Drones, lasers, hypersonic weapons will be ‘game-changers’

Air Force Research Laboratory work on key technologies in hypersonic air vehicles, directed-energy weapons and autonomy, or human-machine teaming, will be “game-changers” in a renewed Pentagon push to counter new threats around the globe, according to a top military commander.

Scientists and engineers at Wright-Patterson have developed an unarmed “cruise missile-like vehicle” that reached five times the speed of sound in tests, and have explored pairing drones with combat fighters in latest realm of technological advances, according to AFRL commander Maj. Gen. Thomas J. Masiello, who will retire next month at the agency’s headquarters at Wright-Patterson.

“I think the best way I would characterize the threats facing not just the Air Force, but our nation and our (Department of Defense) is the idea that our technological superiority is not guaranteed,” he said in a rare interview. “It’s not a birthright. Just because we’ve had it, doesn’t mean we’ll continue to have it.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who leads the so-called Defense Innovation Initiative, toured AFRL headquarters at Wright-Patterson last month to see areas of technological promise.

Rising military threats

In the midst of the technological push, the U.S. and its allies have faced recent global hot spots, including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, rising military tensions with China in the South China Sea, and potential nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran.

The United States faces increasingly “highly sophisticated” integrated air defense systems around the globe, Masiello said.

“Our edge in electronic warfare has definitely eroded over time,” the two-star general added. “It’s gotten to the point where the potential adversaries can buy commercial-off-the-shelf parts, Radio Shack kind of parts, to challenge us in the spectrum like never before.”

Cyber threats to weapon systems are “a huge concern,” he said, particularly to systems fielded in the 1970s and 1980s and still in use.

“No one had ever heard of a cyber threat,” he said. “It wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen.” AFRL is working with the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center, also headquartered at Wright-Patterson, to find ways to counter the threat, Masiello said.

AFRL commander for nearly three years, Masiello will retire in May, capping a 35-year career. The 56-year-old Youngstown, N.Y., native will relocate to join his wife, Air Force Lt. Gen. Wendy Masiello, director of the Defense Contract Management Agency headquartered at Fort Lee, Va.

The next AFRL leader, Maj. Gen. Robert D. McMurry, is vice commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.

Technology on future battlefields

Pentagon futurists envision a third-offset strategy to leapfrog U.S. technological capabilities against potential adversaries, some of whom may possess more troops and weapons in combat.

Military planners have honed in on artificial intelligence and robotics, an arsenal plane filled with airborne weapons, undersea sub-hunting drones, swarming autonomous vehicles, electromagnetic rail guns and directed-energy weapons like lasers and microwave energy, among other breakthroughs.

In the years ahead, AFRL and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will push the frontier of hypersonics in two areas: a scramjet-powered vehicle called the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept and another dubbed Tactical Boost Glide, a two-stage rocket that will glide a weapon to its target, he said.

“We expect in the next two to three years to have flight tests in both of those technology areas,” he said.

“… The first stage of bringing hypersonics to the battlefield will be in a cruise missile-like weapon, but then we’ll continue to do research to scale that up,” he said.

A reusable system could be used for reconnaissance. A full-scale hypersonic manned vehicle could join the fleet in the 2040s, Masiello said.

An AFRL project explored the frontier of hypersonic flight in recent years. The scramjet-powered X-51 Waverider, an unarmed "cruise missile-like vehicle," launched off a B-52 bomber, and reached five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5, above a Pacific Ocean test range. Related: Hypersonic jet hits over 3,300 mph, started at Wright-Patt

In autonomy, AFRL has explored pairing drones with manned fighters in a program dubbed “loyal wingman.”

“The F-16 (drone) is a candidate, but it would be way too (early) to say that the Air Force plan is to take the F-35 and pair them with F-16 drones,” he said. “We’re just not there yet.” F-16 fighter jets pulled out of manned squadrons are sometimes converted to drones for research or to act as targets in missile tests.

The former test pilot said aviators will stay in the cockpit for years, despite the rise of drones in warfare.

“For sure, I see a day where we’re going to pair manned with unmanned (aircraft) … but that’s a long way off,” he said. “There’s going to be manned, or humans in aircraft, continually for decades.”

In another “game-changer,” solid state and electric lasers could replace bulkier chemical lasers, such as one tested in a modified Air Force Boeing 747 in airborne anti-ballistic missile tests, he said.

“It was very successful, it generated a lot of power, it actually knocked missiles out of the sky,” he said. “But given all the hazardous chemicals that you need, it’s not operationally relevant to deploy throughout an Air Force force structure.”

A laser pod on a high-performance jet could be demonstrated within five years, he said.

History of the offset strategies

The U.S. military has counted on superior technology for decades to win wars against opponents with more troops and weapons.

Originally dubbed the New Look in the 1950s, the first offset relied on fielding nuclear weapons and reduced numbers of troops. But that strategy eroded as the former Soviet Union matched the United States in nuclear parity.

The second offset produced revolutionary planes and precision-guided weapons in the 1970s and 1980s, Masiello said. Stealth aircraft, Global Positioning System satellites, laser-guided bombs and command and control networks deployed in the Persian Gulf War led to victory in 1991 against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who had invaded Kuwait.

“We were unbelievably successful,” Masiello said. “But … just because we were successful then doesn’t automatically mean now, relying on those same sets of technologies, that the world hasn’t changed significantly.”

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