Report on Technology Horizons: A Vision for Air Force Science & Technology During 2010–2030

  • Published

Report on Technology Horizons: A Vision for Air Force Science & Technology During 2010–2030 by Dr. Werner J. A. Dahm. CSAF, 2010, 149 pp.

It has been 15 years since the Air Force last issued a service-specific science and technology (S&T) vision. At that time, the Internet was just beginning to crawl; GPS, E-Bay and JavaScript were in infancy; and the first squadron of C-17s was declared operationally ready—much has changed since then.

In this updated version, Dr. Werner Dahm, chief scientist of the US Air Force, and his team imagine an evolving national security landscape shaped by and dependent upon exponential technological leaps. For a service that prides itself in exploiting the hard sciences and advanced technologies, the Air Force’s latest forecast provides a balanced approach to what is desirable and what is imperative to ensure that the service can execute its vital mission.

Like most bureaucratic reports, Technology Horizons presents the team’s ideas, expectations, and recommendations in an orderly, easy-to-follow format. It establishes a probable environment in which the service will operate over the next 20 years and regulates the propensity for fantasy and sci-fi with a hard reality check. The team prudently recognizes that in the near term at least, impending budget reductions may significantly hamper technology exploitation, with a grim forecast for the immediate future and a none-too-promising prognosis beyond that.

The report is also informed and regulated by a future strategic context. It is probable that the future environment will span the spectrum from emerging peer competitors and failed states to warlords, pirates, organized criminal elements, and inordinately empowered individuals. It also identifies potential drivers for future conflicts from regional dominance and spread of weapons of mass destruction to competition for energy, water, minerals, or other natural resources. Further, it considers that other nations (or entities) will be pursuing advanced technologies and potentially developing them before the United States.

Dahm is careful to point out that this report neither predicts nor forecasts. Rather it offers a course of reasonable expectations. The report attempts to identify the “credibly achievable” technologies given current trends and developments in science and technology. It also acknowledges that unforeseen issues, “black swans” in current vernacular, may alter future expectations.

Recognizing that the Air Force currently takes years to field systems, Technology Horizons uses a “10+10 Technology-to-Capability” process. This process looks ahead only 10 years to project the S&T advances in the coming decade. Then, it bumps ahead another 10 years to identify the resulting capabilities and thus pinpoints technology investments that are needed today to address the envisioned 2030 environment. Given the accelerating pace of technological change, the author acknowledges that projecting technology even 10 years into the future is fraught with too many variables, even more so in the cyber domain. For the cyber domain, the team employed a five year forward technology projection plus a five year forward capability projection.

The majority of the report addresses the methodology to determine the S&T requirements. It aligns the 30 potential capability areas with the Air Force service core functions and arrives at what are deemed to be the most credibly achievable and most valuable capabilities to meet a broad spectrum of future Air Force needs. The report arrives at 27 key technology areas judged most critical to assure Air Force capabilities in 2030.

Technology Horizons focused on several themes for improving efficiency and productivity by enhancing the tools, systems, or the human elements. Most notably from the report is the recurring theme of autonomy and the technologies surrounding autonomous systems. Greater use of these suggests capability enhancements, manpower efficiencies, and cost reductions across the Air Force. Whether through autonomous technologies, autonomous decision making tools, survivable autonomous systems, or autonomously guided weapons for use in GPS denied environments—the human in 2030 will no longer be completely in charge. There will simply be too much data for a human to process unaided. While autonomy will improve the time domain advantage, the author suggests that to make autonomous systems effective, building trust in the systems must be achieved through robust verification and validation processes, processes which do not currently exist.

Improving and augmenting human performance is another theme. By 2030, humans, increasingly overwhelmed by massive data and needing nanosecond decisions, must have closer human-machine interfaces or perhaps direct augmentation of human performance through implants, drugs, or genetic modification.

Resiliency in air, space, and cyberspace domains is a third theme. Freedom to operate in those domains is crucial in these contested environments. Space resiliency is certainly needed in the area of precision navigation and timing in the event GPS is degraded. Resiliency in the cyber environment is also needed. In fact, by 2030 the cross-domain linkages, especially regarding cyberspace, must be guaranteed.

This informative report avoids a lot of the scientific jargon one might expect in a technology report. Although the report appears to target Air Force leadership as its audience, those interested in technology and the future direction of the Air Force or those who found the recent Wired for War and Fighting Chance of value will find this interesting and informative, and in fact, some of the conclusions may surprise.

Col Steve Hagel, USAF, Retired

Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."