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
The U-2 successor program envisions a low-observable, high-altitude ISR aircraft capable of collecting multiple forms of intelligence in denied and high-threat areas as a counterpart to the RQ-4 Global Hawk and its unmanned tactical counterparts. In concert with DARPA, Lockheed has already been conducting initial research on both an exquisite SR-72 hypersonic ISR aircraft and a lower-cost uninhabited U-2 follow-on.
MMLR Flying Missile Truck (Multi-mission long-range aircraft); PB20
Capable of autonomous and semiautonomous operation, the MMLR is a low-cost aircraft meant to ferry weapons into the battlespace to expand the usable payload of the F-35.
EHALE Battlefield Awareness Node; PB20
The Air Force plans to develop a high-atmospheric long-endurance aircraft, likely uninhabited, to backstop the satellite communications network and line-of-sight communications. Such an aircraft, perhaps modeled on the liquid hydrogen-fueled Boeing Phantom Eye, would remain at high altitude for as long as two weeks to provide a core communications suite to the Air Force’s redundant Joint Aerial Layer Network vision.
Expendable autonomous cargo vehicle (EAV) PB20, (28)
The Air Force needs a low-cost, expendable, autonomous cargo drone to carry out resupply in contested airspace. Though the 3-ton payload Lockheed/Kaman K-MAX autonomous cargo helicopter is too high-end, the U.S. Marine Corps has operationally demonstrated the concept’s reliability in Afghanistan since 2011. Yet something like the SOCOM/MMIST CQ-10A/B Snowgoose costs less than $1m and is capable of carrying 600 pounds of cargo 200 kilometers.
Heavy-haul hybrid airship (HHHA); PB18 (28)
To complement swarming cargo drones in contested airspace, the Air Force is looking for a hybrid airship to carry heavy lows at low cost in permissive airspace, freeing the fixed-wing Air Mobility Command fleet for time-sensitive, higher-threat missions. Such a program could easily modify commercial, off-the-shelf options such as Lockheed’s LMH-1 airship, which can carry 20 tons of cargo over 2600 kilometers.
Long-range strike bomber; PB18
Though already well along in its development, the long-range strike bomber features prominently in several future Air Force missions. Stealthy, optionally manned, and capable of launching kinetic and electronic payloads, the LRS-B is a critical component of holding defended enemy assets at risk. While the current program calls for 80-100 aircraft, the Air Force’s embrace of the LRS-B in the Future Operating Concept supports analyses showing that the Air Force needs more like 170 aircraft.
MALD-J Family of Systems Follow-on; PB18
The MALD-J (miniature air-launched decoy jammer) is a Raytheon small air-launched cruise missile currently in production, primarily used to spoof friendly aircraft signatures and jam adversary radars. Expansion of the program would see new low-cost variants or a modular platform (currently in testing by Raytheon) capable of carrying an electromagnetic payload, sensor payload, decoy payload, or basic munitions.
Hypersonic air-launched weapon kit (HAWK); PB22
The Air Force desires an air-launched hypersonic weapon capable of employment from several platforms including fighters, bombers, and possibly the MMLR missile truck and high-altitude platforms. While the employment on the F-35 or F-22 would require specialized construction, a common launching kit could be employed on nonstealthy aircraft to maximize the numbers of airborne weapons available given the reduced relevance of distance. The Air Force and DARPA have a number of programs pursuing hypersonic vehicles such as the Raytheon Tactical Boost-Glide vehicle slated for flight demonstration prior to 2020, the follow-on to the Boeing X-51 Waverider scramjet-powered vehicle, and the Lockheed High Speed Strike Weapon, slated for 2018 flight testing.
CHARM (Cyber HARM); PB20
Beyond the concept of the Navy AGM-88E AARGM (Advanced anti-radiation guided missile) and the Air Force CHAMP (Counterelectronic, high-powered microwave advanced missile project), the Air Force looks to employ a loitering, platform-neutral cyberweapon capable of insertion through network operations, directed-energy weapons, cruise missiles, or within other munitions.
Avenger airborne aircraft carrier; PB20
The AAAC envisions the refitting of current and future Air Force cargo aircraft with the capability to drop or launch a full range of nonlethal payloads. Like the WC-130J, this program will allow cargo aircraft to carry everything from mid-sized UAVs to the MALD-J Family of Systems. DARPA already operates the Gremlins program for initial research in this area.
Airborne anti-cruise missile laser; PB22
Building on the current Air Force Research Laboratory HEL (High-energy laser) program, the ACML and several derivative programs aim to test a 50-100kW self-defense laser by 2022.
Autonomous manned-unmanned teaming (AUTO-MUT); PB20
Underpinning the bevy of autonomous aircraft and munitions envisioned by the Air Force, F-35 and LRS-B pilots must be able to control several aircraft at once. Building on the flight control systems of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, Navy experience with the X-47B and swarming Common Unmanned Surface Vehicle, and Army experience with Apache/Grey Eagle teaming, the Air Force should be able to developed advanced command-and-control systems for the next generation of pilots.
Automated sensor advanced processing (ASAP); PB22 (23)
To provide for more accurate ISR provision and resilience against satellite communications jamming, the Air Force desires integration of advancing processing algorithms onto its airborne collection platforms like the RQ-4, MQ-9, U-2, F-35, JSTARS, and AWACS aircraft. Already employed stateside for pre-analyst processing, advanced algorithms would be introduced to existing and future aircraft in software upgrades and processing power improvements.
Common 3D printer operations (C-3PO); PB20
To support austere expeditionary airbases and air resupply of forward-deployed Special Operations Forces, the Air Force plans to acquire a common, air-droppable 3D printer and supporting network for secure engineering design delivery. The U.S. military has already conducted a great deal of operational research with additive manufacturing at fixed sites and has even deployed 3D printers on amphibious warships.
Autonomous loading/unloading program (ALUP); PB22
To enable rapid loading/unloading of cargo aircraft, particularly on time-sensitive missions, in contested airspace, or at austere expeditionary airbases, the Air Force desires an automated cargo movement system. Large, dedicated cargo robots are scheduled to go online at Yokota Air Base soon and nearly triple storage capacity and cut moving time from 4.5 hours to 1 hour with fewer personnel. The challenge for the Air Force will be miniaturizing these machines and providing enough power for operations in austere conditions.
Combat information cloud; PB20
The underappreciated product of the F-35’s sensor fusion systems, the combat information cloud aims to give all U.S. military personnel in the combat zone the right information at the right time. But the combat cloud is far more than just the F-35, even though that’s the largest part. It involves joint networking, making each warfighter both participant and consumer of the ISR mission. The combat cloud—a constantly evolving endeavor—will eventually give commanders at all levels unprecedented amounts of tailored information to aid decisionmaking.
Mackenzie Eaglen is a resident fellow in the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where she works on defense issues. Rick Berger is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.