Ensuring Technology Preeminence of U.S. Air and Space Forces
Gen Merrill A. McPeak
Air Force Chief of Staff
Presented at the Air Force Chief Scientists Group Dinner, Andrews Air Force Base, MD, 5 January 1994
Today, we are the world's most respected air and space force -- second to none. We have been second to none every time the nation has called on us in the era of an independent Air Force. Time after time, we can trace the roots of this success back to some lab -- to a group of creative scientists and the operators who believed in what they were doing. In this same way, the future health of our Air Force rests on your shoulders -- on what you and the labs are working on today.
To say that science is important is, of course, nothing new. Back in 1980, Dr. Bill Perry, then head of Defense Research and Engineering, spelled out the rationale for service labs. He said we need in-house scientific talent to ensure that federal research and development programs are responsive to the president and Congress. Further, the government must have a deep understanding of complex scientific and technical issues to make sound acquisition decisions. Finally, and most important in my mind, Dr. Perry noted that government labs allow us to take maximum advantage -- to leverage -- the technical work being done by all the actors, private, university, and governmental. In our own case, for instance, the labs give us the knowledge base to direct and supervise the 80 percent or so of our research and development funding that is spent outside the Air Force. So, as you can see, there is a strong rationale for service labs and there is good support for the lab system at the highest level in todays Department of Defense.
We are lucky that, very early in its existence, the Air Force recognized the importance of having its own in-house research capability. Gen Hap Arnold and Dr. [Theodore] von Karman [former head of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board] worked out the concept back in 1945, even before we had become a separate service. And since then, our labs have filled that critical leadership role of focusing and leveraging the nations technical resources to meet Air Force needs. You've performed research, convened industry teams, and transitioned technology to air and space systems. It's clear that without the stimulus of Air Force labs, we would look dramatically different. For example, Harry Hillaker, the father of the F-16, wrote that if it had not been for the breakthrough technologies being pursued by Air Force labs at the time, there would be no F-16 today. Hillaker was talking about fly-by-wire control systems, relaxed static stability, the high-g cockpit, and high angle-of-attack inlets. The pioneering work on all these features was done in our labs.
So, the work of previous Air Force leaders provided the rationale for our labs and you and your predecessors have followed up with the deliverables -- the new science, the innovative applications of existing science. This record of performance puts us in a position to offer tonight a concise mission statement for our lab system, and let me now do so.
The mission of our Air Force labs is "to ensure technology preeminence of U.S. air and space forces." Now, this isn't very startling -- not, perhaps, even very original. But it is a straightforward way for the secretary and me to explain how the labs support the Air Force mission -- where you fit in. The central idea is to define your mission in terms of the medium in which we operate -- air and space -- and the standard we expect you to achieve -- technology preeminence. Please note that the word "technology" is meant in its broadest sense, to include leadership in affordability, reliability, maintainability, and so on.
I believe it is a good thing to propose such a mission statement at this time because the secretary and I need your help in solving a tough problem. As you know, 1993 was the "Year of Equipping the Air Force." The idea was to focus top management attention on long-range planning. We challenged the senior leadership of our major commands to project hardware requirements and write acquisition plans out to the next 25 years. We have their inputs in hand and the Air Staff is putting them together into one master plan for the whole Air Force. Overall, I think the process has been useful. For the first time, the Air Force will have a comprehensive, long-range plan to cover modification of existing equipment as well as procurement of all kinds of new hardware, munitions, and supporting systems. I believe the result will make us a better customer, will enhance the stability of the requirements part of the acquisition process.
But, I'm concerned that our end product reflects too much evolutionary thinking. Of course, I'm not surprised. Evolutionary thinking is what we should expect from operators. Folks in the field are always driving at top speed to put out todays fires -- and rightly so. Their problems are current, tangible and unforgiving. As a consequence, I've asked the Scientific Advisory Board to stretch beyond the evolutionary, to make sure we don't miss the leapfrog technologies, the breakthroughs that are our best guarantee that the Air Force will remain the worlds dominant air and space power. I've challenged the SAB -- and I challenge you -- to give us creative, revolutionary thinking.
I don't want to leave you with the impression that the operations and scientific communities can't or shouldn't work together. But, frankly, long-range planning is too important to be left to operators only or to scientists only. We need both viewpoints. Arnold and von Karman talked about the importance of this partnership back in the 40s -- long before strategic alliances and consortia became today's fads. The warfighting and laboratory team has served us well in the past. It continues to be the best approach for the future.
Now, where should we focus our thinking? Well, for my money we should start with air powers underlying strengths: speed, range, flexibility, precision, and lethality. I consider that these are more or less eternal verities. That is, no matter how revolutionary our technical approach, these will continue to be the defining values of air and space power. These are, after all, the features that give us comparative advantage. And therefore, these are the features we must continue to improve -- not just one or two of them -- all five. But, our air and space forces will rely on you especially for help with four out of the five.
I'll set aside flexibility for a moment and we'll talk about speed, range, precision, lethality. For instance, speed. We need to operate faster. We can do this any number of ways -- not just by gaining airspeed. I would note in passing that it's very interesting what has happened to us with respect to airspeed. My career as a pilot spans more than 40 percent of the history of manned flight, and I have never flown faster than I did as a lieutenant, in the F-104. And, we are still at least 10 years away from fielding the next major advance for operational aircraft, supercruise in the F-22. In any case, physical speed is very important -- we say "speed is life" -- so we will continue to have more than a passing interest in airspeed.
But the combat requirement is to operate faster -- not just fly faster. We're vitally concerned about faster targeting, faster command and control, faster battle damage assessment, and so on. We need to speed up the air tasking order process, both generating the order and breaking it down at the unit level. We want to quicken and tighten the loop between intelligence and operations so that we don't go into battle with stale information. We must shorten generation times -- not just for aircraft, but also for space systems, where it can take months to get ready for launch. A reusable, single-stage-to-orbit space launch capability would go a long way toward picking up the pace of space operations and could reduce costs in the process. So, speed is important, and you can help us there.
How about range? We simply must have improved range. Range is essential because we're bringing our forces home from overseas. I hope we can double turbine engine fuel specifics by the turn of the century. Unmanned systems seem to offer promise. This is especially important in reconnaissance, where we need long-endurance sensor platforms that can do continuous wide-area surveillance and targeting.
Next is precision. Arriving quickly at a distant target provides absolutely no dividend if the result is a gross miss. In World War II, the average miss distance for bombs dropped in so-called "precision" daylight bombing attacks was one kilometer. By contrast, during Desert Storm, precision had a simple meaning: hit the aimpoint. We didn't always achieve it, but we all saw it was possible. Precision means hit what you're aiming at: at night, in bad weather -- whenever -- hit what you're aiming at. And in general, I think we know how to do that. The help we need here is to get the cost down. We need to lay in an inventory of precise munitions. We need sustainability. So, unit cost is the hard part. We need help.
Let's take up our last technical quality, lethality. As a practical matter, if precision means hitting the aimpoint, lethality means aiming at the right thing. For some, this problem was solved fifty years ago with the invention of nuclear weapons. It didn't seem to matter much whether we were aiming at the right thing. Now we know a lot more about the usefulness of nuclear weapons. Turns out, they are not all that usable, thank goodness. "Nukes" are not very discrete and one of the remarkable -- but I think overlooked -- lessons of Desert Storm is the importance of discrete attack. Lethality has taken on what is almost an aspect of finesse -- being able to attack and shut down targets with minimum collateral damage -- even to the enemy -- but especially to friendly forces, non-combatants, and the environment. If we define lethality in this manner, then we should address so-called non-lethal technologies -- non-lethal in human terms, but quite lethal in terms of killing systems or degrading capability. Possibilities include disabling hostile computer systems or altering material properties so that, for instance, rubber tires fall apart. I admit, this all sounds a little James Bondish; not something that should come from a guy who's spent lots of time thinking about putting "fire and steel" on target. But, I believe this is the kind of creative thinking we all must do.
Another promising, if more traditional approach to lethality is to develop micro munitions that trade off yield for very high precision. Such munitions achieve the desired kill while avoiding unwanted side effects. Our political masters know one thing for sure about the new "world village:" When they order military action they are likely to see the results quickly on CNN -- and so will everybody else in the world. There is a sense in which, to be lethal, we must be employable -- and to be employable, we must be discrete.
That brings up an interesting point. Until now, I've talked about our technical strengths -- speed, range, precision, lethality, as if they are entirely separable and can be worked on in isolation. But, of course, they are not. In this last case, micro munitions, for instance, we see a linkage of precision with lethality. The most creative and productive solutions will be crosscutting in this same way. Take intercontinental ballistic missiles. They travel thousands of miles. They arrive on target in less than 30 minutes. What if we substitute for the traditional nuclear payload hundreds or thousands of very precise, individually targetable conventional micro munitions? Can't we all imagine a target set that such a weapon would be ideally suited for? Moreover, such a concept builds on all four of our technical strengths -- speed, range, precision, lethality. I'm convinced that our labs can help provide technical solutions needed to build in this crosscutting way on our technical strengths.
Finally, of course, the Air Force must improve its employment flexibility. I have spoken at length on this topic elsewhere. It's very important. And, there is a technical dimension to flexibility. Speedier, more widely ranging, more precise, and more lethal weaponry will surely give us the potential for greater flexibility. But, we know for sure that superlative forces, possessing all sorts of wonderful military attributes -- can be, often have been, used in a very unimaginative, inflexible way. For example, the labs provided us with the best bombers and fighters in the world; yet, for years, we chose to separate them artificially into "strategic" and "tactical" categories. These labels weakened our combat potential, and, in fact, our combat performance, by producing an inflexible mindset and doctrinal rigidity.
I want you to know that the operators are trying to do our part to improve flexibility, so as to make the most creative use of the weapons you provide. We worked organization first. We now require as a matter of policy that organizations be streamlined, delayered, decentralized -- that we don't build inflexibility into our structure. Next, we're working to train our people better, more comprehensively. They will be less specialized, will have a deeper understanding of their jobs and possess a broader range of skills. Better organized, better trained -- means our people will themselves be more flexible.
Finally, we continue to redefine concepts and tactics, in part based on the new hardware you have pioneered. For instance, stealth is getting us out of the business of building huge, ponderous air armadas in order to push a fraction of the force through air defenses to the target. We're developing new concepts of "parallel" warfare to replace the old sequential roll back approach. The point is to use our imagination to open up the possibilities for more flexible operational employment.
Well, no one ever accused us of tackling the easy problems. It's clear we have our work cut out for us. And it's also clear that we need your help. You must help us decide where our dollars will have the most impact. You must provide the creative insights we need. You must help provide the tools we will use to protect the nation. That is, perhaps a sobering thought to start out the new year -- but I'm not thinking of 1994, it's 2020 that's on my mind. I do, however, wish you a safe and happy new year as you continue your mission to ensure the technology preeminence of U.S. air and space forces.