27 September 2009
Air Force working to retain its global edge in the air
By Tom Roeder
The Gazette, Colorado Springs, Colo.

You've heard of pilotless planes. How about pilot-free airlines?

Airplanes now look like tubes with wings. What if they were shaped more like bats? And were armed with lasers?

These are just a few thoughts running through the mind of Werner Dahm, the Air Force's chief scientist and the man who is planning how the Air Force will fight 20 years from now.

Dahm, an engineer by training, was at the Air Force Academy last week to meet with other Air Force research leaders about that future.

"This is maybe a uniquely pivotal time," said Dahm. "The Air Force is going to look very different in 20 years than it does now."

The son of a German scientist who was brought to the U.S. to help design the first Air Force rockets, Dahm says the service may be set for the same kind of technological leap it accomplished six decades ago.

The possibility is driven by scientific feats in a number of fields. Computer programmers have honed the technology for unmanned planes and computer networks give commanders an omniscient view of the battlefield.

Physicists have begun to perfect electric-powered lasers that can knock down enemy missiles.

Aerospace engineers have dreamed up plane designs that mimic nature to usher in a new era of efficiency and maneuverability. And new power plants harness the atmosphere to achieve speeds once only reached by rockets.

The breakthroughs couldn't come at a better time. While the Air Force was light-years ahead of its enemies in past wars, technologies are emerging around the world that threaten U.S. dominance of the air.

"We worked hard to create that technology gap," he said. "That gap has closed."

Dahm, who reports to the Air Force's top general and its civilian secretary, is charged with sorting through the science fiction and deciding where the Air Force should invest its $2 billion research budget. But transporters, interstellar flight and food replicators aren't in the offing.

"This is not a Star Trek convention," he said.

To discern what technologies hold the most promise, Dahm is allowed to examine the service's most secret programs in flight, computing and space operations. The former University of Michigan professor said the search for the next big breakthrough is exciting, if overwhelming.

He gets unsolicited ideas all the time in an avalanche of e-mails that often border on the absurd.

"I get a lot of people begging me to come clean on Area 51," Dahm said of the conspiracy theories that claim Air Force technology stems from alien technology stored at the secret Nevada base.

But much of what he's seen since taking the job last year shows real promise.

One of his favorites is the Air Force Space Command effort to field baseball-sized satellites that can be launched on demand. The small satellites wouldn't be as technologically advanced as some of the massive ones now on orbit, but they would trade quality for quantity.

The small satellites would be less vulnerable to attack and easier to replace if they're destroyed. They're similar to projects cadets at the academy have been working on for more than a decade to show the feasibility of miniature spacecraft.

Another "game changing" technology would give the Air Force the ability to launch swarms of small pilotless planes that would work together to achieve objectives such as overwhelming enemy defenses or finding a lost pilot.

Dahm says future airplanes will look more like the tailless B-2 bomber and mimic nature, using every square inch to gain lift. That makes them 20 percent more fuel-efficient than anything now flying, NASA studies show.

The aircraft has posed a single problem for the passenger airline industry: no window seats.

The biggest impact for civilians of the leaps in Air Force science will come at the airport, where Dahm predicts more direct flights and smaller planes to conquer the delays that haunt the existing hub-and-spoke system.

Dahm foresees unmanned cargo planes doing much of the hauling while passengers get cheaper, more direct flights using redesigned craft. He's even solved the window-seat issue: projection screens that give passengers a picture of what's outside.

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