Air Force Races Ahead as Scientific Field Levels Out
By Ian Graham
Emerging Media, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Sep. 16, 2010 The world is flattening because engineering capabilities are becoming more and more widely available, the Air Force’s chief scientist said this week.
That poses a significant challenge to the United States, because technologies that were once purely in the realm of top-level military research and development are now in the hands of more and more allies and potential enemies, Werner J.A. Dahm said during a Sept. 13 “DoD Live” bloggers roundtable.
“There is, I would say, greater risk as a result of that,” he said. “The number of peers and near-peers who we could potentially face over the next 20 years and beyond is certainly going to grow. The world, as we say, is flattening from a science and technology and engineering-derived-capabilities perspective.”
And the United States is not going to be able to stop the world from flattening, he added.
“That is a one-way train that is going to continue, and we recognize that, and it is irreversible,” he said. “And it's the Air Force's challenge to maintain its technological superiority in that environment.”
Dahm also discussed key findings and summarized major elements contained in the recently completed Air Force Technology Horizons effort. Technology Horizons is vision that will be used to focus Air Force Science and Technology efforts in the coming decades.
Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley announced at this year’s Air Force Association conference that the completion of Technology Horizons is one of the Air Forces’ major accomplishments this year. The project was announced publicly at last year’s conference.
“The major findings of Technology Horizons are, first of all, that the Air Force is going to have to do far broader and deeper use of autonomous systems and processes to get manpower efficiencies, which we desperately need,” Dahm said, “as well as capability increases to meet some of the challenges we face.”
The increase in use of augmentation doesn’t end at using remote-controlled or computer-controlled vehicles or weapons, Dahm said. The second major finding is that the military is going to have to conduct further research into human performance augmentation and human-machine coupling.
“To get many of the benefits of greater use of autonomous systems and processes,” he said, “we will also need to go much deeper into human-machine coupling, as opposed to human-machine interfaces -- since humans are recognized as becoming increasingly less well matched in terms of their natural capacities to the demands that technology has -- and then finally even going so far as direct augmentation of humans using technologies in some cases developed from the world of prosthetics and elsewhere.”
Dahm said the third major finding was the necessity for development of technology to allow more freedom of operations in contested areas.
“Those include quantum-interferometry approaches to provide us GPS-like capabilities for [positioning, navigation and timing], even in GPS-denied environments,” he said, “a shift from cyber defense to cyber resilience using technologies for massive virtualization, and then finally, technologies for electromagnetic spectrum dominance in the increasingly crowded and contested [electromagnetic] environment that we work in.”
The Air Force has the means to keep its position as a technology leader, Dahm said -- it’s simply going to be a different game to play in the future. While the hierarchy of technological dominance levels out, he said, the Air Force will have to work harder to stay ahead of its adversaries.
“I think our job as an Air Force, through efforts like Technology Horizons, is to in effect stay ahead of the curve in order to have a better, a clearer, a sharper understanding of where those disproportionately valuable technologies are, both on the opportunity side for the U.S. Air Force and the broader joint force, as well as on the threat side, those technologies that would be disproportionately valuable to our potential adversaries,” Dahm said.
“I think we can avoid technology surprise, or at least we can minimize the risk of it, through efforts like Technology Horizons that allow the Air Force to step back from its day-to-day narrower look at the technology landscape and really look from the 65,000-foot view over, say, a decade-long period and assess where the great opportunities and risks are, and then prepare itself to address those risks,” he added.