USA — Air Force Races Ahead as Scientific Field Levels Out

WASHINGTON, Sept. 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.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)

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