrareliable software, advanced materials, high-perfor­mance turbine engines, autono­mously guided (“brilliant”) weap­ons, hypersonic missiles and air­craft (a family of them, not just the NASP), and advanced VTOL and STOL aircraft for just about every conceivable tactical mission.

The Supercockpit

The supercockpit is a prime ex­ample of near-term payoff. Prior to his retirement last July, Gen. Law­rence A. Skantze, who as AFSC’s Commander headed the Forecast II study, had this to say:

“At international air shows, it’s obvious that the performance of other nations’ fighters is approach­ing ours. The one area where we can leave them in the dust is cockpit battle management. Our distinct lead in computers, avionics, and sensors will culminate in the super-cockpit.”

The supercockpit is a melding of the latest technologies of sensors, computers, artificial intelligence, and three-dimensional displays into a system that the Air Force calls the “virtual world.” In this, aircrews will wear helmets that will display virtually everything they need to see inside and outside the cockpit. They will also be able to direct their aircraft and its systems to do certain things simply by means of voice commands and to train their weap­ons on targets by looking in the di­rection of the targets.

The purpose of all this is to help aircrews manage their increasingly difficult and demanding work loads without having to look all around their cockpits at an assortment of dials and displays while also looking around the sky and trying to fly and fight.

The Air Force expects to have a full “virtual cockpit” with artificial intelligence around 1996. Vital ele­ments of it will be in existence long before then, however. AFSC’s time­table calls for introduction of a head-aimed fire-control system in 1989 and of an all-aspect head-up display (HUD) in 1991. Both will be built by AFSC’s Human Systems Division into helmets that will actu­ally be lighter than those now in ser­vice. Both are also expected to be available for dovetailing with the full-scale development of the ATF.

For the fighters of the next cen­tury or even for those of the next decade, Forecast II is providing much additional stimulus in re­search on autonomous missiles. These will acquire and track targets all by themselves. Requiring no postlaunch communication with their launching aircraft, they will make it possible for those aircraft to stay out of the range of enemy guns and missiles.

In the air-to-air mode, the Ad­vanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM), now in low-rate production, is the first of such launch-and-leave weapons. It does a good job, but its successors as seen in Forecast II may make it look rather primitive by comparison.

Autonomous missiles of the fu­ture are expected to be capable of finding and hitting targets by means of “multispectral sensors,” using, for example, millimeter-wave radar to spot and approach targets and then switching to active or passive infrared sensors to strike them where they stand or move. Such versatility would confound counter­measures.

The sensors will be teamed aboard the missiles with extremely compact and swift signal pro­cessors—possibly photonic, some­day—of the supercomputer class in terms of their computational prow­ess. The prodigious sensing and sig­nal-processing capabilities being worked up for those missiles will also be applicable to the identifica­tion, friend or foe (IFF) systems of the future.

The Air Force knows full well that it can make autonomously guided bombs. It has built and successfully tested the seekers needed in them.

Recent tests of such seekers aboard aircraft have shown that they have the ability, for example, to pick out, image, and track halfway down on the left hand side of the third strut of a bridge and to do the same at precisely the point where a runway and a taxiway intersect.

Among near-future milestones scheduled in the development of au­tonomous missiles are the comple­tion next year of technology work on an advanced seeker-processor for air-to-air weapons and captive flight tests in 1989 of a seeker em­bodying synthetic aperture radar (SAR).

As is the case with most Forecast II projects, work on autonomous missiles cuts across many AFSC product divisions and laboratories. Armament Division is a big player, of course, but so are Aeronautical Systems Division and Electronic Systems Division.

In the supercockpit program, ASD and Human Systems Division and the Aeromedical Research Lab­oratory have a great deal of the work. But RADC is in charge of developing the supercockpit’s com­puterized 3-D visual displays of flight paths together with systems that will enable aircrews to activate aircraft and weapons with voice commands, that will eliminate back­ground noise and interference in air­-to-ground voice communications, and that will even translate from one language to another when US crews talk to crews or ground controllers of other nationalities.

RADC is the cynosure of Fore­cast II’s endeavors in the arenas of battle management/C3I, ultrareli­able software, Al, airborne surveil­lance—in which the development of aircraft smart skins is a high-pri­ority program—and space surveil­lance, for which highly promising sensors—small, light, and capable of spotting “cold bodies” in space—are already coming to the fore.

Ultrareliable Software

Forecast II officials concede that software could be a show-stopper. All modern Air Force systems are now dependent on computer pro­grams and have increasing need of them in greater quantity and com­plexity. Such software has all too often been troublesome in terms of capability and reliability.

A major thrust of Forecast II’s research on ultrareliable software is the development and standardiza­tion of a high-order computer pro­gram language for writing the opera­tional software of computers for Air Force systems. Such software-writ­ing software would greatly help—or even replace—human program­mers, who tend to perform inge­niously but streakily in their indi­vidualistic approaches to program­ming and who are too few in number in the military software-writing world.

RADC has already demonstrated some of the technologies needed to transfer human operations to com­puters in software development.

More and more, artificial intelli­gence will pervade the computer programs to be required for Air Force systems, just as it will be en­folded in the programs of the com­puters that will write that software.

AI is, for example, essential to the super-sophisticated battle man­agement/C31 systems that Forecast II is fostering. Evidence of success in the development of such systems abounds at RADC, where actual hardware has become the hallmark of Forecast II’s progress.

RADC has modified its command and control laboratory to test and demonstrate its work at building and interlacing sensors and commu­nications—all aimed at making fu­ture combat commanders aware of situations at every turn.

Forecast II has captured fancies all over the place. It has engendered several joint programs with the Na­tional Aeronautics and Space Ad­ministration and the Defense Ad­vanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Army and Navy research officials have taken long looks at its initiatives for possible adaptation to their services.

Boost-Glide Vehicles

DARPA and NASA have been in­volved in the NASP program since its inception. Now the Air Force is pursuing a joint program with DAR­PA to develop hypersonic boost-glide vehicles and build a prototype.

These would be quite different from the runway-takeoff aircraft/ spacecraft that the NASP program is expected to bring about. The boost-glide vehicles would be un­manned weapons and breathtaking ones at that.

They would almost certainly rev­olutionize strategic warfare. The Air Force sees them as capable of reaching speeds up to fifteen times that of sound, of ranging farther than ballistic missiles, and of ap­proaching targets at relatively low altitudes.

It is possible that a prototype could be built and test-launched by the early 1990s. Initial plans involve launching the prototype atop a Min­uteman ICBM booster, now in stor­age, for a test flight from Vanden­berg AFB, Calif., to the Kwajalein Missile Range in the Pacific Ocean.

The hypersonic vehicles would not go into space. They would level off in the upper atmosphere and head toward their targets oceans and continents away. They are being designed to be so maneuverable on their approaches that they would be difficult to bring down—even if it were possible to detect and track them in the first place.

There is a passing similarity be­tween the boost-glide vehicle and the X-20 Dyna-Soar, which was conceived by AFSC in the late 1950s as a manned, winged craft to be launched into space by a Titan booster and then to glide back through the atmosphere. That proj­ect was dropped in the early 1960s, but the work done on it led to the development of the Space Shuttle in the 1970s, most especially with re­gard to advanced materials for ab­sorbing the heat of reentry.

The concept of the hypersonic boost-glide vehicles was promoted by Forecast II and is an outstanding example of how research in mate­rials, propulsion, electronics, and optics has progressed to the point where the Air Force can pull it all together to begin developing—with confidence—a full-blown system for testing.

Materials for Tomorrow

On the wings of Forecast II, re­search on advanced materials is fly­ing high. In the offing are light­weight, highly ductile, superstrong materials of supreme resistance to heat. New processes have been in­troduced in rapid solidification rate (RSR) powder metallurgy for pro­ducing awesome alloys. Extremely strong and heat-resistant “intermet­als”—for example, titanium alumi­nide—are coming forth, as are ad­vanced carbon/carbon materials and ceramic composites.

ASD’s Materials Laboratory is learning how to rearrange the mole­cules and atoms of a broad range of materials to endow them with prop­erties that greatly improve upon those offered by nature itself.

Forecast II calls these “ultra-structured materials.” Some are al­ready in existence.

Whatever their compositions, these highly advanced materials are destined for optical computers and switches and for high-performance turbine engines.

Capable of holding up under ter­rific heat, those engines will not need the complex cooling tech­niques required by today’s turbine engines and, in consequence, will be far smaller, lighter, more power­ful, and more reliable.

It is increasingly likely that such advanced engines will come to pass by or around the turn of the century, thanks to Forecast II’s having un­derscored their research.

They are expected to double—at least—the thrust in relation to the weight of the ATF’s advanced en­gines. This would be a startling—even revolutionary—advancement.

The ATF’s engines will improve upon the performance of power-plants in modern fighters in many ways, particularly by providing the capability for supersonic speed and persistence without using after­burners. But in terms of thrust to weight, the ATF’s engines will be only about twenty percent—one-­fifth—superior to the best of the cur­rently operational fighter turbine engines.

With the exceptionally high thrust-to-weight engines in Fore­cast II’s future, the Air Force will be able to build Mach 4 aircraft and—by converting thrust into lift—V/ STOL aircraft for a wide variety of missions.

Most likely, the ATF will have en­tered production—in the mid-1990s, if all goes well—before the turbine engines foreseen in Fore­cast II are ready to be flown. How­ever, the ATF will undoubtedly evolve into increasingly capable variants as it goes along, so it is possible that those engines will be­come available for it as its produc­tion approaches or crosses the cusp of the centuries.

Smaller Boosters, Bigger Loads

Rocket engines are also in for a big shot of change as a result of re­search rallied by Forecast II. Such research is generating a new class of fuels—”high-energy-density pro­pellants”—that are expected to dou­ble the thrust of existing solid and liquid propellants in space boosters.

Their energy density—thrust per unit of mass—may be ten times or more that of current propellants. This will make them amenable to containment in boosters of dwarfish dimensions and of puny poundage in comparison with the boosters that now loom like skyscrapers on planetary launchpads.

The implications for the US space program are profound. It has always been plagued by the extraordinarily high cost of boosting payloads into orbit. Smaller boosters capable of carrying larger and more numerous payloads at the same total system weight will translate into far greater cost-effectiveness, capability, and versatility for the US space pro­gram, which is currently short on all such attributes.

Forecast II sees the advanced fuels as powering the heavy-lift launch vehicles of the future. USAF has a crying need for such lifters. The Space Shuttle fleet has a limited and uncertain future, and the Stra­tegic Defense Initiative program, the Space Station program, and oth­ers to involve outsize payloads will make strong demands on US spacelaunch capabilities in the 1990s and beyond.

The first of the heavy lifters—the Advanced Launch System (ALS)­is being developed and will be op­erational well before Forecast II’s futuristic propellants come on the scene—but maybe not all that long before.

The Air Force plans to demon­strate the technologies of such fuels by 1990. Experiments on them be­gan this year, and researchers be­lieve that the technologies will be under control in relatively short order.

Such work stands as yet another example of going nature one better in Forecast II research. It involves exciting the outer-shell electrons of such inherently stable chemical ele­ments as argon and krypton to make them unstable. Once this state is reached, the agitated electrons are “bound” in ionic or covalent com­pounds that expend enormous, pent-up energy upon combustion.

Air Force Astronautics Labora­tory (formerly Rocket Propulsion Laboratory) and AFOSR have awarded twelve contracts to univer­sities to master the chemistry and the “excited-state physics” in­volved in producing the powerful propellants.

Forecast II officials are confident that such mastery is well within reach. Supercomputer calculations have told them so.

To the Stars and Back

They are also increasingly upbeat about the prospect of developing an antiproton space-drive system in the twenty-first century, perhaps much closer to the beginning of it than they once believed possible.

In such a system, negatively charged particles called antiprotons and protons—positively charged particles in the nuclei of atoms—would annihilate one another in mixture and release enough energy to make a hydrogen bomb blush—and do it, moreover, with no sound, no radiation, and hardly noticeable heat.

This mutual destruction would release one hundred times more en­ergy than that of a fusion reaction and one hundred million times more than that of current chemical pro­pellants.

Forecast II officials estimate that it may take until the year 2015 to generate antiprotons at the rate of one gram a year—but that the single gram should be enough to power all the space missions that the US an­ticipates undertaking.

If the research on antiprotons lives up to its promise, such mis­sions may be downright galactic. Antiproton drive could take space­ships through the solar system in no time flat, as gauged by today’s stan­dards for spaceflight, and out to the stars and back before their crews had aged much at all.

The European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, is now catching anti­protons in “collector rings” and storing them for experimentation. At CERN, a University of Washing­ton research team has now demon­strated that it can capture the elu­sive particles in a football-size container—not in the huge collector rings—and can hold them there for minutes on end.

The team is confident that it will be able to store antiprotons indefi­nitely. Its work has revolutionary implications for future spaceflight.

The Soviet Union is building a facility that Air Force officials ex­pect to be capable of collecting far more antiprotons per year than the CERN facility can now collect. Now, the US science establishment, with the Air Force involved, is plan­ning to modify a major research center—possibly Los Alamos Na­tional Laboratory or the Fermi Lab­oratories—for the same purpose.

Air Force researchers see “no sig­nificant technological hurdles” in developing antiproton propulsion and “should be able to begin work­ing on practical applications in the foreseeable future,” AFSC’s Major Glasgow says.

Not all Forecast II projects are hurtling ahead. For example, the Air Force has struck a measured pace in developing its concept of relatively small surveillance satel­lites that would carry internetting “distributed sparse arrays” of sen­sors and would function altogeth­er—just as effectively as, but less vulnerably than, today’s few rela­tively large, multisensor satellites.

Many Forecast II projects are “black,” and a goodly number of these have to do with low observ­ables—stealth—technologies and future systems.