August 1, 2013  

Global horizons

The Air Force’s science and technology vision for a complex future

Demographic, technological and military trends will make the global domains in which the Air Force operates increasingly complex, competitive, congested and contested. Some of these may radically transform threat vectors and opportunity spaces, while our responses will be increasingly constrained by time and by competition for natural resources, personnel, and funding. To keep the Air Force ready to fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace, we must improve the efficiency, speed and focus of our science and technology (S&T) efforts.

To understand and prepare for this future, the Air Force launched the Global Horizons study. Working with experts from government, industry, academia, national laboratories, federally funded research and development centers, and international partners, we sought to identify the S&T areas that offered the best promise for revolutionary capabilities in core Air Force functions in three time periods: through 2017, from 2018 to 2022 and from 2023 to 2027. Then we sought to identify the best ways to develop these areas, whether by taking the lead, following others or working in partnerships.

We have recently completed our work, and the result is “Global Horizons: United States Air Force Global Science and Technology Vision.” It offers a blueprint for more rapidly and economically improving our S&T efforts. The central focus is finding ways to benefit from the $1.4 trillion spent each year on global research and development efforts — to be clear, not just by U.S. armed forces, industry and academia, but also by other governments and international companies. Key methods include partnerships, competitions and prototyping.

The Challenges

Global communications, conveyance and commerce — not to mention Air Force operations — depend upon freedom of maneuver in global domains that are increasingly complex, congested, competitive and contested. A few examples in each category will illustrate the many facets of the challenge.

• Complex. In the Vietnam era, software accounted for about 5 percent of the functionality of our F-4 Phantom jets. Today, 90 percent of the F-35’s functionality is enabled by software: 25 million lines of code (about 10 million lines on board and 15 million in the Automated Logistics Information System). Such complexity is increased by many factors, including rapid technology advancement and adoption, more dependency and interconnectivity, more onboard and ground-based processing in ISR and space operations, and more cross-domain and multinational operations.

• Congested. Our operational domains are getting more crowded. In the air, commercial aviation traffic is expected to double by 2030 — possibly even triple in the Asia-Pacific region. The Air Force’s own fleet of manned aircraft may shrink slightly through 2027, but the number of remotely piloted aircraft and missions will grow. In space, the amount of debris we track has grown 130 percent in a decade; there are tens of thousands of objects 10 centimeters or larger, with an estimated 100 million smaller objects. Cyberspace is growing exponentially: Today, the planet has about 1,000 exabytes of stored information; by 2020, that’s expected to grow almost fiftyfold.

• Competitive. Global markets, technology proliferation, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) talent limits will drive global market competition. S&T-educated talent drives air, space and cyberspace R&D. By 2015, Brazil, China and India will account for 88 percent of worldwide graduates in STEM programs. There will also be competition in the strictly military sphere, as access to big data and analytics and the ability to use them will quicken technological advancement and broaden its availability to our adversaries. Globalization of technology is likely to accelerate the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction. Finally, there is increasing competition for natural resources such as water, energy and rare earth elements, driven by global macro-trends such as population growth and climate change.

• Contested. The world’s militaries are improving. Certain peers, near peers and other adversaries will use anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategies, which will affect U.S. forward presence and basing options. Foreign advances in electronic warfare will increase our challenges and requirements for intelligence. Digital systems will allow adversaries to rapidly reprogram and improve their weapons. Foreign advances in directed energy weapons such as high-powered lasers and microwaves may disrupt or prevent our air, space and cyber operations.

Fourth- and fifth-generation fighters are expected to make up 70 percent of foreign air force fleets by 2025, up from 25 percent today. The number of foreign-owned satellites will double by 2033 from today’s 750, reducing our traditional situational awareness advantage. U.S. satellites face a growing range of threats from jamming and spoofing to laser disruption to kinetic destruction and attribution — knowing just who carried out a particular attack — remains a serious challenge. Remote sensing will be challenged by more hard and buried targets.

In cyberspace, challenges include rapid growth in dependence on cyber, malware and theft of intellectual property. Malware will grow exponentially from 2.9 million unique pieces of malware today to over 200 million by 2025. Over the past five years, the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team has reported a fourfold rise in cyber incidents against federal agencies; last year alone saw nearly 50,000 incidents. We detailed additional threats in last year’s “Cyber Vision 2025: United States Air Force Cyberspace S&T Vision 2012-2025.”

The Opportunities

The globalization of the industrial base is a strategic threat and an opportunity. It not only increases the Air Force’s foreign dependency and exposes it to surprise but also presents ways to diversify supplies, partners to accelerate progress and ways to leverage the world’s R&D investment.

Leading industrialized nations spend 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent of gross domestic product on research. Leading industries spend between 5 percent and 20-plus percent of revenues on R&D. Of particular relevance to the Air Force is the work being done by the pharmaceutical and health care, telecommunications, information technology and automotive industries. All told, governments, companies and people spend a total of $1.4 trillion annually on research and development, according to Battelle’s 2013 Global R&D Funding Forecast.

The U.S. share of total R&D spending is declining, as is the U.S. proportion of STEM graduates. These trends are shrinking America’s longtime advantage in developing and applying new national security technology.

Yet we can still benefit from research being done overseas. For example, Air Force Air Mobility Command recently deployed its Highly Infectious Patient Isolation Transport Unit, which safely transports biologically contagious patients. Food and Drug Administration-approved, airworthiness-certified and compatible with NATO litters, the unit was developed with help from the Istituto Nazionale per le Malattie Infettive in Rome, the World Health Organization and infectious disease experts at the Defense Department and elsewhere. In another example, Air Force aeromedical evacuation personnel learned to perform extracorporeal membrane oxygenation; that is, to use a heart-lung bypass device while treating and transporting seriously injured warriors. By drawing on German-developed capabilities, Joint Combat Casualty Care Research Program funding, and experience from more than a decade of war, the Air Force and DoD saved significant expense and years of development time.

Areas of Interest

There are several areas of relevance to the Air Force where partnering may make sense. These may include hypersonics and logistics automation in Australia, graphene research in the U.K., manufacturing technology in Germany, biofuels in Brazil, and robotics in Japan and South Korea.

More broadly, the following are some R&D fields of importance to the Air Force:

• Materials and manufacturing. The industrial competitiveness that enables military capability is challenged by consolidation, limited raw materials, a limited STEM workforce and global technology proliferation. Moreover, DoD is an increasingly minority investor.

Rapid fielding by adversaries makes speed to application and deployment essential to national security and competitiveness. Fortunately, there is no shortage of new tools and new methods that can help. Cross-domain, advanced physics-based modeling and simulation tools hold many types of promise: to reduce development cycle time by 25 percent through in-depth feasibility and cost assessment for system technology integration, to provide data-rich assessment of cost and requirement trades, to identify which technologies are unready for incorporation, to quantify risk at critical decision points and to late defect discovery. New methods such as collaborative design, model-based manufacturing, additive manufacturing, digital inspection and automated assembly enable faster and less costly fielding of innovations. The time to field aerospace vehicles, for example, might be halved by aggressive use of concepts like “digital thread” — the use of digital tools and common databases for design, evaluation and life-cycle management — and other industrial innovations. Scaled Composites and SpaceX have both successfully used novel architectures and rapid prototyping processes.

• Logistics and transportation. In the Air Force, logistics dominates energy use, drives mobility requirements and guides overall life-cycle costs. Although a decade of expeditionary operations has improved our logistical processes, more improvement is promised by robotic and autonomous systems, on-site production (for example, via additive manufacturing), improved energy efficiency and precise, direct delivery.

• Energy. The insights in 2011’s “Energy Horizons: United States Air Force Energy S&T Vision 2011-2026” remain pertinent. World energy consumption is forecast to grow from today’s 553 quadrillion BTUs to 721 quadrillion BTUs in 2030, and energy is increasingly targeted by adversaries as a center of gravity. We must engineer better fuel-efficiency into our systems. Opportunities exist to increase engine pressure ratios with complementary thermal management and adaptive cycle improvements to reduce fuel burn by 25 percent to 35 percent. Aerodynamic improvements such as laminar flow optimization and blended-wing designs might improve overall energy efficiency by 15 percent to 25 percent. The endurance of remotely piloted aircraft can be increased by denser energy storage, nano-energetics and energy harvesting. Also, advanced power management and distribution projects, such as microgrids, ensure near-term power availability.

Somewhat further off, directed-energy technology promises light-speed weapons that recharge and fire with the equivalent of one or two gallons of fuel, while work on compact, self-contained nuclear reactors may help promote energy independence.

• Communications and IT. This field will likely be revolutionized by advances in high-bandwidth communications (for example, in the 75- to 110-GHz W band), neuromorphic computing and more. Open architecture “cognitive” communications may provide agile, networked, cost-effective solutions for A2/AD scenarios. Employing “big data” analytics across heterogeneous sources — for example, as the financial services industry does — can improve global ISR and other automated, real-time operations. Advances in 3-D chip stacking, nanotechnology and quantum computing will enable high-performance embedded computing in air, space and cyber A2/AD environments.

• Pharmaceuticals and health care. Rising costs; affordable genomic sequencing; and personalized sensing, drug design and delivery: These are driving a revolution toward personalized health and performance. Applications include self-tracking devices for self-selected compliance and fitness monitoring.

• Education and training. Rising education costs and global STEM competition will drive adoption of new training technology that promises an efficient mix of live and virtual with increasingly realistic constructive players, software agents and job aids. Such environments have shown they can challenge war fighters in current and future combat scenarios, enable persistent readiness assessment and personalize training to make it more effective and efficient. Moreover, the gaming industry provides regular leveragable advances in sophistication, realism and cost-effectiveness.


The Global Horizons work has built upon the still-valid S&T recommendations from earlier studies, including 2010’s “Technology Horizons: A Vision for Air Force Science & Technology 2010-2030” (autonomy, human effectiveness), “Energy Horizons” (generation, use, distribution), and “Cyber Vision 2025” (mission assurance, resiliency and agility, human machine integration, trust).

The Global Horizons recommendations include:

• Improve global S&T vigilance. This will help us to anticipate and counter strategic threats. It will also allow us to spot opportunities for strategic international partnering in relevant areas of R&D, say, in transportation, manufacturing, and health.

• Focus Air Force S&T on game-changers with associated revolutionary concepts of operations, in particular trusted and resilient cyberspace; assured position, navigation and timing (for example, cold atoms and vision-based navigation); hypersonics and directed-energy weapons; bio-inspired computation; advanced materials and manufacturing; and personalized health and performance.

• Employ agile and innovative acquisition approaches (for example, grand challenges/prizes, crowdsourcing, technology demonstrations, and prototyping).

• Foster partnerships (for example, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA and the Department of Energy).

• Shape doctrine, policy and processes for agility, speed and economy. (RDT&E; “digital thread,” or using a single database for design, manufacturing, maintenance, etc.)

• Improve the accession, development and retention of our STEM workforce.

Realization of the Global Horizons S&T vision can enhance “assured global advantage” across core Air Force functions to sustain global vigilance, global reach, and global power. AFJ

Mark Maybury is the chief scientist of the Air Force. The full Global Horizons report is available at armedforcesjournal.com/global-horizons.