Things to Come

Nov. 1, 2004

Stealth, lasers, satellite-based guidance, and endurance airframes transformed the Air Force during the last two decades, and advances in propulsion, directed energy, robotics, and information technology will transform the service again over the next 20 years.

That is the view of Gen. Gregory S. Martin, head of Air Force Materiel Command, which oversees USAF’s science and technology efforts. Besides being the service’s top technologist, he has held a number of key USAF acquisition and operational posts in his 34-year career.

In an early fall interview with Air Force Magazine, Martin said the Air Force is not spending enough to develop innovations that will provide the service its future decisive edge. However, he added, the funds that are available are being allocated in a balanced way.

Martin also observed that, while the pace of invention and innovation is speeding up, the demand or “appetite” for new capabilities is increasing even faster, creating an unhealthy “tension” between requirements and the ability of technologists to fulfill them.

“The technologies that give us the dominance that we have today, [as compared to] where we were” in the Vietnam era “are GPS [Global Positioning System], stealth, endurance airframes, and laser technology,” Martin asserted.

The GPS constellation underpins precision attack. Martin pointed out that it is not really a space system but an exquisite timing mechanism “enabled by a space vehicle.” It is a system that still holds “immense potential” for the military.

Stealth has given USAF “a solid way to present massive amounts of firepower with acceptable risk,” he said.

While aircraft such as the manned U-2 could fly long distances at high altitudes, the need for a human pilot was their limiting factor, Martin said. Uninhabited vehicles such as the Global Hawk and Predator “can do what man can’t do” by holding a position for very long periods of time. This staring, persistent presence over the battlefield has been “very important” and will become more so, Martin said.

Lasers, he remarked, have not yet been used as weapons per se—the Airborne Laser is still in development—but have yielded huge advances as target designators, in communications, in laser gyros for navigation, and in their application as optical readers. He also noted that lasers “produced things of significance for our military forces very quickly, within a decade” of their invention.

The Power of Synergy

Yet it was not these isolated advances that made USAF dominant in air combat. It was, rather, the blending of them that yielded the huge successes seen in battles in the Balkans and Southwest Asia. Stealth, coupled with laser designators and GPS-guided munitions, vastly reduced the number of aircraft needed to successfully strike heavily defended targets.

Predator’s optical sensors and laser designators made it possible for attack aircraft to pinpoint and hit targets in complex terrain. Global Hawk helped US operators “see” through sandstorms to find the Iraqi Republican Guard, transmitting target GPS coordinates to aircraft with precision weapons.

“We found out in Iraq the first time, in Kosovo, [and] in Iraq the second time … [that] stealth and endurance can give you immense capability,” Martin said.

The Air Force is looking for capabilities that will similarly redefine air warfare in the years to come. Martin believes AFMC is pursuing the right mix.

“The ones that are on the horizon … are directed energy, information technology, and propulsion,” he said. “Those are the ones that I think offer the greatest near-term potential to our military and particularly our air and space forces.”

Directed energy—which encompasses not only lasers of high and low power but also high-powered microwaves, supermagnetic devices, and other energies that can be focused—will provide “the effects of kinetic power as we know it today” from an almost limitless magazine of ammunition, Martin asserted.

The Airborne Laser’s mission is not to shoot down enemy aircraft, but “it’s just a matter of time before we have a system that can also provide some sort of air superiority capability” with lasers, Martin forecast. Lasers and other such devices will also provide aircraft facing enemy air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles “a measure of protection … that we’ve never had before.”

In propulsion, a big breakthrough could not only make possible advanced long-range strike systems—such as hypersonic cruise missiles or aircraft—but also provide a quick and responsive “tactical insertion of assets into orbit.” This ability to lift “relatively inexpensive projectiles into space for short periods of time—short meaning maybe a couple of months—gives us an option” to gain persistent intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance “anywhere in the world whenever we want it.” Such propulsion capability doesn’t exist yet.


Martin noted that hypersonic manned flight dates to the 1960s, when the X-15 research craft took men to the edge of space and back in a controlled way. However, he said, “we’ve gone nowhere in hypersonics because of a failure to produce a propellant—and primarily an air-breathing type of propellant. That’s where we’re stymied.” The Air Force has not seen a value in hypersonics unless it worked on a reusable, air-breathing vehicle.

“That’s coming along very slowly,” Martin admitted. The fuel and the engine have to be developed in tandem. “We’re not spending enough money on those kinds of things right now to create that breakthrough,” he said.

There’s another good reason that hypersonics research shouldn’t be rushed, Martin added. Right now, there’s no value in going faster until the other parts of the Air Force’s global strike capability can keep up.

Martin noted a study in which the National Academy of Sciences “took a look at hypersonics, and they said, frankly, ‘You don’t have an information/decision process that can respond fast enough to make hypersonics useful to you.’ ”

As an example, Martin recalled an attack, late in Gulf War II, on a purported hiding place of Saddam Hussein. It took 35 minutes from receiving a tip-off regarding Saddam’s whereabouts until the decision was made to order a B-1B bomber to attack the site. The B-1B’s ordnance hit the target a scant 12 minutes later.

“Thirty-five minutes to get the data, determine its value, understand what we had, and make a decision to then execute,” Martin lamented. “So, again, the hypersonics wouldn’t have solved this problem. You have to make the decision inside of two or three minutes and then have a machine that can get there within two or three minutes in order to … do that. That’s what the academy … was saying.” He added that “we’re getting there.”

What’s needed is a complementary development called Predictive Battlespace Awareness, said Martin. In this concept, the US military’s network of sensors would track vehicles and enemy commanders. Computers would analyze the movements, patterns, and history of those being watched and deduce what they will do next, under certain pressures.

“That’s where that technology has to come,” Martin said. “What I don’t want to do is … wait until I get that, then wish I had a kill vehicle. So, I need to [simultaneously] pursue them both. … I can’t overemphasize the importance of our predictive knowledge, … to be able to know where something’s going to be.”

Speed of Light

Complementing high-velocity analysis, decision-making, and vehicles would be directed energy weapons, which could then attack at the speed of light. Right now, state-of-the-art attack systems “will not be able to respond” at the speed that will be demanded by such future predictive methods, “so we should pursue that,” said Martin.

Information technology has greatly advanced USAF’s ability to spot and track targets and manage large numbers of vehicles, personnel, and supplies. Yet the trick that is still to be mastered is “for us to do a much better job of fusing and animating the information in a way that it is useful at a glance to the decision-maker,” Martin explained. “Today we’re into data streams, streaming video, and all kinds of data but not actionable information, in many cases.”

While some technologies tend to advance at a nearly predictable rate—computer processing speed, for example, doubles every two years or so—other areas, such as propulsion, depend on big breakthroughs that come many years apart.

“This technological explosion has energized a process of developing the next need,” Martin observed. He went on to say that appetites for new capabilities are developing “faster than the technology can develop, and there will be a tension there that will not always be healthy.”

The Air Force’s acquisition and technology apparatus, he said, will get hit with “potshots” for not delivering new capabilities at the desired speed—despite the fact that, on the whole, technology advances are coming faster than ever before.

Asked if there is sufficient money in the Air Force’s science and technology (S&T) accounts, Martin replied, “No. There isn’t.”

He added that the Air Force is “probably at the 75 to 80 percent level, in terms of what I think we should have in S&T.” Martin would like to be able to spend more money on ideas that aren’t guaranteed to pan out, in “application technology and advanced technology demonstrations” such as those that led to Predator and Global Hawk.

“We really don’t have the flexibility to experiment with many rabbit trails,” he observed. “I think we can do more prototyping, more wildcatting, if you will, in technology areas. You may only get one out of 10, but now I’m only trying four, and it’s going to take me two-and-a-half times that to get the one.”

Friends in High Places

He’d also like to see more ideas from the lowest levels of technology experimentation get a shot at development. Most big ideas that have gotten funded—like armed Predator or the Airborne Laser—were the result of a Chief of Staff, having been exposed by chance to something in which he saw potential, directing a program into existence.

Martin pointed out that the Airborne Laser program was generated by former Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, who happened to be “exposed to” adaptive optics technology at Kirtland AFB, N.M. When Fogleman learned that the biggest problem in laser weapons technology was atmospheric turbulence, he realized that adaptive optics offered a solution, and “he knew we had an answer, and he directed … a technology effort” that became the ABL, Martin explained.

“Bottom-up” programs atrophied in the last decade, when the Air Force’s assorted research labs worked closely with AFMC’s product centers, Martin said. The creation of the single overarching Air Force Research Lab was “the right thing to do, because no longer does one technology solve the problem. You need a cross-section of technologies applied towards a capability,” he explained.

Beyond the near term, Martin sees tremendous potential in bio- and nanotechnologies.

Biotech will permit the sensing of things that could never be detected before, Martin noted. Included among these are biological agents, chemical signatures, and contaminants.

Nanotechnology—the art of micro-engineering materials and devices—will “allow you to … operate pieces of equipment so efficiently that you can reduce the size, weight, and redundancy in a way that you will be able to do huge work with small things,” Martin said. Visionaries have suggested swarms of tiny robots the size of bees searching a landscape for enemies or mines, but a more near-term application will be very small actuators that can cut weight on an aircraft, or airfoils that can adapt their shape at the touch of a button.

Martin believes robots and automation “will become more and more prevalent in our battle force,” but he doesn’t think they will replace people or reduce the need for manpower.

Predator, he noted, was an idea which, even though it might be seen as replacing a manned reconnaissance aircraft, was actually an add-on, new capability that created hundreds of new billets to fly, maintain, arm, and manage it.

When it comes to replacing humans with uninhabited vehicles and other machines, the real question is going to be “where will the man in the loop be, and how many systems will [he] operate,” Martin predicted. “That will be a slower-developing capability,” he said.

Such systems will also not be cheap. Although unmanned aerial vehicles are often viewed as inexpensive and disposable systems, they have turned out not to be.

“Global Hawk is very expensive,” Martin pointed out. “So when something goes wrong, we don’t just have a razor blade you can throw away here. We have a very expensive system that needs to be recovered.”

Global Hawks have been lost precisely because “we didn’t really have man in the loop.”

Martin said he is a fan of UAVs, but he wants to use them first for missions “that we can’t do with man. … So therefore, they’re not really replacing man.”

Charge Phasers, Mr. Sulu

Lasers and other forms of directed energy offer some of the most promising technologies for future Air Force needs—not just in weaponry but in sensors and communications. Their big drawback is the power required to make them useful.

Directed energy is “inherently inefficient,” according to Lt. Col. JoAnn L. Erno, power division director of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate.

When firing a laser, for example, “90 percent of the energy is lost to heat,” she said.

To compensate, AFRL is working on small generators that can provide a power source able to generate “megawatt range” power for directed energy weapons. Although it had been hoped that future engines for fighters and even large reconnaissance platforms would be able to generate the necessary wattage to electrically power directed energy weapons, none now in the pipeline will be able to do so and still power all the aircraft’s own organic needs.

The Airborne Laser generates its power using a chemical system that would be too large and bulky to be practical as a weapon on gunships or fighters.

Moreover, the power of a directed energy weapon diminishes over distance, so such a weapon employed from the air must have that much more power to begin with to be effective.

A small engine, about the size and shape of a garbage can, is being developed that will be able to generate four megawatts of power. Called the Multimegawatt Electrical Power System, it would be mounted on the wing root of an aircraft such as the E-3 AWACS.

“We will do a megawatt demonstration in ’07,” Erno reported, and she hopes a four-megawatt, deployable system will be developed by 2009.

The device, which will have a motor spinning at 16,000 rpm, will be useful for “any platform with multimegawatt power requirements,” such as Joint STARS or AWACS, Erno said.

Air Force Special Operations Command is also showing interest. AFRL is looking at a directed energy weapon that can cause “a sensation of pain and heat in the skin … in the meters to kilometers range,” Erno reported. This nonlethal weapon would have many uses in the fight against terrorism.

The generator will also be useful for powering millimeter-wave radars that will be able to see through foliage and other obscurants and produce highly detailed imagery.

A destructive laser that would fit on a fighter is the “Holy Grail” of directed energy research right now, Erno said. Promising work is taking place in this regard, using superconductivity, she asserted, but details are classified.

The Funding Picture

The Air Force’s Fiscal Year 2005 budget request includes $1.4 billion for science and technology efforts. These are defined by categories. Category 6.1 is basic research into areas with high potential for a military payoff. Category 6.2, which gets more than half of S&T funding, is aimed at solving specific military problems or creating specific capabilities. Category 6.3 is advanced technology development, which involves building hardware that could actually be used in the field in an experimental way.

Gen. Gregory S. Martin would like to see a 20 to 25 percent increase in S&T funding, specifically for “wildcatting” more concepts in areas 6.2 and 6.3.

The Air Force determines its priorities for spending on science and technology by comparing guidance from a number of sources. These include the National Military Strategy, internal defense planning documents, Joint Staff guidance, and the Air Force’s own Strategic Plan.

Beyond that, the service engages in exercises that determine capabilities the service knows it will need in the near- and long-term future. It then balances these needs with spending on technologies that can cut operating or ownership costs or revolutionize military operations.

“Our corporate investment strategy also zeroes in on evolutionary technologies like the scramjet, which in the near term can function as a hypersonic cruise missile and in the midterm is envisioned as an affordable, on-demand access to space with airplane-like operations,” said Maj. Gen. (sel.) Perry L. Lamy, head of the Air Force Research Laboratory.

The “cornerstone” of all Air Force S&T investments is balance, Lamy said.

USAF has 10 major technology areas, of which the largest share of investment goes to propulsion, basic research, and space and air vehicles (see chart p. 37).

Roger, Scramjet: The High (Speed) Road to Global Strike

The Air Force has two goals for its high-speed propulsion work: It wants to develop a capability to get anywhere on the globe within a couple of hours, and it would like this same technology to offer a route to low Earth orbit.

The Air Force Research Lab is working on scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) propulsion that may be able to do the trick, but progress is slow, requiring simultaneous advances in aerodynamics, wind tunnel development, materials, fuels, and other disciplines. USAF has devoted $134 million of its own funds and is getting $53 million more from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to find the answer.

There are almost limitless applications of such a technology, according to Robert A. Mercier of AFRL’s Propulsion Directorate.

“In the near term, you could see a hypersonic cruise missile that can travel hundreds of nautical miles in just a few minutes,” Mercier said. Such a vehicle would be highly valuable in strikes against time-critical “as well as deeply buried targets,” he said. A hypersonic missile would be able to use its velocity to burrow down through hardened structures or the earth to reach bunkers far underground, he said. Hypersonic missiles could also carry submunitions which, released in the target area, could quickly seek out and destroy targets of interest.

A notional vehicle, 168 inches long and carried by an F-15E or in the bomb bay of a B-1B or B-2, it would rely on a booster rocket to get up to about Mach 4, Mercier said. At that point, the scramjet would kick in and accelerate the vehicle to Mach 6.5 to 7.0.

Although simple in theory, the scramjet has proved elusive technologically. Leading edges of the vehicle would heat up to about 3,000 degrees, requiring use of advanced composite materials. The vehicle’s shape would also have to be carefully controlled, and, within the skin, the fuel would also have to act as a cooling agent.

USAF also wants the fuel to be fairly standard issue, so that no special handling is required. AFRL is looking to use JP-7, the same fuel that was used by the SR-71 Blackbird.

The Propulsion Directorate is studying ways “to ‘crack’ the fuel module,” Mercier said, to make it burn faster. Combustion must take place during the millisecond that the molecule enters the engine and exits the exhaust.

AFRL does not yet have high-fidelity, high-Mach wind tunnels for testing these devices, so “flight testing is necessary,” Mercier said. A goal has been set of flight testing five to eight vehicles in 2009 at Edwards AFB, Calif.

For a manned vehicle, or one that can attain orbit, the challenges increase. It is not easy to simply “scale up” the missile-sized vehicle, said Thomas A. Jackson of the Propulsion Directorate. While the scramjet missile’s inlet and combustion chamber will probably be boxy and rectangular, a larger one might have to be round—with a whole different set of fluid dynamic computations to make.

Moreover, a larger vehicle would have to get to high speed on its own—and without rockets. A “combined cycle” craft with a combination of turbojet and scramjet is envisioned, where the turbojet would accelerate the vehicle to scramjet speed, then either be retracted or faired over while the scramjet engine took over propulsion. The reverse would happen on the return leg. A similar arrangement might be used as a space-accessible vehicle. However, re-entry poses yet another raft of issues for heating and thermal management.

When It Has To Be There Overnight

Technologists agree that a reusable single-stage-to-orbit craft is probably not possible in the near future, so the Air Force is looking at a two-stage system that would rely on a hybrid expendable or reusable vehicle for quick access to space, according to Lt. Col. James M. Ceney of the Operationally Responsive Space Technology Office.

USAF wants to be able to loft a small Space Operations Vehicle, with only a few hours’ notice, that could remain in orbit for up to several months. The payload might be a reconnaissance or communications satellite, either to replace a lost asset or supplement the existing constellation in a crisis.

“If we can pull the funding together, we hope to fly a demonstrator as early as 2008,” Ceney said. The demonstrator would be a “little vehicle,” but the objective would be to launch a small fighter-sized craft. If the craft is too small, it won’t be able to accomplish missions that are “relevant,” Ceney said. The vehicles being looked at commonly resemble “a cylinder with delta wings,” he reported.

The demonstrator will “take off vertically, go to Mach 4, and then return to base,” but have to fly again in less than 24 hours, Ceney explained.

USAF wants to decide on a system before 2011 and achieve a basic capability by 2013. Ceney said the vehicle will be “all new” and not a rehash of the abandoned X-33 project. It will also not have an aerospike engine as the X-33 had.

The project hopes to achieve “medium lift” capability, meaning that it could loft a payload of 10,000 to 15,000 pounds to low Earth orbit. The Air Force expects the system to be unmanned.

Down in the Weeds With Nanotechnology

Tiny robots that swarm, adapt, and create virtual sensors—such as those described in Michael Crichton’s recent best-selling thriller, Prey—are “still science fiction,” according to Richard A. Vaia, head of the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate’s nanotechnology efforts.

However, the new science—which allows atoms to be manipulated to create new physical properties of materials—could offer extraordinary benefits in reducing the size and weight of aircraft and missiles.

“Nano will impact everything in the Air Force,” Vaia asserted.

Among the applications now in the pipeline are “superstrong metals, inorganic coatings for lubrication of gimbals for spacecraft,” atomically structured coatings for adaptive optics, and many more, Vaia said. Inorganic lubrication is a big advance for spacecraft because it “won’t seize in the vacuum of space.”

Very small, densely packed precise super-lattices, similar to those offered in commercial digital cameras, will make it possible to have extremely sensitive infrared sensors in a small, lightweight package.

Nano-engineered fuel systems will sharply reduce the amount of propellant that is wasted in solid-fuel rockets and missiles, making it possible to have smaller vehicles or make existing ones go farther, Vaia said.

Flexible materials that look like rubber or plastic can be made electrically conductive. They can also be engineered so that they reassume a certain shape when current passes through them. That means nonmechanical actuators, or aircraft wings that change their shape depending on their mode of flight.

Nanotechnology will vastly improve electrical storage, permitting much smaller batteries and solar cells. The same principle will allow new “data storage … with higher density,” meaning more data can be crammed into smaller spaces.

In the near term, Vaia said, expect “electrically conductive adhesives” that will vastly reduce the amount of weight that must be used for electromagnetic shielding of wires and devices.