WASHINGTON — A new U.S. Air Force video featuring concept art of some of its highest profile tech programs — from swarming drones and a new fighter jet — provides a tantalizing glimpse of potential future weapons and how they could be employed just a decade from now.
The new video was put out by the Air Force Research Laboratory on March 22 to promote the service’s new “Science and Technology 2030” initiative, which aims to increase the involvement of the scientific community and nontraditional businesses in shaping future Air Force technology.
“We can’t afford to slow down,” the website states. “As our adversaries close the technology gap, we need to push the boundaries of what’s possible and invent the future.”
Here’s a look at some of the major technology programs featured in the video:
An F-35 pilot, surrounded by a ring of unmanned fighter aircraft, sends several of the drones ahead to strike a target. This is the concept behind Loyal Wingman, one of AFRL’s most anticipated efforts.
AFRL is developing algorithms that will allow fighter pilots to control multiple drones, and industry has stepped up with technologies that could further enable the technology.
For instance, in 2017, Lockheed Martin flew a demonstration with an unmanned F-16 teamed with a manned fighter. Kratos Defense and Security Solutions has also tested two drones, the Mako and Valkyrie, which were developed for the program.
In the second clip, the door of a C-130 cargo bay is opened and a robot pushes a pod into the air from which hundreds of small drones detach and begin swarming around the ship.
This effort, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “Gremlins” program, aims to create recoverable UAS swarms that would be able to penetrate contested areas and provide a variety of capabilities including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic warfare, signals intelligence, or other kinetic effects.
General Atomics and Dynetics were awarded contracts for the second phase of the Gremlins program in 2017. DARPA intends to downselect to a single competitor in 2018, and in 2019 that company will demonstrate the ability to launch and recover multiple drones aboard a C-130.
The next video clip shows the Counter-electronics High Power Microwave Advanced Missile Project, or CHAMP, flying over a city, seemingly causing a blackout.
CHAMP is a cruise missile-like weapon that uses a high-powered microwave to fry nearby electronics. The capability is being developed by AFRL and Boeing, which demonstrated CHAMP in 2013.
CHAMP has been in development since the beginning of the decade, but it recently received a ton of press as a potential counter to North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Those reports were a bit overstated. As Defense News sister publication C4ISRNET reported, ICBMs would likely be stored in a way to protect against any sort of an attack that could impact its electronics, and its highly unlikely that CHAMP could fry an ICBM’s circuitry while in flight.
F-X, also known as Penetrating Counter Air or Next-Generation Air Dominance
The final capability showcased — a rendering of a conceptual design of the service’s future fighter jet — is one that Air Force leadership has remained quiet about in recent months.
The reason for that, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said, is to force industry to widen the aperture and begin thinking of air superiority as a “system of systems” instead of a single platform. Beyond that, he’s not saying much.
“The last thing I would want to do is to give our adversaries any heads up on the thinking that we’re doing on that mission set and others,” he told Defense News earlier this month.
The Air Force hasn’t chosen a manufacturer or design for its sixth-generation fighter, which is alternately called F-X, Penetrating Counter Air, or Next-Generation Air Dominance. However, the rendering in the AFRL video shows a sleek, stealthy design with a laser powerful enough to destroy an enemy fighter.
The service is currently conducting an NGAD analysis of alternatives that will help solidify whether a new fighter jet will remain part of the Air Force’s air superiority plans and what capabilities it will need.
In 2016, Brig. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who led the service’s Air Superiority 2030 study, said the Air Force could field a new fighter jet by 2030 if it used rapid prototyping and parallel development to create promising new technologies and drive down risk.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.