While many military agencies now are focusing on the next combat
operation in Afghanistan, the Philippines or perhaps Iraq, the Air
Force Office of Scientific Research is working to develop technologies
to fight wars decades from now.
“The lesson that I have learned is that you better keep moving,”
Lyle H. Schwartz, the office’s director, said in a recent
interview. “The reason that we have better technology than
our current enemies is that we invested 20 or 30 years back. I want
the United States to have the technological edge in the next fight.”
Schwartz’s office, known as AFOSR, is one of 10 directorates
within the Air Force Research Laboratory. Its mission is to manage
the service’s basic research program. The office—headquartered
in Arlington, Va.—includes a staff of more than 150 scientists,
engineers and support personnel.
AFOSR doesn’t conduct research, he said. It invests in research
in scientific areas that are relevant to the Air Force.
It then passes the fruits of that work to industry, which makes
aircraft and other equipment for the service; to the academic community,
which can use it to conduct further studies, and to other directorates
of the AFRL, which are conducting their own projects.
The actual research is performed by teams of scientists in universities,
industry and other parts of the AFRL. With an annual budget of about
$200 million, the AFOSR provides approximately 1,200 grants and
contracts at more than 300 academic institutions,145 corporations
and 150 projects within the AFRL.
The office also funds research programs by other Defense Department
organizations, including the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency
and the Missile Defense Agency. Eighty percent of the work is performed
by academia and industry.
The AFOSR funds undergraduate and graduate student research, fellowships
for graduate students and postdoctoral assignments at Air Force
laboratories, Schwartz said. Also, he noted, university faculty
members are sponsored in summer programs, as well as for sabbaticals,
at the service’s laboratories.
In addition, as part of this program, Air Force researchers visit
and work at laboratories in the United States and overseas. The
AFOSR works with the international community through its offices
in London and Tokyo.
“An important part of our role is to reach out to the scientific
community outside of the Air Force,” Schwartz said.
The AFOSR celebrated its 50th anniversary in April. Over the years,
AFOSR-sponsored research has won 43 Nobel Prizes. The office supported
development of laser technology, the computer mouse, precision-guided
munitions and stealthy aircraft, Schwartz said.
The office recently identified six basic research themes, which
Schwartz said offer “vast potential” for the Air Force.
About 20 percent of the office’s basic research funding, has
been set aside for work related to the themes, which include:
Biologically inspired concepts. “Animals do some pretty
interesting things that could be important to the Air Force,”
Schwartz said. “Snakes, for example, are capable of detecting
infrared at room temperatures. If we could do that, it might help
us do a better job at pinpointing targets. We don’t necessarily
want to use the biology itself, we just want to understand how nature
The field of study is called biomimetics, meaning literally to
imitate life, Schwartz said. AFOSR-sponsored scientists also are
studying how fish and jellyfish generate their own light to indicate
toxicity, to deceive predators and to help in the mating process.
Other biomimetics research is focusing on biological triggers—those
molecules responsible for an organism’s initial electromagnetic
stimulus detection reaction. Scientists are trying to find ways
to use those triggers in synthetic optical detection systems.
Cooperative control. AFOSR wants to develop the ability
of unmanned platforms to interact with each other in combat, “flying
in formation, like a swarm of bees,” Schwartz said. “It’s
a wonderful concept, but it’s extremely difficult to do.”
Key research topics in this area include adaptive decision making,
optimization and real-time path planning, man-machine interaction,
autonomy for remotely operated vehicles and understanding biologically-inspired
concepts for new sensing and actuation applications for guidance
Plasma dynamics. The Air Force wants to learn more about
how to use plasmas—high-temperature, ionized gases—to
control subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic aircraft speeds. The
objective is to develop scientific bases for how plasmas can improve
aerodynamic characteristics and the efficiency of propulsion, Schwartz
Research focuses on understanding the physics associated with the
plasmas used to control subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic flows.
Scientists are conducting demonstrations to prove plasma-control
effects and to determine how to engineer them into operational systems.
“We’ve spent an enormous amount of money in this field,
but we really don’t understand the technology yet,”
Schwartz noted. In the mid-1990s, he said, “some new ideas
surfaced at laboratories in Russia,” and the Air Force is
funding research there.
Miniaturized science for space. The service wants to launch
much lighter, more compact, highly-capable micro-satellites and
nanosatellites. “It costs an enormous amount to put things
into space,” Schwartz said. “If we could reduce the
weight of a satellite by a factor of 10, we could put up 10 times
as many. I saw one at the Air Force Academy that was about one foot
cubed and weighed about 50 pounds.”
Enabling technologies include nanopropulsion, smart skins, organic
memory cells, radiation-hardened quantum-effect electronics, nanotribology,
microelectromechanical and nanoelectromechanical systems, or MEMS/NEMS,
Quantum computing. This new way of processing information
by harnessing the physical phenomena unique to quantum mechanics
“opens up a whole new way of doing computations,” Schwartz
said. “Code makers care a great deal about that.” Quantum
computing is being used to improve cryptography, computer searching,
very rapid mathematical computations and simulations of quantum-mechanical
systems, Schwartz noted.
The AFSOR’s objective, he explained, is to explore the physical
implementations of quantum computing, compatible algorithms and
architectures, and to simulate complex physical systems that cannot
be solved strictly by classical means.
Materials engineering for affordable new systems. “A
lot of advances in materials have been pretty empirical,”
based on observation or experimentation, Schwartz said. To speed
things up and reduce costs, the Air Force wants to increase the
use of modeling and simulation and to emphasize parallel, rather
than serial, design of components, he said.
The AFOSR objective is to create the scientific basis for materials
development, using physics-based modeling, computational design
tools and selective experimentation.
These long-term projects are not likely to have an immediate impact,
for example, in the war on terrorism, Schwartz said. “After
September, we did some introspection and tried to improve our understanding
of our role in national defense,” he said. “Usually,
we focus on a broad array of technology that takes a long time to
“Occasionally, somebody sends us a query or request that
suggests a new line of research,” Schwartz said. Sometimes,
he explained, that research provides the Air Force with revolutionary
leaps, rather than evolutionary steps forward. The AFOSR’s
role is to “act as a friendly broker to bring that query together
with a researcher,” Schwartz said.
The problem, he added, is that AFOSR resources are down almost
40 percent in purchasing power since the 1980s. They dropped rather
rapidly in the 1990s, he said.
Meanwhile, “scientific productivity is increasing almost
exponentially,” he said. “There are more and more ideas
out there all the time, but not more money.”