While China is not a specific target of Washington's war planning, it does have the most impressive military force outside the U.S. As a result, Beijing's aircraft, sensors, ballistic missiles, spacecraft, and fleet and missile defenses have become the standard against which U.S. tactics and technology are measured.

“We probably will fight their [equipment],” says USAF Lt. Gen. Herbert Carlisle, deputy chief of staff for operations, plans and requirements. “China has the best capability, so we've taken their kill chains apart to the nth degree.”

But unknowns still abound.

“There is a sense of arrogance among the Chinese” that they will find their own path to a more effective military force, “so I don't expect them to follow our lead,” says Carlisle. In particular, the Chinese have developed cyberprobing and exploitation operations that have pulled in a greater haul of stolen information than would have been possible even with a large, conventional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) force.

In response to China's new military capabilities and cybersleuthing skills, the U.S. is beefing up its own abilities to predict foreign intentions. That shift includes ISR upgrades to U.S. fourth-generation tactical fighters and strike aircraft, as well as the introduction of more low-cost platforms like the MC-12 and a few new platforms such as the long-range strike (LRS) family of systems.

However, the possibility of deep cuts to the U.S. defense budget has created a lack of clarity about U.S. military plans, force structure and capability.

“There is a lot of discussion about sizing, so it's not clear” what the U.S. force will be or what missions it will be required to conduct, says Carlisle. But there is no doubt that the LRS family will be a part of the future, he adds. The bomber will have a networked, integrated electronic attack (EA) capability around it. That capability, advanced weaponry and sophisticated sensors would be carried by unmanned adjunct aircraft operating in support of the projected 80-100 LRS aircraft force.

LRS is actually expected to spend more time operating as an ISR platform and command-and-control node than as a bomber. Both missions pull on its ability to penetrate sophisticated, long-range air defenses where other platforms cannot survive. There also will be a continuing need for advanced, unmanned, ISR aircraft that can combine stealth, great speed and high-altitude flight. Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works advanced projects organization has been working for some time on new high-speed, high- altitude UAV designs.

LRS will be a reflection of the growing demand for more and better integrated ISR, says Carlisle. It still appears to be one of the few areas where expansion will continue despite predictions from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz that only 10% of the ISR projects of interest will actually become new program starts.

Industry's plan for improving ISR focuses both on high-and low-end conflicts. The low-end effort against terrorists and insurgents will involve improving sensor resolution and fields of view, adding computing power, creating advanced algorithms, fusing data and packaging those refined capabilities into snap-in, snap-out kits for use on low-cost commercial aircraft.

In the high-end conflict, manned platforms may largely disappear from the forces designed to penetrate a foe's most dangerous threat rings. Instead, unmanned, stealthy aircraft will operate as penetrating sensor and weapons-carrying adjuncts to the manned fleet. Manned aircraft would likely occupy a middle ground where they could also replicate some missions conducted by the RC-135W Rivet Joint (signals intelligence), E-3 AWACS (command and control) and E-8B Joint Stars (radar ground surveillance), although at ranges much closer to the tactical, high-threat arena.

Legacy aircraft that survive the defense drawdown—primarily late-model F-16s, earlier F/A-18s, F-15Cs and F-15Es—will be upgraded with variants of sensor packages being developed for those fleets of ISR aircraft that are already operating around the world. Fighters will take on more ISR roles so they can contribute to the larger, common picture of the battlefield.

As the U.S. Air Force—and by association, many of the world's smaller military aviation arms—become smaller and less well funded, they may actually be carrying considerably smarter payloads over the next decade.

Only two aircraft have been built for sensor fusion and as a system of systems: the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

“But we're never going to turn a legacy platform into an integrated system, simply because their avionics are federated,” which makes the cost too great, says Jim Hvizd, Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems vice president for international strategy and business development. And because of the lack of stealth, “they would have to stand off so far from the target area to survive that the upgrades wouldn't make sense.” The trick, then, is to identify key technologies that can increase sensor ranges and enable the use of standoff weapons to keep nonstealthy aircraft relevant to high-end combat.

“So we're looking at getting the value and capacity of active, electronically scanned array [AESA] technology for radars into platforms like the F-16, earlier F/A-18s and other markets like the new USAF tanker,” Hvizd says. “As that takes shape, we're continuing to evolve systems where we've integrated AESA, electronic warfare and even EO/IR [electro-optical/infrared] to make federated architectures relevant. Will they be an F-35? No, but they can operate effectively in a networked battlefield.”

More importantly, an AESA increases radar ranges 2-3 times beyond that of a conventional, mechanically scanned system. Exploitation of the data it collects also can be greatly improved.

“We're being pushed to make those systems figure out things that are important to the aircrew before they have to screen all the data,” says Hvizd. “We can process an image, a frequency response or a measurement, and do more earlier so that decisions can be made about where the information should go and what we can blend with it. As the frequency spectrum in which we operate becomes wider, our advanced work is letting us [refine] cross-cueing and electronic warfare-AESA integration. We can mix and match sensor suites and put advanced capabilities into the air.”

Another focus area for Raytheon will be hyperspectral imaging (HSI).

With insurgents operating in areas with different foliage and terrain, if signals-gathering and exploitation are integrated with HSI, the capability allows operators to understand where and how the targets are moving while their communications reveal what they are likely to do. HSI in particular has proven helpful in human-activity pattern monitoring when combined with moving-target indicator technology.

AESA radar technology in particular will be a commercial battleground. Currently, some U.S. developers contend that European and Russian AESA capabilities are a decade behind those of the U.S.

The Israelis, for example, “have something that is flyable but whether it is producible is a question,” a longtime U.S. radar specialist asserts. “Producibility is all in how much power you can get out of each module and how easily you can get consistent performance.”

Other U.S. analysts disagree. They note that the French company Selex has AESAs in service or full-scale development on three U.S. programs—Customs and Border Protection Citations and King Airs, and Coast Guard HC-130s.

Another point of criticism is that foreign systems often combine a mechanical with an electronic scan.

“It's not a computing issue as much as it is trying to [create] beam agility,” the U.S. specialist says. “It's also hydraulics and trying to move a big AESA at high speeds. [Some European developers] were moving the antennas around at 80-100 degrees per second. I don't know if you want to do that. It's a more complex algorithm. You have to decide, as that processing frame [functions], if the antenna is moving and in what direction, and electronically where the beam is within that physical movement.”

U.S. AESA radars don't move physically and are limited to a field of view of roughly 120 deg. before reduction in effective aperture becomes a problem. U.S. analysts contend that the battle will take place front of their fighters and strike aircraft. By comparison, European and Russian developers want a 360-deg. scan AESA.

“It's very much a tactics-based” decision to use a hybrid AESA, says a longtime military analyst with insight into European systems. “The idea is to get supersonic maneuvering and acceleration. You want to accelerate for maximum launch speed and range [of your weapon] and then crank [into a high-speed turn] to extend the distance the enemy's missile will have to travel while still being able to track your own missile.”