The 9/11 attacks did more than kill thousands of innocent people and launch the country into two wars. They also sparked a technological revolution, which has allowed the Air Force and its sister services to fight the war on terror more effectively and protect the nation against further attacks.
Remotely piloted aircraft has been perhaps the most important area of development. While the military had unmanned aerial vehicles long before 2001, 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed led to an upsurge in their development. UAVs have been transformed from mainly reconnaissance and surveillance assets to weapons with their own offensive capabilities, and “a true hunter-killer role,” as former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley once said of the MQ-9 Reaper.
Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Mark Maybury discussed the five other top technological developments that have had the greatest impact on the Air Force in the decade since 9/11.
The Air Force’s Distributed Common Ground System evolved from many intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs that date back to the 1960s. But DCGS came into its own in the decade after 9/11 with the production of intelligence information collected by unmanned aircraft.
“DCGS has really been a revolution in the way in which we bring intelligence assets to the fight,” Maybury said. “That’s been enabled by a couple of things that have happened. Obviously, high-speed networks have allowed us to take that imagery that we collect far away downrange and bring it back via either terrestrial and/or satellite communications to a ground station and allow the analyst at the ground stations to analyze that imagery. Now, what’s important is not only do those analysts have all the tools and the data available, and they can take the raw imagery and correlate it with signals and intelligence, or with mission reports. Analysts can also be dynamically allocated because we have multiple ground stations associated with multiple Air Force bases, and we’re able to distribute talent where it is most needed.
“So if, for example, we’re flying operations over in Afghanistan, and it gets really cloudy, we can shift all of those analytic assets over in theater to let’s say Iraq. That ability to dynamically real-time reallocate assets is revolutionary and quite different from 10 years ago.”
When most civilians hear the word GPS, they normally think of the tool that gives directions to destinations. For the Air Force and its sister services, the space-based global navigation satellite is mission-critical. To emphasize the importance of GPS to military operations, Maybury uses the example of cell phones replacing land lines in many American households.
“In my house, we no longer have a wired phone. We have an IP-phone and cell phones,” he said. “But if the power goes out, or someone has a heart attack, you’d better hope your cell phone is charged because that’s your only form of communication. Similarly, what happens if someone shuts off the GPS? It’s essential infrastructure, in the same way your cell phone is essential infrastructure. You can’t navigate, you can’t transport and you can’t have delivery of weapons. So, it’s mission-critical and was very much a game-changer at the time of introduction — and still is. In the future, operators will need to fight through contested environments.
“Some of the things we’re working on, such as chip-scale Inertial Measurement Units and atomic clocks, are capabilities that will allow us to operate even when GPS is denied,” Maybury said.
Robotics is a field that didn’t originate in the military, but has become a major part of operations in recent years. Robots are being considered for future use in routine, but essential tasks like refueling and reloading. Last summer, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Materials and Manufacturing Directorate tested a robotic refueling system, which officials think could drastically change how Airmen service aircraft. Video and data links would guide the robot and operator, who would run the actual refueling several hundred feet away from the plane.
Meanwhile, Joint Base Charleston, S.C., recently announced they are investigating the possibility of using robots to make the loading and unloading cargo process more efficient, with the use of a “robo-pallet.” A demonstration of the remote detection challenge and response showed a Pentagon audience how unmanned robotic platforms could provide perimeter defense of bases and forward-deployed units.
“The entire field of robotics, whether flying, swimming or walking things, has really been enabled and advanced by the military, although we are not alone,” Maybury said. “NASA obviously cares a lot about exploratory robots as well. But [the Department of Defense] has something like 12,000 robots in combat now. They do everything from surveillance to mine dismantling to logistics. Robotics has been a very important area, and will continue to be, so the Air Force is working aggressively to advance autonomy, human robot interfaces and trust in automation as detailed in the Air Force Technology Horizons vision.”
Since the National Nanotechnology Initiative was established in 2000, Congress has appropriated more than $14 billion for nanotechnology research and development, including about $1.8 billion in Fiscal Year 2011. By 2015, officials say nanotechnology will impact the world’s economy by $2.4 trillion. It will not be surprising the field has become equally important to the Defense Department.
“Certainly, there’s been a development of nano-technology, nano materials and devices , not just lightweight things, but also micro devices, like the beginnings of the first calculators and memories at the nano level,” Maybury said. “Some of these advances have occurred in scientific laboratories and universities, but some of it has been pushed by the military services. Why? We need very lightweight, strong and survivable devices in air and in space.”
In the past year, Maybury emphasized energy as an “operations enabler” in the forthcoming “Energy Horizons” study to identify more efficient technologies in air, space, cyberspace and infrastructure areas. He discussed Air Mobility Command Fuel Efficiency Office initiatives, such as mission index flying and formation flying. Air Force officials are also considering enabling technologies such as ultra-efficient photo voltaics, biofuels, ultra-capacitors, advanced batteries, nano-materials and energy-efficient cloud computing, Maybury said.
“You could argue energy is a 9/11 outcome in the sense that more than 3,000 of our service members and contractors have been killed while helping to protect convoys,” he said. “Eighty percent of the convoys are made up of water and fuel and al-Qaida has specifically identified and targeted fuel convoys. So we have recognized our critical reliance upon energy, and particularly logistics energy, in ‘Energy Horizons’ and programs such as [Adaptive Versatile Energy Technology].”
ADVENT is a five-year AFRL program to produce a new, adaptive engine that will allow optimized propulsion system performance over a broad range of altitudes and speed.
Treating Combat Injuries
Advanced treatment for traumatic brain injuries, which the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency calls “the signature wound[s] of the war on terror,” and in prosthetics are other areas in which the military has made significant progress since the terrorist attacks on 9/11.
A hand-held device, developed for DOD by the Georgia Tech University Medical Center radiology and medical imaging department, would enable combat medics to detect brain injuries on the battlefield. The Pentagon also has a device that can cool traumatized brains and slow secondary damage from blasts.
Another area that has experienced major progress since 9/11 has been the Air Force’s air ambulance capability, Maybury said. Wounded service members are flown in on aircraft that function as “airborne intensive care units.” This capability has helped the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany treat more than 13,000 combat injuries, with a 99.5 percent survival rate for trauma patients.
“It’s really extraordinary and a joint activity because you might have a downed troop who’s brought by the Army or Reserve,” he said. “But once they get to a facility and stabilized, the Air Force has this amazing global ability.
“If a troop is injured in combat, you’re talking about bringing to bear all of our joint resources and getting a medical evacuation asset to that person immediately. They get on a C-17 [Globemaster III], and they’re medically equipped and stabilized. That air ambulatory care capacity is an extraordinary life-saving advance from 10 years ago.”
With the addition of U.S. Cyber Command earlier this year, Maybury expects cyberspace to be another area where there will be rapid development in the years to come.
“The increasing ubiquity of, dependency on, and vulnerability of cyber will propel cyber defense and operations into a leading role in the future,” he said.