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WASHINGTON — Fighter jets that shoot high-powered lasers. Robots that mine hours of intelligence data in milliseconds. A tactical aircraft that can think for itself.

These are just a few of the cutting-edge technology breakthroughs the Air Force hopes will change the game in the future battle space.

This year, the Air Force is reinvesting in science and technology, requesting $2.5 billion for S&T in its fiscal 2017 budget submission. The ask is a welcome change from FY16, when sequestration cuts forced the Air Force to reduce S&T funding, a cut reflected in the service’s deferral of critical capabilities like Global Hawk and B-2 bomber upgrades.

But as Russia and China race to catch up with US technological advances like stealth and precision weapons, the US can’t afford to fall behind, Air Force Chief Scientist Greg Zacharias stressed.

“I think we need to do a leapfrog and push the technology even farther, and not sit on our laurels,” Zacharias said.

Lasers on Fighter Jets

In just five years, the Air Force will fire a high-powered laser from a fighter jet, the culmination of years of development of "Star Wars" technology.

The Air Force has not yet settled on a platform to host the laser, although the team is considering the legacy F-15, Bagnell said. AFRL will also look at the F-22 and F-16 as possible host platforms, and even the F-35 joint strike fighter, he said. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s “Shield” effort, sponsored by Air Combat Command, aims to demonstrate a high-energy laser on a tactical aircraft in 2021, according to Shield's program manager, Richard Bagnell.

The team has been working since February 2015 to take advantage of the latest developments in solid-state laser technology, Bagnell said. Engineers combine many smaller lasers, similar to ones found in a Blue Ray machine, into an effective high-power beam with over 10 kilowatts of power, he said.

“The idea here is to take power that’s in those beams, which travel at the speed of light, and be able to protect the aircraft in a threat environment,” Bagnell said, emphasizing that self-defense is the primary mission.

If contractors can package lasers into a small enough size to fit on a fighter, the Air Force could have a significant advantage in efficiency and speed of engagement, Bagnell said. The laser is generated by electrical power in the jet's engines, so operators can protect their asset without needing to carry additional kinetic weapons.

The Air Force will compete the program in several stages, Bagnell said. One contractor will develop the laser while another builds the overall laser weapons system, which involves packaging all the power, cooling and computers for system control and battle management into a flyable configuration. A third contractor will develop a beam-control system that allows the operator to direct the laser target, and a fourth will integrate the entire system.

The Air Force expects to award a beam control system in March, and the integration contract in September, Bagnell said. The contract for the laser itself has been delayed to 2017, in order to allow contractors sufficient time to develop the best possible system, he said.

But before Star Wars can become a reality, the Shield team has to overcome several significant obstacles. The Air Force has made strides toward developing a laser weapon system that can be mounted on a special forces AC-130 gunship by the end of the decade. But installing a laser on a smaller, faster fighter jet is much more difficult, Bagnell said.

First, it is much harder to accurately aim a laser at higher speeds due to increased vibration. The other challenge is miniaturizing the system enough to fit on a fighter jet, while maintaining sufficient energy output to generate an effective laser weapon.

To attack these obstacles, the Air Force is leveraging work by the other services on similar programs, Bagnell said. For example, the Army’s High Energy Laser Mobile Demonstrator (HEL MD) uses a 10 kilowatt laser installed on an Oshkosh tactical military vehicle; meanwhile, the Marine Corps is working to fit a laser on a Humvee.

Robots That Think

AFRL is also working on developing autonomous technology, in the form of not only robotic vehicles and aircraft, but also decision aids and data analyzers.

One of AFRL’s current projects is developing an intelligent system that can fuse intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) information coming from deployed assets and rapidly sort the relevant data, according to AFRL’s Kristen Kearns. Currently, airmen must watch hours of full motion video, painstakingly pick out events that might be of interest, and report red flags up the chain of command to inform leadership decisions.

An autonomous system could comb through that data rapidly, freeing up airmen for other missions, Kearns stressed.

“Instead of the airmen sitting there looking at hours and hours of data, a machine can comb through that and help at least filter out what’s the most important,” said Kearns. “It lessens workload but it also has our airmen doing the work that we want them to do as opposed to essentially watching the grass grow.”

Kearns emphasized that AFRL’s work on autonomy is not about taking the airman out of the decision loop; rather it is about providing the airman an intelligent teammate to help complete the mission more effectively. The team is also working on developing an unmanned vehicle that can team with the Air Force’s manned fighter aircraft, Kearns said.

AFRL, working with the Air Force’s test pilot school, has already demonstrated that this concept of teaming a manned with an unmanned aircraft is possible in a controlled environment. The team recently flew a manned F-16 in formation with a “surrogate” F-16 UAV — in other words, the surrogate has a pilot sitting in the cockpit to take over if something goes wrong, but the algorithms fly the plane. During this exercise, the manned and surrogate F-16s flew in formation together until the pilot in the manned plane directed the surrogate to execute a separate mission. The surrogate F-16 completed the mission and then rejoined the formation, Kearns said.

But Kearns wants to go beyond an automated fighter jet. AFRL is planning an exercise in 2022 that will demonstrate the technology is not just automated, but autonomous — that it can navigate, adapt to unexpected weather and easily change its flight path without direction from an operator.

"What we'd like to show is that the system can fly around, navigate, it can adapt to things in the environment. If weather pops up it knows how to adapt its flight path for weather," Kearns said. "We might [see these] as trivial kind of responses, but they are still critical for a platform to be able to do on its own and show that it can do them well."

Email: lseligman@defensenews.com

Twitter: @laraseligman

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