Each year the four military services prepare their requirements list for the next budget cycle, funding they believe necessary to sustain U.S. military capability for ongoing operations and to develop future systems.
In recent decades, however, technology has advanced so quickly it has become necessary not only to forecast the nature of future conflicts and enemies, but also the technologies U.S. armed forces will face and will need to win.
In 1996, a study called “Air Force 2025” sought to make those determinations for three decades into the future. It became the foundation for more than 40 research efforts and multiple new capabilities – including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – that have given the U.S. Air Force unparalleled domination of air and space.
In 2007, a new program to maintain a continuous look into the future was begun by the Center for Strategy and Technology at the Air University at Maxwell AFB, Ala. The first report – “Blue Horizons II” – was concluded in 2008, although the broad outlines were not made public until recently.
Blue Horizons II began with a look at four possible scenarios for future conflict, evaluated the capabilities likely to be available to both sides – including some considered highly futuristic – and then outlined the basic technologies the Air Force needs to pursue to bring those capabilities – and, where necessary, fieldable countermeasures – into reality. Overall, researchers evaluated 58 candidate concepts and 172 key enabling technologies, with specific recommendations on focusing scarce research dollars into critical technology areas.
The four scenarios upon which the study was based were the rise of China as a full military and economic peer of the United States, a growing Middle East jihadist insurgency, a resurgent Russia and a major “failed state” – a nation of significant importance to the United States that can no longer govern itself nor provide for internal security or the basic needs of its people.
Closely aligned with current National Security Strategy regarding what challenges the United States is likely to face in the next two decades, each scenario would place considerable stress on Air Force capabilities, often creating unique requirements demanding special resources. To meet those challenges – and also taking into consideration the original “Foundations 2025” model and the USAF Chief of Staff’s “White Paper on Global Vigilance, Reach and Power” – Blue Horizons II identified a top 10 list of technology concepts.
According to the executive summary, those comprise “a set of mutually exclusive, but comprehensively exhaustive, objectives that the Air Force would need to achieve in order to possess the dominant air, space and cyberspace forces in the year 2030”:
1. An unmanned combat vehicle capable of accompanying or preceding manned aircraft into hostile territory, as well as launching and controlling its own fleet of small UAVs for both attack and self-defense
2. A “cyberspace UAV” – a programming packet that can navigate through cyberspace to defend networks from attack, but also capable of launching attacks against enemy networks
3. A hybrid high-energy laser system, using ground-fired beams relayed via orbiting mirrors to mount speed-of-light attacks against targets anywhere on Earth
4. A solar-powered space-based laser for close-range attacks on orbital targets, such an enemy communications satellites
5. A future airborne laser – not necessarily a follow-on to the current ABL being tested as an anti-missile asset, but a three-turret high-powered laser system capable of simultaneous attacks against both airborne and surface targets
6. A medium-range, long endurance unmanned combat vehicle – based on the Vulture concept being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – that can carry large ordnance or electronic warfare payloads to attack major targets
7. Further development and deployment of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, currently scheduled to go into service with the Air Force in 2013
8. The B-3X, a long-range, high-speed bomber using directed energy weapons for self defense
9. A medium-range directed energy attack aircraft armed with laser and microwave weapons
10. A hypersonic aircraft capable of attacking any target on Earth within 2-to-3 hours of launch or carrying small satellites into orbit
Perhaps the most interesting conclusion was that “the key technologies in which the Air Force needs to invest do not change with the type of war expected to be fought in the future”. However, each concept proposed also is considered highly vulnerable to a failure to pursue underlying technologies, making continued support for laboratory research and development programs – regardless of budget constraints – mandatory.
“If they are not, then there is significant risk that concepts or systems needed for future conflicts may not be able to be procured when needed,” the report concluded. “The fact that all of the future concepts explored, except for the Joint Strike Fighter, have technologies that rank poorly in the technology model indicates that the only way to be prepared for all contingencies is to invest in the full spectrum of technologies.
“Nine of the top ten concepts operated at speeds above Mach 1.0 . . . Speed, range and persistence – a combination of traits not found in modern combat aircraft – are all needed in future conflict scenarios. As current combat aircraft are replaced, this study recommends procurement focus on these traits. The Internet is seen as an important new domain of warfare, where both information operations as well as destructive attacks are likely to occur. The vulnerability of military and civilian critical infrastructure is of concern and information warfare needs greater emphasis in future planning.”