Air Force Technology
Major Aerospace Systems & Platforms
Major aerospace systems or platforms currently under development for the Air Force include the following:
- The Pentagon’s overall program to develop the Next Generation Unmanned Aerial System (NG UAS) or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) promises to be a major leap forward for aerial warfare and ground support and a boon to smaller aerospace and defense contractors who have traditionally dominated this market.
- Major Air Force UAV programs or aircraft include small or micro UAVs such as the Battlefield Air Targeting Micro Air Vehicle or BATMAV (developed by defense contractor Aerovironment, Inc.) and the Desert Hawk Small Unmanned Aircraft System (developed by defense contractor Lockheed Martin); medium altitude and long endurance (MALE) UAVs such as the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper (both developed by defense contractor General Atomics Aeronautical Systems); high altitude, long endurance, and conventional UAVs or HALE UAVs such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk (developed by defense contractors Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and L3 Comm); and high altitude, long endurance, and low-observable UAV included the RQ-3 DarkStar (developed by defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Its development was terminated; however, there are reports that it is still in development as a so-called “black project.”)
- The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, a product of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, is a stealth capable multi-role strike fighter utilizing the latest in aircraft technology. The F-35 has three variants: the F-35A with conventional takeoff and landing capabilities, the F-35B with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities, and the F-35C for carrier based operations. All three variants are derived from a common design sharing 80% of the same parts and should resolve the traditional inability to communicate with various platforms used by allies and different military services. In fact, the F-35 is expected to replace at least 13 types of aircraft for 11 nations.
- Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor with Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems involved in a supporting role. In addition, the USA is the primary customer and financier while Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the United Kingdom have contributed US$4.4 to the US$40 billion plus in total development costs.
- In February of 2008, the Pentagon awarded a US$35 billion contract for the KC-45 next generation of refueling tankers to Northrop Grumman in partnership with the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS). The contract for 179 refueling tankers would be the first of three deals worth up to US$100 billion to replace the Air Force's entire tanker fleet over the next 30 years.
- However, Boeing (the maker of the KC-135 Stratotanker that has been in service since 1957) protested the contract’s award to Northrop Grumman’s and challenged the Air Force’s technical and cost evaluations, conduct of discussions, and source selection decision. Furthermore, the contract’s partial award to a European firm at a time when the US economy is struggling drew additional political scrutiny. Ultimately, a review by the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that Boeing’s proposal for the contract did not undergo a fair review and in June of 2008, the Pentagon cancelled the awarded KC-45 contract.
Advanced Air Force Technology & Defense Research Programs
Formed in 1997 by the consolidation of four research laboratories and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the United States Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) operates under the Air Force Material Command and is responsible for the development of Air Force technologies and defense equipment for use by the US military. The AFRL employs approximately 1,400 military and 4,400 civilian personnel and is responsible for the Air Force’s technology and science budget of almost US$2 billion while an additional US$1.7 billion comes from AFRL customers.
The AFRL develops Air Force technologies through the following nine technology directorates scattered throughout the country:
- Headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB (Ohio), the Air Vehicles Directorate is responsible for the development of defense technologies for military aerospace vehicles that will provide future capabilities in areas such as UAVs and space access. Core defense technology areas of focus include the aeronautical sciences, control sciences, structures, and integration.
- Headquartered at Kirtland AFB (New Mexico), the Directed Energy Directorate develops directed energy technologies for high power microwaves, lasers (including semiconductor, gas, chemical and solid-state lasers), adaptive optics, imaging, and effects. In addition, the Directorate’s Starfire Optical Range conducts research in advanced tracking, adaptive optics, atmospheric physics, and imaging of objects in space using large ground-based telescopes.
- Headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB (Ohio), the 711th Human Performance Wing consolidates research, education, and operational consultation in the areas of aerospace medicine, science and technology, and human systems integration.
- Headquartered in Rome (New York), the Information Directorate develops aerospace command and control information technologies for use in air, space, and ground systems. This includes information fusion and exploitation, communications and networking, collaborative environments, modeling and simulation, defensive information warfare, and intelligent information systems technologies.
- Headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB (Ohio), the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate develops new materials, processes, and manufacturing technologies for use in aerospace applications. This includes aircraft, spacecraft, missiles, rockets, and ground-based systems and their structural, electronic, and optical components.
- Headquartered at Eglin AFB (Florida), the Munitions Directorate develops defense technologies for air-launched munitions that are designed to defeat fixed, mobile, air, and space targets.
- Headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB (Ohio), the Propulsion Directorate develops air and space vehicle propulsion and power technologies such as turbine and rocket engines, advanced propulsion systems, and associated fuels and propellants for propulsion systems. The Directorate is considered to be one of the nation’s leaders in the field of power technology.
- Headquartered at Wright-Patterson AFB (Ohio), the Sensors Directorate develops technologies for radar, active and passive electro-optical targeting systems, navigation aids, automatic target recognition, sensor fusion, threat warning, and threat countermeasures. These technologies are then incorporated into air and space reconnaissance, surveillance, precision engagement, and electronic warfare systems.
- Headquartered at Kirtland AFB (New Mexico), the Space Vehicles Directorate develops defense technologies for radiation hardened electronics, space power, space structures and control, space based sensing, space environmental effects, autonomous maneuvering, and balloon and satellite flight experiments.
In addition, the AFRL manages the following defense research and development related programs based at the Wright-Patterson AFB (Ohio):
- The Air Force Independent Research & Development Program is responsible for creating dialogue between the Air Force and the private sector.
- The Air Force Science Fair Program supports education efforts in science and math and encourages students who are conducting research in areas of interest to the Air Force.
- The Air Force Small Business Innovation Research Program encourages technology research by small businesses through a three phase process:
Phase I: Technology feasibility is determined and contracts of up to US$100,000 lasting from six to nine months are awarded.
Phase II: Successful Phase I contract winners receive awards of up to US$750,000 to accomplish the primary research effort. These awards will typically last for 2 years.
Phase III: Private sector or federal agency funding is used to commercialize the defense technology.
- The Air Force Technology Transfer Program promotes the transfer of Air Force technology with academia, industry, and state and local governments.
- The AFRL Technology Milestones Program highlights AFRL success stories and keeps key decision makers informed about significant Air Force technology advances.
Key Agencies & Research Institutes
Other key government agencies directly or indirectly involved in the development of Air Force technology include the following:
- Formed in 1958 in response to the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the lead federal agency for aerospace related R&D activities. NASA partners with academia, industry, and other federal, state, regional, and local entities to conduct research and develop new defense technologies into commercially viable products. These research related activities are spread across several research centers, namely the Ames Research Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the Goddard Space Flight Center, the John H. Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field, and the Langley Research Center.
- Established in 1950 as an independent federal agency, the National Science Foundation (NSF) supports research and education in all the non-medical fields of engineering and science. With an annual budget of approximately US$6.06 billion, the NSF is the funding source for roughly 20% of all federally supported basic research activities conducted by America's colleges and universities. These research and education support activities are organized into seven directorates encompassing several disciplines, specifically: Biological Sciences; Computer and Information Science and Engineering; Engineering; Geosciences; Mathematical and Physical Sciences; Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences; and Education and Human Resources.
- Formed in 1970, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is an agency under the Department of Commerce (DOC) that supports research work involving space weather, the environment, and weather satellites. In addition, the NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) operates and manages various environmental satellite programs NOAA conducts research on various environmental and weather related phenomena and develops related technologies and observations systems.
- With is origins dating back to the 1920s, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is an agency under the Department of Transportation (DOT). In addition to regulating and overseeing all aspects of civil aviation, the FAA develops and operates air traffic control and navigation systems for both civil and military aircraft and is involved in researching and developing the National Airspace System.
Key private sector research institutes involved in aerospace related R&D that are worth noting include the following:
- In early 2008, Lockheed Martin and Rice University partnered to create the Lockheed Martin Advanced Nanotechnology Center of Excellence at Rice University (LANCER) based at Rice's Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology - one of the largest nanotechnology facilities in the US. LANCER pairs researchers from Lockheed Martin with Rice experts in areas such as carbon nanotechnology, photonics, and plasmonics. With US$3 million in funding for three years, LANCER will fund up to half a dozen projects per year with priority given to projects that can either be brought to market quickly or will dramatically improve upon existing technologies. Applications being pursued include high-strength lightweight coatings and composites, sensitive sensors that have wider operating environments, energetics for missiles, nancomputing technologies, and nanoelectronics.
- Formed in 1941 by Lockheed Martin, the Skunk Works has been responsible for developing some of the most well known military aircraft such as the U-2 and the F-22 Raptor. In more recent years, the Skunk Works’ largest projects have included the F-35 Lightening II and various unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and related defense systems.
by John Udovich for Defense Ventures