Superfast jets, laser blasts and battling robots — these are commonplace in science fiction stories. But in a prolonged effort to create a stronger, deadlier military, the U.S. Air Force plans on making them a reality over the next 30 years.

In July, the organization released a document outlining an ambitious strategy to incorporate sophisticated technology into everyday military operations. If planning is successful, the Air Force’s projects could produce fighting men and women who are the envy — and fear — of other military forces.

In the 22-page paper, America’s Air Force: A Call to the Future, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James claimed that her branch of government would be challenged to adapt transformative technology in the future.

“This strategy challenges our Air Force to forge ahead with a path of strategic agility-breaking paradigms and leveraging technology just as we did at our inception,” she wrote. “This will provide the ability to field the full spectrum capable, high-end focused force of the future.”

The report highlighted these five technological areas slated for development:

  1. Hypersonics: The Air Force will continue its efforts to build faster planes -- that fly at speeds above Mach 5 -- which will undoubtedly improve attack, evade and reconnaissance capabilities. Multiple hypersonic aircraft projects have made headlines recently, including the X-51 Waverider, which flew at Mach 5.1 and traveled more than 230 nautical miles in just over 6 minutes in a 2013 test run, the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever. (The term “air-breathing” refers to jet engines that draw oxygen from the air to burn fuel.)
  2. Nanotechnology: The organization hopes to manipulate components at the molecular level to create material that’s both stronger and lighter than what’s currently available. The document refers to “significant implications for air-breathing and space platforms,” but names no specific applications for projects.
  3. Directed energy: The Business Insider claims that “directed energy” is just another term for lasers, and cited the government’s Laser Weapon System (LaWS) as an example. LaWS comprises six lasers strapped together with beams that converge on a target. It’s one of multiple energy weapons in development, including an electromagnetic rail gun and a “slab” laser that fires a beam of 105 kilowatts. The Air Force’s 30-year outline never mentions the term “laser” specifically, but notes that “deep magazines can alleviate the need for acquiring and transporting large stockpiles of munitions into the theater, while providing precise, responsive, and persistent effects.”
  4. Unmanned systems. The Air Force document cites drones’ capability to operate with increased range, endurance and performance compared to aircraft operated by human pilots. The military would also be able to conduct more dangerous operations with drones without the need to compensate for human safety. In offensive situations, the drones will also be able to “swam, suppress, deceive, or destroy,” according to the report, with weapons ranging from “kinetic to non-kinetic; permanent to reversible; single-use to self-recharging.”
  5. Autonomous systems. The document vaguely states that artificial intelligence and robotics will be better able to react to environments and perform situation-dependent tasks. Boston Dynamics is currently developing battle-ready robots for the military, including those that climb up walls and sprint like animals.
The Air Force document cited a quote from Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claiming that the military will harness cyber technology for top-notch defense.
 
“While cyber may be our nation’s greatest vulnerability, it also presents our military with a tremendous asymmetric advantage," he said. "The military that maintains the most agile and resilient networks will be the most effective in war."

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer
Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.