There are many breakthrough warfighting technologies available to U.S. Air Force planners, but perhaps only 10-20% of the projects have any chance of being funded for the foreseeable future, according to the service’s chief of staff.
The concepts include weaponry — both kinetic and directed energy — for the intercept of enemy ballistic missiles and the attack of low-orbiting space objects, as well as warheads that destroy, befuddle and misinform enemy electronics. They come in various sizes to fit 1-ton bomb casings, cruise missiles and long-range air-to-air missiles.
Cyber surveillance devices and weapons are already being introduced into the service’s arsenal, but as their sophistication goes up, so does the price. The brakes already are being applied to all these and other advanced concepts. The Air Force already has the largest cybersecurity budget of any of the services at $622 million for fiscal 2011, or 34% of the Pentagon’s $1.82 billion cybersecurity total for that year.
“After an early period of substantial aspirations [particularly in cyber activities], we have recalibrated,” says the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton Schwartz, who is slated to retire in August. “That’s in part the recognition that this is a mission that will take time and expertise to do well.”
It also is a result of a decision to concentrate first on traditional air force missions. Demonstrations, like the service’s Suter experiments, have already proven that a data beam can be formed on an aircraft, filled with malicious algorithms and then fired into an antenna attached to a networked enemy defense system. The invasive code can show what enemy sensors see, take over as system administrator and invade outlying parts of the network through wireless communications links.
“Integrated air defenses are an area of [Air Force] interest,” Schwartz says. “There are various ways to engage in that. Some are kinetic [bombing] and some, perhaps increasingly, are non-kinetic.”
Those options include the use of cyber, electronic attack and directed-energy weapons. In addition to technology, some of the capabilities also have to do with intelligence preparation of the battlefield, as well as tactics, techniques and procedures. Nonetheless, high-power microwave (HPM), cyber, boost-phase intercept (BPI), anti-satellite (ASAT) and electronic-attack weapons could all move forward as tactically useful devices, but the expense is proving prohibitive.
“I think we are going to have to be selective for a while,” Schwartz says. “This is clearly an area for [science and technology investments], but while in the past we could pursue five to six applications, now it will be one or two. HPM clearly has potential. There are others [like Russia in particular] that have done more in these areas than we have. Clearly this is an area for continuing efforts. The Air Force will be part of that.”
However, choices are being made. The Mk. 84 bomb project has fallen by the wayside for now. Part of that decision was based on the available power sources.
“There is more to [directed energy applications] than meets the eye,” Schwartz says. “It deserves continued effort at Eglin [AFB, Fla.], Kirtland [AFB, N.M.] or the National Laboratories.”
The BPI and ASAT missions — plus the longer-range, higher-speed interceptor missiles and advanced warheads and sensors that go with them — also will receive attention again.