Rather than focus on specific systems, Dahm and his staff members have looked for themes that they expect technology to follow. For example, Dahm expects to see a gradual shift from “manned to unmanned, larger systems to smaller systems,” “controlled to increasingly more autonomous” and “exquisite to composable systems.”
The themes that Dahm’s office has pinpointed:
* Composable systems: In the past, weapons systems have been what Dahm calls “exquisite,” or built for one purpose. Now, with the emphasis on spending less, the Air Force should instead develop technology that allows different systems to collaborate and create different capabilities, he said.
Dahm compared a composable system to the way Dell sells computers — a buyer signs on to the Dell Web site, designs his laptop and has it delivered in days. He wants ground commanders to have a similar capability. A commander recognizes a need — for example, an ISR satellite — and the Air Force could launch “a 75 or 80 percent solution” in weeks, not years.
* Unmanned aircraft: Unmanned technology will move toward more autonomy and smaller systems — many no bigger than a dragonfly. Those Micro Air Vehicles, or MAVs, aren’t far off, either.
“You’d be shocked how close we are,” Dahm said. “We have flapping-wing systems 10 centimeters in size that will fly all throughout this building wherever you want it to go … we can build those systems today.”
The Air Force Research Laboratory issued a report last year that puts an MAV in the air by 2015.
Dahm and the laboratory’s scientists expect the MAVs to be used mostly in cities because of their size and the agility that the flapping-wing technology gives them.
* Hypersonic speed: A plane or a missile traveling at Mach 6, or about 4,000 mph, isn’t far-fetched — or far off.
In mid-February, the service will put its 20-plus years of work on super-fast engines to the test when the Boeing X-51 demonstration aircraft makes its first hypersonic test flight fueled by jet propellant. The WaveRider made its first flight Dec. 9, firmly tucked under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress. Hydrogen powered the X-43, the first aircraft that tested a hypersonic engine.
* Manpower: Technological advances, according to Dahm, can be as down to earth as changing how many airmen must deploy to a Combined Air Operations Center.
In the next 20 years, the Air Force will automate many of the jobs airmen now fill.
“Ever think about CAOC operations where there are a tremendous number of people performing huge numbers of missions or pieces of missions to support the mission inside the CAOC? A lot of that could be automated today,” he said.
Not only will automation reduce the size of the force, it will also cut down on the time it takes to make a decision in theater.