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The Air Force Has A Radical Technology Plan For The Next 30 Years

Allan Smith
Air Force fighter pilot

US Air Force

The Air Force recently released its outline for a 30-year strategy, charting the future of a branch of the military that has been recently transformed by technological innovations like the development of advanced unmanned aerial vehicles. In the new plan, the Air Force highlighted technologies it would be targeting in the coming decades.

The advances will focus on adding even more "speed, range, flexibility, and precision" to the Force's operations. 

"The aircraft as an instrument of war was once considered 'game changing,'" the report says. "Pursuit of the next 'game changing' technology is central to maintaining the asymmetric advantage our Air Force has always provided the nation."

The report highlighted five areas in which the branch will direct its attention over the next three decades — technological developments that can keep the Air Force prepared to face future threats and maintain the U.S.' global military edge.


Boeing X-51

U.S. Air Force/Chad Bellay/Wikimedia

Unmanned Boeing X-51 Waverider.

The Air Force has a natural interest in increasing its planes' speed, a development that would vastly broaden the Force's travel and attack options.

"Though we may not always desire to operate at the fastest possible speed, the ability to do so creates a significant advantage," the report said.

Back in 2013, the Air Force tested the Boeing X-51A, which reached Mach 5.1 and traveled 230 nautical miles in six minutes, making it the "longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever."

The Air Force also plans to test a technology called boost-glide, which it hopes to have ready by 2020 at the latest, Breaking Defense reported. A boost-glided projectile is a "payload delivery vehicle that glide[s] at hypersonic speeds in the atmosphere for most of [its] flight path," an Air Force officer told Space News in 2011. The eventual goal is to have "boost-glide running at Mach 8 speeds, which is more than 6,000 miles per hour." 


nanotech thing

National Science Foundation

Gold-polymer nanorods self-assemble into a curved structure during research conducted at Northwestern University. The National Science Foundation says that curving nanorods have applications for "drug-delivery systems, nanoscale electronics, catalysts and light-harvesting materials."

The Air Force believes that nano-technology will have a direct application for both flight and space travel.

"By manipulating materials at the molecular level, we can create structures that are both stronger and lighter, contributing to both speed and range," the report said.

Miniature systems will also allow for the Air Force to operate in new situations and could change the way the branch approaches its missions in "highly contested environments," per the report.

On a similarly small scale, researchers backed by the Air Force have been designing a small, bandage-like patch that would monitor stress and fatigue levels for military combatants, The Boston Globe reports. Surely, this is something that would be sure to make its way to airmen and commanders once completed.

Directed Energy

laser-guided missile


The military has been using laser-guided missiles for years. Over the next three decades, the Air Force will attempt to integrate lasers themselves as a legitimate weapon.

In plain English, this means lasers. 

The Navy has been working on the Laser Weapon System, or LAWS, per National Defense Magazine.

The system combines six lasers, which converge on one target. Last year, the system was installed on a battleship and tested on a flying drone. When its lasers converged, the drone burst into flames in mid-air, National Defense Magazine reports.

“In terms of power, the Marines want flaming balls of wreckage falling from the sky,” Lee Mastroianni, program manager for force protection in the Office of Naval Research’s expeditionary maneuver warfare and combating terrorism department, told National Defense Magazine. “That is our program goal.”

Unmanned Systems

Triton Drone

Northrop Grumman/Bob Brown/Handout via Reuters

A Triton drone flying over California.

After being used exclusively by the military, drones are now starting to be adopted for civilian use, but the Air Force continues to lead the avant-garde of unmanned aerial technology.

The Air Force outlined a need to continue expanding drone technology within the report. Most importantly, the Air Force wants drones where "[i]n an offensive scenario, they will swarm, suppress, deceive, or destroy."

In simpler terms, rather than just being able to monitor a situation from high in the sky, or launch a directed-missile attack, the Air Force would like to have drones that can engage in closer-combat, serving as futuristic fighter planes.

Autonomous Systems

Military robot

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, left, meets the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) ATLAS robot, one of the most human-like "autonomous systems" ever made.

Robots, in other words.

"Future systems will be able to react to their environment and perform more situational-dependent tasks as well as synchronized and integrated functions with other autonomous systems," the Air Force report said.

The Air Force wants to use robot-fighters, capable of making their own choices, within the next 30 years.

Boston Dynamics has already begun making robot-fighter prototypes for the military, such as the Atlas, pictured above. The Atlas is already capable of running, climbing, and jumping, even on treacherous terrain.

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