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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.