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U.S.A.F. Launches Major Technology Review

October 21, 2009

Amy Butler


In the midst of a deeply entrenched identity crisis, the U.S. Air Force is turning to technology as the potential answer to some of its problems.

Air Force Chief Scientist Werner Dahm is conducting a sweeping “Technology Horizons” study to lay out technological opportunities that could produce useful applications for the service.

“I don’t think in the history of the Air Force we’ve been at a turning point like this. Maybe the closest was the Sputnik launch,” Dahm tells Aviation Week. “What does the Air Force do when it is faced with a radically different future? Part of what it does is reach into its science and technology domain.”

The study will look 20 years ahead, with an eye toward implementing near-term investment decisions aimed at producing relevant military systems. “We are not talking about pie in the sky,” Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said last month.

The Air Force spends roughly $2 billion annually on science and technology projects, as much as the rest of the Defense Dept. spends on similar research. The goal of Dahm’s review is to identify those projects that could realistically change how the Air Force accomplishes its missions—such as the advent of the GPS constellation. The results are expected in late February.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Schwartz entered office last year with a slew of immediate problems, including mismanagement of the nuclear arsenal and rampant procurement missteps. The the global financial recession has also tightened the Pentagon’s budget amid the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan.

“We are going to have to envision and articulate things that are realistically doable in the likely budget environment that we are going to face in the next decade or two,” Dahm says. There has been much criticism of the Air Force’s sharp focus on air superiority, which led it to procure fifth-generation fighters at great expense. Some say this focus came at the sacrifice of other efforts, such as irregular warfare (IW) technologies.

“What we have to do is to figure out how do we augment [today’s capabilities] with some carefully chosen new capabilities that allow those systems to contribute to all of the threats that we face today—the IW threat, the cyber-threat and [operating] in the space environment,” Dahm says.

The study is being executed by 36 leaders from academia, the defense research community, major commands and industry. They are broken into three working groups—air, space and cyber. The groups began their efforts soon after in the study’s June 18 launch. The second phase begins this month and is “where a lot of gold will lie,” Dahm says. The participants will address “cross-domain” technologies that could enhance warfighting efforts in a number of areas and across the spectrum of major conflict operations and insurgent fights.

Dahm’s team will begin crafting final recommendations in December. He says the team has already found some “home runs” in each domain, but he declines to share them pending the final report.

The service conducts major technology reviews about every 10 years. The first, in 1947 by Theodore von Karman, presaged advances such as satellites, unmanned aircraft and high-speed fighters. Its successor, finished by von Karman in 1957 fell flat, however. Despite the Sputnik launch, it “spoke a little bit begrudgingly to the space needs and focused on aerodynamics,” Dahm says. “The Air Force said, ‘thank you very much . . . but you are helping us in a domain that we don’t need right now.”

The last major technology review took place about 15 years ago. Dahm says he expects to conduct a refresher for the current undertaking in 10 years, with updates on the cyber elements every five years.