US airmen at Osan Air Base, South Korea, build bombs. The Air Force Research Lab is examining the possibility of modular weapons to save money. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The US Air Force’s inventory has a vast number of weapons systems developed and purchased through dozens of programs. Maintaining that disparate arsenal is costly, and in a time of budget cuts, increasingly important.
Luckily, the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) believes it has a solution in its flexible weapons program.
“If you look at open literature on the weapons systems we have, and you put them together on a single piece of paper, you’ll see that a lot of the weapons look alike,” said Leo Rose, program manager for flexible weapons with AFRL. “They’ll have a tail end that may be different, or a front end which may be different, but for the most part the bomb kind of looks the same. And that’s a very inefficient way for the Air Force to do business, in my opinion.”
The key to Rose’s project is making sure technology can automatically sync up when added to the core of the weapon. He compares it to building a personal computer, where anyone can pull out a processor and install a brand new one in without a hitch.
“One of the things we want to show is that you can develop an open architecture common interface such as component A and component B inside the weapon can be connected and self realize,” Rose said. “So if I have an EO/IR [electro-optical/infrared] seeker and I plug it into the weapon, then the control module says ‘Oh, you’re an EO/IR sensor, I’m going to function in this fashion.’ [Then later] I take that off and put an RF seeker in, and the control module says ‘you’re now an RF seeker, so I have to fly this way.’”
Flexible weapons could eliminate the technology gap that exists between when a weapon is developed and when it can be integrated onto a platform.
“We have made it so that our warfighter gets technology several years later than he should get it, and that’s wrong,” Rose said. “If we’ve done the risk reduction, if we’ve improved capability in some fashion, we should be able to put that in his bag of tricks today. So part of what flex weapons are going to try to do is look at how we can make technology refresh more economical.”
Cutting the number of weapons purchased and maintained should also result in lower USAF costs overall, and as an added benefit, Rose believes his program could have a “powerful” effect on industry.
Companies spend millions developing new weapons technologies, with the winner reaping the benefits and the losers looking at sunk costs. With flexible weapons, the service would not have to decide on a single winner.
“If I had this open architecture already defined, then I don’t have to choose between company A and company B’s seeker. I can buy a mixture,” he said, allowing that second company to recoup some or all of its expenses.
The technology would certainly be popular outside the laboratory — if it can be proven to work.
“If you were starting now you wouldn’t have that huge long list of weapons that come from different requirements, with different manufacturers, and different services paying for them,” said Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Research.
Grant, who served as a special assistant to the Air Force chief of staff, believes new technologies should allow more commonality across the weapons in the future. But she warned that weapons are a “chronically underfunded area” even in the best of budget environments.
That is a concern Rose shares. “The most difficult thing for me as a program manager is the funding uncertainty,” he said, adding that sequestration-imposed furloughs are also causing delays to research programs.
Even with continuous funding, don’t expect to see flexible weapons in the field anytime soon. AFRL plans on major tests in fiscal 2017. But eventually, Rose says, he hopes to see “everything we have in inventory” replaced with a flexible weapon.
“If we prove that this is a smart business case and we can do technology refresh rate when technology is ready as opposed to when I can afford to do [it], I just think it makes a lot of sense of the Air Force,” he said.