Matthew Squires, a scientist at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, received a Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers for his work with controlling laser-cooled atoms. Fewer scientists will be available as graduates decline, the Air Force's chief scientist says. (Todd Berenger / Air Force Research Lab)
The Air Force of the future is likely to be slightly smaller and more reliant on remotely piloted aircraft, face growing challenges from the rise of Asia and rapidly increasing space traffic, and struggle to maintain its technological superiority as the United States produces fewer scientists, engineers and other highly skilled graduates.
And to survive, former Chief Scientist Mark Maybury said in a June 21 report, the Air Force is going to need to adopt several “game-changing” strategies to keep up with emerging challenges and global threats between now and 2027. That could include adopting speedy acquisition strategies from commercial space companies such as SpaceX, making greater use of lasers and other directed energy weapons, and adopting advanced manufacturing techniques such as 3-D printing.
“If we presume the future is going to look like today, I think we are going to be sorely mistaken,” Mica Endsley, the Air Force’s new chief scientist, said at a July 11 breakfast hosted by the Air Force Association. “The future environment, even in the next decade, has some really significant potential threats that we need to be aware of and we need to be thinking about carefully.”
In the report, called “Global Horizons: United States Air Force Global Science and Technology Vision,” Maybury said that the Air Force’s manned air fleet is likely to shrink slightly by 2027. But the Air Force’s fleets of remotely piloted aircraft and their missions are likely to grow significantly.
The United States also needs to pay attention to the worldwide proliferation of RPAs as their cost plunges, Endsley said.
“It’s not just us, and that’s the big change that we need to take a look at,” Endsley said.
The report said that most RPAs today are designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but nations are investing significantly in combat drones. Some may even be capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction such as chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, and the U.S. needs to develop ways to detect and defeat them, the report said.
Advanced fighter aircraft are also likely to spread throughout the world, the report said, which could shrink the U.S. air superiority advantage. By 2025, the report said, 70 percent of foreign combat air forces will be made up of modern fourth- or fifth-generation aircraft, and adversaries are also likely to gain advanced systems, such as advanced missiles and other munitions that could challenge the Air Force.
One possible way the Air Force could counter other nations’ improving air capabilities is to develop and deploy high-powered lasers, the report said.
“Nothing moves faster than light, and advances in efficiencies, power levels, thermal management and optics made directed energy weaponry a game-changing contender,” the report said.
Adopting a more adaptive architecture for aircraft, including “plug-and-play” modular components like sensors and seekers, will allow the Air Force to quickly upgrade weapons systems, Maybury said. However, this approach also carries its own threats unless the Air Force builds in strong cybersecurity.
“Agility has to extend into our technologies,” Endsley said. “We can’t just build a system that is going to be stationary, that maybe we’ll upgrade someday in the future. We have to make sure the systems we’re building are built ... in a modular way, in such a way that they can be modernized and upgraded very efficiently.”
And to make its acquisition process more nimble, Maybury said the Air Force of the future needs to learn a few lessons from SpaceX, Scaled Composites and other small, private space exploration companies.
The Air Force’s current acquisition process is incapable of producing innovative systems quickly and affordably, the report said. And the increasing complexity of integrating advanced technology into aircraft such as the F-35 will likely further slow the development process in the future. This “threaten[s] to erode the current decisive advantage” the Air Force now enjoys over its adversaries, Maybury said.
Maybury said the Air Force needs to emulate the rapid prototyping processes used by SpaceX and Scaled Composites, which he said produce aerospace vehicles 50 percent faster than under traditional acquisitions. SpaceX produced the Dragon capsule, which last year became the first commercial vehicle to dock with and deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize for its SpaceShipOne, the first private manned spacecraft.
The Air Force needs to refocus its prototype efforts to provide early proofs of concepts and reduce technical uncertainty, the report said. And emphasizing technology demonstrations and creating open challenges could lead to more innovative technological breakthroughs, fill gaps in the Air Force’s capabilities, reduce risk aversion and energize the workforce, the report said.
“The key to doing science and technology well is making sure we build it on a platform that involves rapid innovation and effective testing,” Endsley said. “A lot of what we’ll be looking at is how can we enable that, both within our labs and in industry, to make sure that we are building these systems in effective ways, instead of investing a lot of money and then finding out way down the line that something’s not working like you thought it would.”
Maybury also said the Air Force could cut its development cycle time by 25 percent by using advanced, physics-based modeling and simulation tools. Those tools could help the Air Force assess how feasible and expensive it would be to integrate technologies into a system, identify technology that isn’t ready to be incorporated into systems, quantify risk at critical decision points, and avoid discovering defects late in the development process.
The report also said that using small, low-cost launch capability being developed by commercial industries such as SpaceX would allow the Air Force to more easily access space. This will become more important as space becomes increasingly competitive and congested, and more nations launch satellites and other spacecraft.
The nation’s eroding manufacturing base endangers the Air Force’s ability to design, develop, manufacture and deploy reliable and advanced technologies, the report said. But the rise of 3-D printing could help counter that decline. For example, 3-D printing could allow researchers to rapidly print parts needed for prototypes. And airmen in the field could 3-D print parts quickly to repair battle-damaged systems.
And the Air Force should also expand its use of a flexible hiring authority program, called the Laboratory Personnel Demonstration Project, to the entire acquisition workforce, the report said. This would allow the Air Force to hire scientists, engineers and other technical workers 70 percent faster than under the normal hiring process, which sometimes takes five months or more.
But Maybury is also concerned about the increasing competition worldwide for top scientists and engineers, and the United States’ decline in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, graduates. This could erode the nation’s advantage in producing new technologies, he said.