Air University Review, November-December 1976
…. it is now man with nature, coexisting symbionicly on this little island we call "Spaceship Earth."
Where the Air Force ought to be going
Colonel James E. Strub
The research paths we choose now will have a direct bearing on how strong the Air Force is in the future, particularly in the period from 1985 to 1995. Such a cause-and-effect relationship is well known. What is not well known is what those research paths should be, and as time goes on the requisite decisions become more and more difficult to make. Each year there seem to be twice as many candidate projects as before, and each year we seem to have fewer real dollars to spend on research. There is also that old circular question of whether new requirements call for new avenues of research or whether the successes of research foster new requirements. Thus, in addition to considering a burgeoning of possible avenues and a gradual cut in spending power, we must also ask questions such as "Does each project have to support a formally validated system requirement?" or "Do we pursue a project because it shows great promise for some important or novel application, even though there is as yet no validated system requirement?"
These are questions that are not always answerable. But a visionary researcher could make a pronouncement such as the following:
The next ten years should be a period of systematic, vigorous development, devoted to the realization of the potentialities of scientific progress, with the following principal goals: supersonic flight, pilotless aircraft, all-weather flying, perfected navigation and communication, remote-controlled and automatic fighter and bomber forces, and aerial transportation of entire armies.1
This would be a balanced program in that it calls for realizing "the potentialities of scientific progress," which is the research-fosters requirements side of our stated circular question but with specified "goals," which is the requirements-calls-for-research side. And what are these goals? The statement says supersonic flight," which could mean Mach 4, ramjets, heat sinks, etc. It says "pilotless aircraft," which could mean cruise missiles, drones, remotely piloted vehicles (RPV). It says "all-weather flying," which could mean all-weather tactical operations in any combat theater. It says "perfected navigation and communication," which could mean the NAVSTAR Global Positioning System, jam-resistant data links, and a host of satellite-borne communications relays. It says "remote-controlled and automatic fighter and bomber forces," and that could mean a new class of highly sophisticated RPV's with advanced capabilities for communications warfare and with flight regimes from low-level terrain following right on up to ballistic missile trajectories. And, finally, it says "aerial transportation of entire armies," which could refer to the upgraded C-5, the stretch C-141, the Advanced Tanker Cargo Aircraft, and the Advanced Medium STOL Transport. All told, this is a fairly representative list of the broad goals we would like to achieve during the next ten to twenty years.
Yet, surprisingly enough, the quoted statement is more than thirty years old! It was written by Dr. Theodor von Kármán in his letter2 that transmitted the report "Toward New Horizons" to Chief of Staff General H. H. "Hap" Arnold in December 1945. When von Kármán specified a goal of "supersonic flight," he meant any aircraft that could cruise appreciably above Mach 1. When he spoke of "all-weather flying," he was referring to instrumented navigation and landing systems and weather-avoidance systems. When he said "automatic bomber forces," he was thinking of the German buzz bombs of World War II, and so on. But the goals he spoke of, i.e., the words he used, are almost the same words we use to describe our goals now. And that is an interesting point--our broadly stated goals do not change very fast; only the details change.
evolution and breakthroughs
The process of aerospace research is largely evolutionary, with only an occasional discontinuity or breakthrough. But such breakthroughs can change the world, so we tend to nurture anything that appears to have that potential. In making our research choices, we look for opportunities--projects budding now in the backrooms--that seem to offer the most promise for significant change in the 1980s or beyond, regardless of what the exact application might be. For example, we are aware now of an opportunity for producing structural plastics from agricultural products rather than from petrochemicals, thus taking advantage of resources that are renewable rather than using up those that are exhaustible.3 In a similar vein, we are aware of an opportunity for producing structural plastics that are self-reinforced from molecular orientation rather than being fiber reinforced, thus saving on both cost and weight.4 We are becoming aware of the advantages of using fiber optic circuits instead of or in conjunction with electrical circuits. 5 We are also becoming aware of the possibility of exotic new fuels, such as metallic hydrogen,6 and so on. Any one of these budding technologies could bloom and change the world.
Meanwhile, there are some cases in which given requirements do clearly call for new avenues of research or, for that matter, demand substantial jumps in state-of-the-art capability. A good example is the concerted effort now to achieve the break-even point in controlled fusion electric power. Another is the problem of responding to what our competition is doing. What must we cope with? What are the threats, whether in the military sense or in the competitive market sense or to national pride? From these threats, someone will inevitably derive requirements, and then the research and development (R&D) process will be expected to react accordingly. A celebrated example of this phenomenon is the crash program in a "have-not" nation to become a "have" nation in the world of nuclear detonation.
Whatever the crash requirements of 1976 or whatever the budding opportunities of 1976, the course of our research must also be appropriate to the resources available in 1976. For some years now there has been a growing concern over the ever increasing rate at which we use our natural resources, particularly those which are not, in a practical sense, replenishable. In 1972 we had the Club of Rome report on "Limits to Growth."7 In 1973 we had the long-expected energy crisis. In 1974 Dr. Robert C. Seamans told a US News & World Report interviewer,
We are in a new era today. In the past, with America's superabundance of resources, we didn't have to be so careful. Today, many resources in this country are scarce.8
In 1975, a group of 400 scientists, scholars, businessmen, and political leaders meeting in Houston agreed that it is a gloomy world, indeed, wherein seemingly unrelated problems such as the energy crisis, famine in underdeveloped nations, financial breakdown in New York City, drug use among the young--all are portents of unprecedented dangers in the next 25 to 100 years, in the industrial and nonindustrial societies alike.9 The message here is that there are very real limitations to land, water, energy, fertilizer, etc.; that science, industry, and government are not keeping up, most probably cannot keep up, with the public's expectations of overcoming such limitations through application of new technology; and that civilization as we know it will suffer sudden and catastrophic breakdown before our Tricentennial unless total material consumption is reduced.
What does all this have to do with Air Force research objectives? It simply means that as time goes on we should give increasing attention to avenues of research that lead to products amenable to a world of scarcity, at least until breakthroughs in energy and materials research do occur. This view of the future represents a significant departure from the potential world of plenty in which von Kármán found himself at the end of World War II.
Along this same line of thought is the matter of funding. The research budget climate may be getting better this year, but over the last several years research funds have been gradually dropping in terms of both absolute dollars and of real buying power. "Research funds" here are taken to mean the spending for Program 6.1, the seed of all development that follows. In the Air Force, this funding as a percentage of all research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) has steadily dropped from 3.0% in Fiscal Year 1971 to 2.3% in FY 1976,10 a downward change of 23% in just five years. With recent favorable comments on research from President Ford11 and favorable support of the Defense budget by the Congress, we may see some easing of the decline in funding for research; but any improvement will probably be relatively small in the foreseeable future.
shared and joint programs
Potential limitations on natural resources, stringent limitations on funding--these are significant factors in the 1976 world from which we view our research horizons. There is also a third factor: the realization that we are not alone. Our research horizons are inextricably interwoven with those of NASA, ERDA, ARPA, the Navy, the Army, the aerospace industry, universities, and foreign governments, including the Soviet Union. Thus, in the constant reappraisals of our own horizons, we must be as aware as possible of the horizons in focus elsewhere. We do so not only to conserve resources but also to avoid duplication and to take fullest possible advantage of what others are doing. Accordingly, it becomes increasingly important to combine forces, either in outright joint ventures under joint management as in the case of the NASA/USAF program in Highly Maneuverable Aircraft Technology, or by explicit agreements in which each party has assigned responsibilities as in the case of the Shuttle, or, at the least, in mutual cognizance in which each party is to have use of the results produced by each other party. In this way, security considerations permitting, friendly rivalries can be turned into friendly cooperation, to the economical and technological benefit of all concerned.
In a similar way, the Air Force often benefits from research pursued by other parties for their own reasons. A case in point is computer technology, one of the most economically appealing avenues of research ever undertaken by industry, and this is done almost entirely without Air Force instigation or funds. In cases like this, all we have to do is take advantage of the results.12
As for research we do ourselves or have done under our control, it will be increasingly important to make maximum possible use of all existing laboratories, test facilities, test ranges, etc. If some other organization owns and operates a facility that we need and do not have, then we should make every effort possible to obtain use of that facility rather than try to justify building one of our own. Likewise, when another agency requests use of our facilities, we should accommodate them in every way possible. A good example of this kind of cooperation is the excellent working relationship between the Air Force and NASA, particularly with respect to use of the joint collection of wind tunnels and engine test stands.
In such ways as these we can make our limited research dollars go further and at the same time help hold down the growth rate of government R&D facilities, military test ranges, etc. More important, by employing the conservation practices previously mentioned, we shall be doing our part to avoid the ultimate demise forecast by the Club of Rome and by that group of 400 in Houston.
Even so, it will be a more constrained world, a world that forces one to examine his objectives ever more closely. Regarding Air Force research, this means examining how to use the results of our research. In the past, our general objective of a strong Air Force implied almost total emphasis on higher performance, which often led to greater and greater cost per increment of improvement. Consequently, in many systems we are now reaching the point where a one percent improvement in performance might cost as much as all previous improvements put together. Indeed, as Dr. Michael I. Yarymovych often observed, "We are modernizing ourselves into bankruptcy!"13 This could be particularly true in the areas of aircraft propulsion, flight dynamics, metal alloys, and many others. There are performance limits or asymptotes for every device conceived by man, and when we get near those limits, we might well back off and shift our emphasis elsewhere.
In recent years, that "elsewhere" is more and more turning out to be efficiency. This is especially true in the context of the constrained world discussed earlier, in which it becomes increasingly important to use new state of the art as a means for reducing acquisition costs, or for increasing system reliability, or for reducing operating and maintenance costs, rather than giving first priority to raising performance characteristics. To some extent this is the same theme played in the new approach known as "life-cycle cost," one of the six "future objectives and priorities" specified in General David C. Jones's testimony earlier this year to the House Appropriations Committee. In that presentation the Chief of Staff said,
As part of both R&D and acquisition improvements, we must strive to develop systems with lower life cycle cost, particularly costs for operations and maintenance. We need to concentrate on systems designed for high reliability, ease of maintenance, and low manpower demand in order to reduce the overall costs of operating and maintaining the Air Force of the future.14
We can expect to see more and more emphasis on this particular management objective. Granted, it is a more cautions approach than in the past, but certainly in concert with a world of increasingly limited resources per capita.
This entire approach may seem rather conservative, and it is--literally. Thus, any contemporary view of research horizons is a view through lenses colored by limited supplies of energy and materials, relatively limited funding, increased cooperation with other agencies, increased use of their facilities and results, and increased emphasis on efficiency and lower life-cycle costs. It is also a changing view, but one changing slowly and with only an occasional breakthrough to pure brilliance.
What does one see through such lenses? What are the opportunities on which we should focus? Perhaps the most current and comprehensive answer to these questions is to be found in the seven-volume report of Project New Horizons II, the most recent of many successors to von Kármán's "Toward New Horizons."15 The cochairmen, Dr. Yarymovych and Major General Foster Lee Smith, summarized their conclusions as follows:
Our assessment of future world conditions and military trends points to several broad Air Force needs for the period 1985-2000. Salient among these is the need to exploit new technology to achieve required Air Force capabilities within a period of resource austerity. Fundamental to achieving those capabilities is a stable and adequate level of effort by the Air Force in basic and applied research. At the same time, the burgeoning of technology presents a continuing challenge of selecting from many approaches those few that will best contribute to Air Force combat capability.16
With this assessment in mind, they recommended eight "near-term actions appropriate to meet study goals," from which we can infer attendant research goals. In the New Horizons II briefing, which was presented to some forty audiences over a one-year period, the first such action received special emphasis and was always presented separately, as in the next paragraph. The remaining seven, in approximate order or priority, were that "the Air Force should:
For their principal near-term action, the cochairmen of New Horizons II focused on an area which requires considerable improvement: command control systems; and on a paradox: for a fraction of the price of new weapon systems, we could finance command control systems that would appreciably multiply the usefulness of these systems. They concluded that the key factor here is intelligent application of the fruits of research in microelectronics and advanced computer technology or, in other words, that the Air Force should exploit what the study called "computational plenty."18
Here is their major conclusion and recommendation:
Today, as in the past, the Air Force is organized to develop, operate, and support aircraft. It performs these tasks superbly, and it must continue to do so. The principal new challenge, however, is to exploit burgeoning opportunities for more efficient and effective control of forces. If this challenge is to be met, [the Air Force should] reorient the principal focus of Air Force management and organization toward development, operation, and support of systems through which control of forces and weapon systems is exercised, particularly the control of general purpose forces. Fullest advantage should be taken of accelerating advances in signal and data handling technology.19
What, then, are the research horizons before us now? In specific terms, we do not know; nor can any one agency know, let alone establish, such goals in much detail. In general terms, we do know and have for a long time because such goals are almost totally evolutionary and continuous rather than revolutionary or discontinuous. Perhaps we can state them in general terms:
Stated another way, the answer to the question of "where the Air Force ought to be going" is that we ought to keep our research going in about the same direction, but with fresh awareness of the increasingly constrained world around us. The real challenge is not so much in deciding what research to pursue but rather in how best to apply the results. Even if our "research horizons" were to remain fairly unlimited, the application of new state of the art would come up more and more against decisions of the ultimate. It is no longer a matter of man's overcoming the elements or of his exploiting nature; it is now man with nature, coexisting symbionicly on this little island we call "Spaceship Earth."
Office of the Chief Scientist
1. Theodor von Kármán, Director. AAF Scientific Advisory Group, in a letter to General of the Army H. H- Arnold, Commanding General, Army Air Forces, Washington. D.C., 15 December 1945, p. ix.
3. New Horizons II, volume IV, "Technology Emphasis" (Washington; USAF/XOD, June 1975), pp. 26.
5. Ibid., pp. 2-12.
6. Ibid., pp. 2-5, A-34.
7. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows. Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972).
8. Robert C. Seamans, Jr., President, National Academy of Engineering, in an interview by U.S. News & World Report, 23 September 1974, p. 74.
9. Kenneth H. Sheets, "As the Future Closes in on Us," US News & World Report, 3 November 1975, p. 88.
10. Source: Robert W. Cox, Programming Division (RDXP), Directorate of Planning, Programming and Analysis, DCS/R&D, Hq USAF, March 1976.
11. Gerald H. Ford, "Remarks of the President upon Signing the Transmittal of the Science and Technology Message," Washington, Office of the White House Press Secretary, 22 March 1976.
12. New Horizons II, volume IV, p. 2-1 to 2-4.
13. Michael I. Yarymovych, Chief Scientist of the Air Force (1 August 1973-30 April 1975).
14. David C. Jones, "FY 1977 Posture Statement." presentation to the Committee on Appropriations, U.S. House of Representatives (Washington: Department of the Air Force, 2 February 1976), p. 36. (Note: General Jones presented similar statements to the Senate Armed Services Committee Senate Appropriations Committee, February 1976.)
15. Theodor von Kármán, et al., Toward New Horizons, AAF Scientific Advisory Group (Washington, D.C., 1945; published by Hq Air Materiel Command, Dayton, 1946).
16. New Horizons II, volume I, "Executive Summary" (Washington, D.C., June 1975). p. iii.
17. Ibid., pp. iii, iv.
18. New Horizons II, volume IV, p. 2-1 to 2-4.
19. New Horizons II, volume I, p. 29.
Colonel James E. Strub (Ph.D., University of Texas) is Assistant to the Commander, Tactical Air command. He was Military Assistant to the Chief Scientist of the Air Force and a principal participant in New Horizons II, 1985-2000. Commissioned from Cornell University AFROTC, he has served as MAC navigator, orbital analyst and operations coordinator in NORAD SPADATS, astronautics instructor at Air Force Academy, data systems manager for Vietnam in-country airlift, and Fourteenth Aerospace Force supervisor of the Early Warning Satellite System. Colonel Strub is a Distinguished Graduate of Air War College.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor