20 Technologies That Will Keep the U.S. Air Force Flying High

"The Air Force Future Operating Concept envisions a far different kind of future warfare in the air, out in space, and within cyberspace."

A common refrain in the halls of the Pentagon as the defense drawdown continues in its fifth year is that the Defense Department has run out of money, and now it’s time to think. Recently, the services have done just that—with the latest being the U.S. Air Force’s release of a future operating concept.

Set in 2035, Air Force pilots are flying afterburning “D” model Joint Strike Fighters alongside drone bombers and a fleet of stealthy unmanned aerial refuelers. In this conflict of the future, manned cargo planes lead packs of cargo drones and new hybrid airships for low-cost shipping to low-threat areas.

Space control—or at least denial of enemy space dominance—is achieved through maneuvering satellites like the secretive X-37B, decoy spacecraft, and the rapid launch of microsatellites from fighter or other aircraft to preserve communications or set up a new, localized network. Uninhabited “missile trucks” have replaced the A-10 and F-35 in the close-air support mission based on an attack variant of the forthcoming T-X trainer.

While there is much more to the Air Force’s new operating concept than sexy technologies, the focus of the vision is to change how they are employed by cross-domain trained, highly-competent and technical airmen.

The Air Force Future Operating Concept envisions a far different kind of future warfare in the air, out in space, and within cyberspace. Though the concept explains new ways of thinking about personnel, its most striking feature is its wholesale change in Air Force acquisition priorities. Instead of purchasing exquisite aircraft and using cheap payloads, the Air Force plans to invert the relationship and acquire a balanced high-low mix of capabilities.

The concept contains dozens of technologies that the Air Force wants to buy, the most prominent of which are featured below as if submitted by the Air Force in a forthcoming budget request, complete with planned operational dates. Another striking feature is that most of these technologies are already in development by the Air Force, DARPA, or another U.S. military service. With the exception of reliable hypersonic weapons, the Air Force could conceivably acquire most of these new systems by the early- to mid-2020s.

Given the smart and innovative ideas within the Air Force’s new operating concept, we hope they do just that.


President’s Budget (or PB), Fiscal Year 2020

United States Air Force Budget Submission for Fiscal Years Defense Program 2020-2025


Airborne launch assist space access (ALASA); PB20

ALASA is a current DARPA program in development on the F-15 aircraft that straps a mini launch rocket with its payload to the fighter jet. Because the air near Earth is so much denser, a fighter jet can fly to high altitude and launch a smaller rocket capable of completing the trip to space and deploying microsatellites. In the future, the Air Force views the afterburning F-35D as a candidate to rapidly launch microsatellite clusters into orbit to provide resiliency and modularity to the military satellite constellation.

Space control capability suite (SCCS); PB22

The Air Force desires a set of kinetic and nonkinetic options to contribute to the space control mission. Though some options might involve air-launched kinetic kill vehicles or space-based “repair” satellites, most options will involve nonkinetic space-based electronic warfare or directed-energy platforms cued by space-based space surveillance (SBSS) satellites.

X-37B Follow-on; PB20

Since 2011, a joint Boeing/Air Force/DARPA X-37B space plane has spent years slightly below low earth orbit. The X-37B is a reusable mini-Space Shuttle with a payload bay about the size of a car. A follow-on program would carry advanced satellite maintenance and space-based awareness capabilities, and might even contribute to the SCCS mentioned above.


F-35D Lightning II Interceptor; PB22

The F-35D model, presumably a derivative of the conventional Air Force F-35A. The service also envisions this model as being optionally manned and capable of advanced command and control for other uninhabited systems including the optionally manned LRS-B, uninhabited cargo and aerial refueler, and unmanned missile trucks. The Air Force is already exploring an up-engined variant of the F-35 in its ADVENT (adaptive versatile engine technology) program.

Uninhabited cargo and refueling tanker (UCART); PB20

The UCART is an optionally manned family of systems primarily composed of a low-observable long-range aerial refueling tanker and a long-endurance modular cargo aircraft—and some versions of each. The stealthy tanker might credibly be based on the Navy’s X-47B, which has already completed aerial refueling missions. The unmanned cargo craft might look something like Lockheed’s proposed Hybrid Wing Body airlifter.

U-2 Follow-on; PB18