WASHINGTON — What is the future of technology for the US Air Force?
It's a question that has been turned over and over by service officials as they wrestle to balance the needs of a future fighting force with the heavy, constant tempo of current operations.
Helping to guide the service in this question is the USAF Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), an independent federal advisory committee made up of 50 scientists and researchers who every year drill down on a series of topics the service has asked them to consider.
Werner Dahm, a former chief scientist of the Air Force who currently serves as SAB chairman, described the role of his group as giving advice to the service on what technology is realistic to invest in, and what is a longer shot for down the line.
"We ring the bell when it's appropriate, but our job is not to be advocates. Our job is to paint a timeline that is rooted in ground truth," Dahm said. "Our job is to paint what that realistic timeline is. Sometimes, that says we, the Air Force, or our potential adversaries, could be fielding systems that are militarily useful much earlier than you might think. Other times … the answer comes back that it's actually quite a long ways out on the timeline."
This year's studies — focusing on quantum, unmanned and cyber issues — officially kicked off last week with a Jan. 27 event that gathered the entire SAB to lay out the way forward on three different topics. Each study will be briefed to top service officials in July, with final versions published at the end of the year.
Because the topics are requested by Air Force leadership, they provide a look at what technologies the service is currently exploring.
The first topic involves quantum systems and how they could be used by the Air Force, but Dahm warned against thinking of this just as just quantum computing.
"There is a much, much wider range of things that are within the scope of the study," Dahm said, noting that quantum systems that could help the service are rapid decryption, better electro-optical/infrared EO/IR sensors, quick encryption for communications, and precision clocks that could give measurements down to the femtosecond.
The second study is looking at cyber vulnerabilities in embedded systems on air and space platforms. While the issue of cyber vulnerabilities is a well-trod one, this study is focused on internal systems, such as internal computers for flight controls or radars that could, that may not be connected to the Internet but could still be vulnerable to cyber exploits through the supply chain or RF signals.
"There are lots of vulnerabilities," Dahm explained. The study will look at potential "silver bullet solutions that can let you address classes of problems, for example, in a cost-effective way, rather than developing a new solution for each" system.
The third study is focused on unmanned systems and how they can be enhanced to survive in contested environments. Again, this is not a new or secret problem — Air Force leadership has openly discussed this issue, and it is no surprise the service would ask the SAB to weigh in with ideas.
The study will try to drill down on what options are realistic to increase unmanned system survivability, covering everything from increasing stealth capabilities to providing cooperative interaction amongst several drones to simply reducing the cost of an unmanned system to the point where survivability doesn't matter.
"If those next generation or two were already known or locked in, the study could have much less impact," Dahm said. "It's perfectly set up right now to inform the thought process … on what should we do, what will we do?"
The keynote speaker at the event was Gen. Larry Spencer, vice chief of the service. He didn't mince words when laying out what he wants from the audience.
"We need your help to help us break through that, because we are so tied to the way we've always done it and we are so encumbered by what 'we cannot do' and 'what won't work,' " Spencer said.
And while the service has never lacked from ideas, Spencer challenged the SAB to take the next and turn interesting hypotheticals into something actionable.
"What we need help with, at least from this group, is at some point we need to leap off the paper into something we can use," he said.
Of course, tThe SAB isn't the only source of new ideas and technology. And based on comments made last week by top Pentagon officials, the fiscal 2016 budget request is putting a premium on technologies to move the various service forward.
Speaking at a Jan. 28 Center for a New American Security event, Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work said that in the upcoming budgets, his team is programming funding lines to invest "in promising new technologies and capabilities, including unmanned undersea vehicles; sea mining; high speed strike weapons; an advanced new jet engine; rail gun technology; and high energy lasers."
That same day, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told a House panel that funding for a next-generation fighter for both the Air Force and Navy will be in the fiscal 2016 budget.
At the same time as Kendall's hearing, the Senate was grilling the four service chiefs of staff about the impact of sequestration. Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, told the committee that sequestration puts the ability to develop those new technologies in peril.
"Sequestration level funding will reduce Air Force [science and technology] S&T funding by an estimated $223 [million] in FY16 and by approximately $1.08 [billion] over the [future years defense plan]," Welsh submitted in his written testimony. "This will delay or terminate approximately 100 contracts across the following technology areas: air dominance; directed energy; manufacturing; human systems; munitions; propulsion; structures; cyber; sensors; and space technologies."
That challenge was very much on the minds of the SAB members, who asked multiple questions of Spencer about how the service will balance fiscal restraint with technological development needed to keep up with competitors such as China.
"We should not, in my view, put ourselves in a position where we are reacting. We should have people reacting to us," Spencer said. "That is obviously more difficult in an environment of shrinking budgets, particularly when your budget is shrinking and your threats are certainly not going down."
"The dilemma we're having is balancing the demands of today with the demands we know are in the future, and being able to afford them both at the same time," Spencer added.
And while the SAB is a research arm for the service, even it is are operating with the budget in mind.
"More and more, relative costs are one of our drivers," Dahm said. "There are blue sky solutions that just are not going to happen because no way can we afford that. We're not a budget organization, obviously, but even more so than five or 10 years ago, we try to understand where the Air Force can get more bang for the buck."
Paul McLeary in Washington contributed to this report