Air Force Research Lab Tries to Stay Ahead of Rivals

By Stew Magnuson
The Air Force sees a world that is catching up with it in terms of technology.

The service “is facing conditions that diverge significantly from the strategic environment of the past two decades,” the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 2014 Strategic Plan stated. “Potential adversaries are using emergent globalized technology and manufacturing infrastructure to rapidly develop sophisticated military capabilities that create more contested operational environments.”

The AFRL has a list of what it calls five “game changers” that will help maintain the Air Force’s reputation of creating cutting edge technologies. They are: autonomy, hypersonics, unmanned systems, nanotechnology and directed energy.

Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force Material Command, when asked to list her top research and development priorities at a recent trade show, said: “Autonomy, directed energy and hypersonics because I believe that all three of those can get us to that strategic agility. Those three are critically important.”

Autonomy can take many forms.

Pawlikowski during a speech at the 2015 Air Force Association conference highlighted small drones that can independently swarm at a target and serve as substitutes for expensive munitions.

When launching a missile from an aircraft, the weapon is on its own before reaching the target, she noted.

“When we separate the weapon from the aircraft, we separate the weapon from the human,” she said. A swarm of small unmanned aerial vehicles carrying small munitions can be launched at a target. The dispersed swarm would not only be harder to defeat, a controller could continue to communicate with the horde as it approaches, thus keeping a human in the loop for a longer period, she noted.

Autonomy remains key here. One airman must be able to control the whole swarm.

“We can’t have swarms of airmen because it won’t be cost effective,” she said.

“We believe it can be very much a game-changing reality for our Air Force in the future,” Pawlikowski added.

Unmanned aerial systems have now been an integral part of the Air Force for more than a decade. But research-and-development opportunities abound as the service seeks to improve its capabilities and look to anti-access scenarios where they are hard to protect.

Col. Joel Luker, acting director of the aerospace systems directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said, “Our long-term goal is to make unmanned systems an option for the broadest set of Air Force missions and to open up new operational modes that leverage [their] unique value.”

Making drones more affordable through new manufacturing processes and inserting less expensive components is another goal, he said.

Work continues on man-machine interfaces, new power and propulsion technologies, and making them smaller, he said.

AFRL recently released a broad agency announcement for a “low-cost attritable aircraft technology demonstrator.” The goal is to develop a mid-scale unmanned system that can “cost-affordably” operate in contested airspace, Luker said. “It will execute its mission and return if able; however, if it were to get shot down in contested airspace it’s an ‘affordable’ loss — meaning it costs more for the other guy to shoot it down than it cost us to build.”

The A2/AD environment will challenge communications and threaten remotely piloted aircraft, he said. This has shaped the AFRL research priorities identified above. On-board mission autonomy will enable the unmanned aircraft to operate when communications are intermittent or lost, he added. 

Another means to defeat robust air defenses is through speed.

Hypersonics, defined as speeds of more than Mach 5, addresses that need.

William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions, quipped at the conference that “hypersonics has been the weapon of the future for 50 years.”

Despite the slow pace of development, he said the technology may have had a breakthrough with the X-51 Waverider program. In May 2013, the Air Force and Boeing launched a scramjet that reached Mach 5.1 and lasted for 240 seconds.

“I’ve seen the argument built for hypersonics that it closes the kill chain fast. I’ve always had trouble with that one,” he said. “I think the argument is actually about survivability, ... the ability to penetrate defenses,” LaPlante said.

While hypersonics has most closely been associated with the prompt global strike concept, where conventional munitions are delivered anywhere on Earth within minutes, LaPlante sees utility in anti-access/area denied scenarios where potential enemies have thrown up robust air defenses. Some have proposed using hypersonic vehicles as reconnaissance platforms.
However, “speed does kill, make no mistake,” he added.

Luker said: “Some have referred to the X-51 Waverider success as a ‘Chuck Yeager’ moment, comparing it to the first time he broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1. Technologically, it was a huge first step. It proved the viability of scramjet propulsion and confirmed our design tools,” he said.

In the past two years, China has conducted a number of tests on the technology giving rise to the belief that there is a “hypersonics arms race.”

While the Air Force doesn’t have any high-profile hypersonic launches planned in the near future, that doesn’t mean work isn’t ongoing. The Air Force alone has $100 million to spend over the next five years on the technology, Luker said. The Waverider breakthrough is pushing the Air Force to make progress more than any perceived rivalry with China, he added.

“There is still quite a bit of work to do to mature the technology until we can transition it to an operational system,” he said.

There are two ongoing programs with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency underway. They are conducting component-level experiments “to burn down the risk prior to a series of major flight tests,” he said. “The component-level experiments are necessary because we’ve taken several major technological steps past where we were with the X-51. This pace allows us to better manage risk in developing and demonstrating hypersonic technology.”

Speed is also a factor as the Air Force looks into directed energy. Its directorate’s motto at the laboratory is to: “Bring the speed of light to the fight.”

The field is broken down into two categories: laser weapon systems and high-powered electromagnetics. Like hypersonics, it too is a field that has been talked about for a number of decades, with only a few experiments coming to fruition.

It can “enable Air Force operations in a possible future battlespace involving a technologically advanced adversary with the ability to prevent access or deny our ability to operate in a given area,” said Kelly Hammett, chief engineer of AFRL’s directed energy directorate, which is based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. He too believes that breakthroughs are coming.

“Advances in solid-state lasers; optics; beam control; acquisition, pointing and tracking; power sources and thermal management indicate a clear possibility of effective airborne directed energy systems in the near future,” he said.

“Recent developments in solid-state and fiber lasers, designed primarily for tactical engagement, feature lower power requirements and more compact systems suitable for deployable platforms.” Reducing size, weight and power continue to be a primary focus for researchers.

One program is the self-protect high-energy laser demonstrator (SHiELD), a two-phased effort to show the ability of a laser system mounted on aircraft. The program will develop and integrate a moderate power laser in a fighter-compatible pod.

In the first phase, the flight demonstration is expected to prove that targets can be tracked at sufficient range and quickly enough to subsequently engage with a laser. In the next phase, the directorate will incorporate a moderate powered laser to assess its performance in an operationally relevant environment. Flight tests should occur in the fiscal year 2020 timeframe, Hammett said.

While the Air Force continues to develop bombers, fighters, spacecraft and hypersonic vehicles, some of the most important breakthroughs may happen at the molecular level. Nanotechnology was chosen as one of the service’s five game changers because it touches on almost everything the service does, said Timothy J. Bunning, chief scientist for AFRL’s materials and manufacturing directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

Nanotechnology is defined as controlling material from the one to 100 nanometer range. It is a relatively new field for the military, which is on the cusp of entering a new phase, Bunning said in an interview.

The first phase from about 1990 to 2005 focused on simply discovering the possibilities of what manipulating material of this size can do. During that time, the private sector investment in the field began to dwarf what the military was funding. The second phase focused on “harvesting” some of the commercial research and swapping out better performing nanomaterials for technology already in use.

“It’s still a little bit of the wild wild West when it comes to procuring nanomaterial,” Bunning said. So phase three will require more stringent reliability assessments and standards and key in on reproducible processing and manufacturing.

This will lead to nanomaterials that engineers integrate into new systems from the ground up, he said.

One example is using a virus to create better explosives — a melding of biological sciences and energetics.

The virus acts to more efficiently bind the fuel molecules and the oxidant. That makes the explosive material more compact, allowing for a bomb that has a “bigger boom,” he said, or perhaps packing the same amount of material into smaller munitions.

Nanotechnology is also being used to reduce the need for high-end infrared sensors to be cooled, he said. This is carried out “by controlling the layer-by-layer composition of semi-conductor materials,” he said. If that can be achieved, there will be a “tremendous upside” to reducing or eliminating the need to cool sensors. They will have a sharply reduced footprint, a better signal-to-noise ratio and will result in huge logistics savings, he said.

Across the Air Force there is no singular nanotechnology program. “It’s sort of embedded in everything that we do,” Bunning said.

Topics: Armaments, Robotics, Science and Engineering Technology, Test and Evaluation

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