There are many breakthrough war-fighting technologies available to U.S. Air Force planners, but perhaps only 10-20% of these projects have any chance of being funded for the foreseeable future.

Among the concepts are weaponry—both kinetic and directed energy—to intercept ballistic missiles as they launch and to attack low-orbiting space objects. There also are 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. Cybersurveillance devices and weapons are already being introduced into the service's arsenal; but as their sophistication goes up, so does the price. The brakes are already being applied to all of these and other advanced concepts. Even so, the Air Force had the largest cybersecurity budget of any of the services at $622 million for fiscal 2011, or 34% of the Pentagon's $1.82 billion total for that year.

“After an early period of substantial aspirations [particularly in cyberactivities], we have recalibrated,” says 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 area that will take time and expertise to do well.”

It is also a result of a decision to concentrate first on traditional air force missions. Demonstrations such as 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,” says Schwartz. “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 are related to 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 or six applications, now it will be one or two. HPM clearly has potential. There are others [such as Russia] 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.”

The mass legislation needed to allow cybercombat to become a useful weapon is growing at about the same rate as the budget is shrinking.

The Air Force's chief scientist, Mark Maybury, says, for example, that a road map to forecast threats, develop operational capabilities and field a cyberworkforce will not be in place before mid-2014. USAF's efforts are supported by Cyber Flag, which is dovetailed with the Red Flag combat training program.

“But right now, we don't have good [cyber] situational awareness even though we haven't found a mission that is not dependent on cyber, and there are 50 zetabytes of data on the Internet,” says Maybury. “Cyberoffense is industrialized, while defense is a cottage industry.”

Moreover, he acknowledges the vulnerability of some of the Pentagon's best sensor systems to cyberattack and disruption, particularly the active, electronically scanned array technology that equips aircraft such as the F-35, F-22 and B-2. Critical analyses of these systems is urgently needed, since the Air Force has already demonstrated that a databeam packed with malware designed to take control of a network can invade networks through the face of a radar.

In fact, budget choices are already being made. The Mk. 84 bomb project has fallen by the wayside for now. Part of the decision was based on the available power sources.

“There is more to [directed-energy applications] than meets the eye,” says Schwartz. “It deserves continued effort at Eglin [AFB, Fla.], Kirtland [AFB, N.M.] or the National Laboratories. [The Champ cruise missile with an HPM warhead] is a little bit further along. It's likely to have longer legs. It fits into the A2AD [anti-access and area denial] construct. AirSea Battle served as a furnace for thinking about more contested scenarios after a decade of operation largely in benign air environments. It reignited the notion that not all scenarios are going to be uncontested.”

The BPI and Asat missions—plus the longer-range, higher-speed interceptor missiles and advanced warheads and sensors that go with them—will also receive attention again.

“We favor and recommended to the Missile Defense Agency and other partners that air-launched, hit-to-kill [technology] is a reasonable part of the air defense scenario,” says Schwartz. “It's a resource-restricted environment, but as we look toward the various elements of [MDA's] portfolio, we think there is a place for it. The command-and-control, sensors and kill mechanisms associated with hit-to-kill are not that much different from conventional air defense missions.

“Although hit-to-kill is based on traditional kinetic destruction, the capacity to disable or immobilize a target may serve our purposes,” says Schwartz. “HPM isn't the only modality. Cyber and clandestine special operations fall into that arena. There are times you want your fingerprints to be obvious. Sometimes you want there to be some uncertainty about the source.”

Advances in cyber-intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) are escalating, but demand for the product and costs are growing even faster.

The Air Force considers cyber-ISR as a venue not unlike signals, electro-optical or radar-based collection. Planners want the information effectively digested and correlated with other sources and intelligence-collecting technologies. But the information flow has grown so large that manpower—as it is applied now—has become an obstacle to efficiency. The service has more than 5,000 people in its exploitation and dissemination process. They examine 1,000 hr. of full-motion video a day and spend another 500 hr. working with data collected by other air-breathing platforms.

“For the last 10 years, we have devoted airmen's eyeballs to high-definition television to pursue tactical objectives,” says Schwartz. “We will have to move beyond that kind of brute-force approach by increasingly automating analysis work or at least cuing the highest-value products for human review. I think we need to help them better focus their human capabilities on things that require human judgment.”

The technology to reduce manpower needs is available, he says, but it has to have some devoted attention from planners and decision-makers. The Air Force has 20,000 or more people doing ISR, and that's about 10% of the operational force.

Perhaps cyberoperations will escape future defense funding cuts.

“In this budget environment, the absence of reductions is a signal of priority,” says Schwartz. “It's still predominately based on defensive cyber-operations, but where it applies to Air Force missions, offensive capabilities are there as well.”