WASHINGTON – As the US Air Force’s chief scientist, Dr. Greg Zacharias is in charge of making sure the service stays on the cutting edge of technology. Zacharias, most recently president and senior principal scientist of technology firm Charles River Analytics in Cambridge, Massachusetts, brings an outside perspective to the table, which he hopes will help keep the Air Force ahead of its competitors.
Zacharias spoke with Defense News recently to talk about the most promising technology breakthroughs, from lasers on fighter jets to advances in autonomous data processing.
You took over this job in June. What is your impression so far?
The surprise to me was, having been on the outside as a technology supplier in my previous life, it was nice to see that there was really acknowledgement from the leadership for science and technology and innovation. That's another thing that's in the Air Force: an agility of both people and technology and also a focus on inclusiveness. Inclusiveness of personnel, but I would say it's also moving toward inclusiveness of technology so that we're looking at non-traditional suppliers as well.
The Pentagon has a reputation outside the building of being very slow and bureaucratic compared to industry. Have you found this is the case?
I come from a small company and so I'm used to getting things done quickly and not having to deal with the bureaucracy and issues like that; so it is a little slower than I'm used to. But I'm working with the labs and with the acquisition folks to see how we can move things out more quickly and more effectively and be more exploratory. I think there's going to be some strong movements that help us get that technology out faster and into these programs that really need it. We can't afford decades of time for weapon system development.
Do you think that the current conflict in the Middle East is pushing the Pentagon to move faster in getting this technology out there?
I would say it's the future conflicts that people worry about more. I think people watched us, our successes in bringing technology to the battlespace in the last 25 years of stealth and precision weapons and all that, and I think people learned from that. I think we need to do a leapfrog and push the technology even further and not sit on our laurels.
What do you think the next big breakthrough is going to be?
There are five game-changing technologies I’m working on now: hypersonics, directed energy, remotely piloted aircraftvehicles (RPAs), nanotechnology and autonomy.
Can you draw the line between RPAs and autonomy?
Autonomy is not a particular weapon system, it's an enabler. And the RPAs would be an application. An autonomous platform doesn't have to be a vehicle platform, it could be at rest. Autonomy in motion is what you think of as the normal robotics on land or sea. But the autonomy at rest is things like decision aids. For instance, now we manually look at full-motion video streams, looking for bad guys, and certainly that could be done with machine vision systems that are evolving. The idea is just having machines look at the big data problem.
The Air Force's Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) has people on board looking at intelligence. You could do that autonomously?
Yes, that's the direction you'd like to go. Maybe you just want a moving platform with a bunch of sensors and maybe some pre-processing on board and then shift down to the ground, but the notion that you have to have all these people in the backseat of the aircraft is, I think, guaranteed to go away in the future.
What do you think the timeline is on this?
I think things are happening now. I think the next generation of RPAs will be more autonomous and less demanding of ground control units. I think satellites probably will become that way. I think things will accelerate; I think we'll look back in a few years and say this is probably around the time when things started really moving out.
What are the separate developments with RPAs?
There's certainly work in the lab going on, both in miniature vehicles and also trying to make the RPAs less vulnerable and make them more robust in more contested environments. Then people are certainly looking further out at more autonomous, higher speed, weaponized — RPAs doing a lot broader range of tasks. Right now they just focus on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR). They may take on much broader roles, such as transport functions.
Are you concerned about cybersecurity and electronic jamming?
That's the other side of the coin: We become more dependent on the sensors and the computers on board. That's one of the advantages of having a more-autonomous vehicle that needs to communicate less, so it's less vulnerable through the communications channel. On the other hand if you put all your eggs in the computer basket, then you really have to be extremely careful about building that system. And certainly the cyber work that the Air Force is doing has focused on that too, as well as maintaining the integrity of the existing systems and new ones. How do you make sure that they've been verified to behave like they're supposed to?
What do you do to keep it secure?
There are a lot of different ways. You can design in security from the beginning on these embedded systems. You can also have systems monitoring other systems. I think right now the department is trying to take a little more proactive view on this in the next generation. If we have the Internet folks thinking about it early on, I think we'd have fewer problems with network issues.
Tell me about advances in hypersonics.
The Air Force Research Laboratory has been working with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and NASA, and there's the X-51, which is the demonstrator the Air Force did two years ago. It goes over Mach 5, it's got all kinds of capabilities in terms of, obviously, you're going fast, but also being pretty hard to shoot down.
Are you still having problems with heat dissipation?
I think that's one of those things where you focus first on getting the propulsion and the thrust working and then you start worrying about all these other things like heat transfer, guidance and control, position, navigation, all the other subsidiary functions you have to have.
In the last few years, there has not been an operational demand for a Mach 3 or Mach 4 aircraft. However now if you want a longer-range weapon, whether it's a missile or a ramjet, to overcome these anti-access, aerial-denial environments you need something that's going to go fairly fast and fairly far. And since we're seeing more of those adversary environments there's now an operational demand for a hypersonic powered weapon.
The first stage would just get a weapon system. A missile, basically, but ramjet power. And then I think second would be something that is an ISR platform.
Tell me about advances in directed energy.
There's a lot of laser work and then there's the high-powered microwave work. The question now is the application area and I'd say the Air Force is looking at two areas. One is for an air-to-ground C-130 type of effort and then the other is in a pod being built for fighter applications, like defensive weapons for incoming missiles.
What are the advantages of directed energy as opposed to traditional weapons?
What you'll end up with is a really cheap exchange ratio. You have very expensive missiles coming at you and very cheap pulses of power going back out. Because again if you're going into these A2/AD environments and you've got a lot of adversaries facing you, you're going to run out of missiles. So if you can overcome that with a deep magazine, then the lasers become very attractive.
What is the latest work on nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is one of those enabling technologies that a lot of people are investing in in the world and I think we're going to see very specialized materials. We're going to see combined materials that are maybe structural and could serve as antennas and could serve as sensors, and combined materials that would make aircraft lighter and maybe more stealthy at the same time. I think there's a total revolution in materials engineering going on right now.
What is the application of this technology for the Air Force?
It's got lots of potential for the Air Force because we're always worrying about things being sufficiently lightweight, multifunctional, radiation-hardened, all this stuff that you like to have as a regular material. I think that would be a real game changer as time goes on.