US Air Force promotional video "Call to Action" shows air warfare in 2030.Source:Supplied
Earlier this month, Russia outlined a vision for its future based around six new ‘superweapons’ including nuclear-powered cruise missiles and hypervelocity warheads.
Now the US Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) has had its turn.
It wants its future to be smart, disorienting — and lethal.
In a bid to inspire US academia, it has released a short promotional video “Call to Action” portraying its vision of where air combat is headed in 2030.
It’s futuristic. But it mostly incorporates concepts already in development.
They just haven’t been refined enough yet to be useful.
We see stealth fighters — with holographic artificial intelligences advising human pilots.
We see stealth drones — making sure their human-flown F-35 master remains unharmed.
We see flocks of tiny, networked drones being dropped on the battlefield.
It all makes the laser-gun armed 6th generation fighter concept seem passe.
But the Pentagon appears to finally be responding to fears its chief competitors — China and Russia — have been rapidly gaining new technological abilities.
“We can’t afford to slow down,” an AFRL appeal for ideas reads. “As our adversaries close the technology gap, we need to push the boundaries of what’s possible and invent the future. In order to defend America, we need your help to innovate smarter and faster. Our warfighters depend on us to keep the fight unfair and we will deliver.”
Here’s what it hopes will help inspire a new generation of inventors:
Unnmaned aircraft are nothing new. They first appeared in the 1930s as target drones for US and British naval anti-aircraft gunfire practice.
They’ve been slow in reaching their full potential.
This is largely because of the difficulty in communicating enough command and control information to and from them fast enough for them to be responsive.
But rapid advances in automation and computer-assisted flight has now removed much of this concern. And ever-improving artificial intelligence is enabling unpiloted aircraft to make their own critical decisions.
But, by 2030, the AFRL believes they still won’t be entirely autonomous killer robots.
They will be ‘tethered’ to a human controller.
They call it the “Loyal Wingman Initiative”
The air force clip shows an F-35 stealth fighter flying at the heart of a tight formation of six large but stealthy, delta-winged drones. These are carrying their own extensive outfits of sensors and weapons.
Their job is to protect their controller, to scout out the path ahead — and neutralise any threat.
The AFRL says it expects to have flying demonstrator drones testing this automated teamwork technique by 2022.
These large, semi-autonomous stealth drones aren’t entirely there to guide their human-controller to the primary target.
They’re also their primary weapon system.
The conceptual video shows the manned F-35 stealth fighter ‘standing off’ at a safe distance, issuing commands to its robotic companions as they scout out the terrain below.
The pilot decides what are the priority targets, and assigns the drones their missions.
One of these break off towards its designated target, using its stealth to approach a hostile missile system before unleashing a devastating missile attack from its internal weapons bay.
the AFRL is already working on such a project.
It’s called the Low Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology (LCAAT) drone.
The US Air Force clearly want to pack as much capability as possible — at a low price — into such airframes.
It wants these to be quick and cheap to manufacture. It wants lots of them. It wants them to have long range and flexible mission capabilities.
It’s a response to the exorbitant cost of existing, and future, manned combat aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning and B-21 Raider.
BEYOND HUMAN LIMITS
Human pilots are a problem.
Unlike machinery, their fleshy systems can only cope with a certain amount of stress from high g-force manouvers and low-pressure, high-altitude environment.
And keeping them conscious is proving to be an increasing problem — with mysterious cases of hypoxia (oxygen starvation) afflicting many modern US combat aircraft types.
But keeping carbon-based life forms in the combat loop appears to be a desirable goal for the AFRL.
So it offers a glimpse of a conceptual new flight suit, one capable of transmitting vital life-signs back to base in real time.
Can it then be told to administer treatments?
That’s what the AFRL hopes you can tell it.
And just to make sure its pilots are performing up to scratch, the AFRL envisages personal artificial intelligence assistance.
The video shows glimpses of a disembodied face floating above an F-35’s control console, speaking direct to the pilot.
It’s a disconcerting image.
It’s not likely to ever be real.
But the concept has substance: an electronic adviser able to sift through a tsunami of data and communicate in the stress of the moment to pilots on their own terms.
How to achieve this is the challenge facing developers.
We’ve seen them at opening and closing ceremonies, festivals and displays: swarms of tightly-co-ordinated, tiny drones.
Their ducking and weaving patterns make a spectacular impression.
This has obviously been the case for AFRL.
It wants to unleash such a spectacle over the battlefield.
the AFRL’s counterpart — the Defence Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) dubbed the concept ‘Gremlins’: co-ordinated micro-drones that can be dropped en-masse over their target from canisters carried by simple cargo planes.
These will then swarm out over the ground or sea below — undertaking whatever task is assigned them.
Seek-out and find hidden hostile troops before dropping grenades on them?
Form-up in the shape of a warship, emitting subtle electronic signals to divert enemy weapons?
Rush a heavily defended airfield in such numbers that enough small, sacrificial, drones can immobilise immensely valuable and complex craft — such as B2 Spirit bombers?
Again, all the potential applications have not yet been thought up.
And few of them have been explored.
We’ve all heard of the destructive effects of solar flares. And the fear of nuclear detonations high in the atmosphere generating electricity-grid destroying electromagnetic pulses have been around for decades.
But the AFRL is already building a cruise missile that can have such an effect on a much more targeted scale.
In the video, it shows such a weapon gliding over a power plant, systematically blacking-out a city.
Variously called the Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) or High-power Joint Electromagnetic Non-Kinetic Strike (HIJENKS), it carrys a high-powered microwave generator. It’s intended to fly over power stations and grids, setting off emergency trip-fuses and blanking out infrastructure.
This could eliminate air defences — or entire command and control networks — without casualties and with minimal infrastructure damage.
The concept has already been tested. It’s in the process of being refined and miniaturised.
At the end of the five-minute video is the AFRL’s concept for a next generation combat jet, the F-X. It’s sleek. It’s fast. It’s tailless. It’s packing a laser cannon.
It does what current laser weaponry can’t: cut an opposing aircraft in half.
Lasers are proving problematic.
They need huge amounts of energy. They must be kept spotlessly clean.
They must also be kept very stable for their laser to have its desired effect.
These are among the many technical challenges that must be overcome before existing systems can graduate from shooting down drones to knocking fighters out of the air.
The US Air Force has been working on doing just that since 2015.
And with the seemingly never-ending protracted development of the F-35 stealth fighter, the air force and navy have already turned their minds towards a replacement.
What would a sixth-generation combat jet look like?
Here, AFRL teases the notion of an aircraft that can be both manned or automated. It could fly at hypersonic speeds at extreme altitudes. It would carry a new generation of weapons.
The F-X has not yet even hit the drawing board. But the US Air Force says it wants a Next-Generation Air Dominance or Penetrating Counter Air jet active in the 2030s.
The pace of change has reached breakneck speed.
This applies to technological, social — and political — arenas.
So adaptability has become the catchcry for many of the world’s militaries.
It’s the only way to respond to such a rapidly changing, and unpredictable, future battlefield.
“Today’s research is tomorrow’s Air Force technology,” the video says. “The US Air Force is seeking the next great research idea that will yield the next great Air Force capability.”
To do this, it has asked in its 2019 budget submission for $US504 million to specifically research next-generation air dominance fighter concepts. It’s part of a $US11 billion program for research, development test and evaluation projects over the next five years.
“In order to defend America, we need your help to innovate smarter and faster,” the AFRL’s says. “Our warfighters depend on us to keep the fight unfair and we will deliver.”