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AFRL commander describes Air Force’s technology vision

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- The Air Force Research Laboratory commander discussed the future of hypersonic technology, directed energy and autonomous systems at the 2014 Air Force Association’s Air & Space and Technology Exposition here Sept. 16.

Maj. Gen. Tom Masiello reported that AFRL is working to weaponize hypersonic technology and make it available by the 2020-plus timeframe, which will provide a rapid strike capability and assist with more technical air strikes or possibly be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Study results collected by the AFRL have shown that hypersonic systems have the ability to fly at Mach 5 or 6, at very high-altitudes, and deploy a fast-response weapons system capable of flying over 500 nautical miles in less than 10 minutes.

This, he said, provides the warfighter with more energy on target while using a smaller warhead.

“What first put hypersonics on the map was our X-51 that flew in May of last year and it was an aviation milestone,” Masiello said. “It flew (under scramjet power) for more than 200 seconds when the previous record was just seven seconds.”

Currently, in addition to hypersonic technology, AFRL is researching and developing two forms of directed energy systems, Masiello noted.

“(The high-energy laser program) has been over-promised, but under-delivered,” he said, adding that he was on occasion leery of the program’s progress.

According to Masiello, the solid state laser has emerged as a breakthrough program in recent years. “Now you can actually package it and fit it on an aircraft.”

Currently, AFRL officials are researching lasers in the defense of aircraft with protection against missile threats and as a means of air and ground precision attack with low collateral damage.

“I can’t over emphasize the progress we have made in solid state lasers,” Masiello said. “Initially, we are looking at more self-defense. Eventually (we will) deploy against soft targets ... getting to hard target kills.”

High-powered microwave weapons technology also provides an alternative to kinetic weaponry by focusing on electronic target defeat, Masiello noted.

Masiello explained that during the testing phases, the AFRL set up two targets, an office building with computers and a hardened building that was a simulated chemical or biological facility.

The test facility deployed the Counter-electronics High-Powered Microwave Advance Missile Project, or CHAMP. Masiello showed test videos indicating that after the CHAMP passed the facilities, it was successful in deploying counter-electronic measures, shutting down the computers systems in both facilities.

“The capability is real … and the technology can be available today,” he said.

AFRL officials are also focusing on the research and development of autonomous systems to assist with facilitating decisions at the speed of computing.

The ultimate goal, the general reported, is to create an effective human and machine team.

“We want machines to make decisions, we want the machine … to be a teammate,” Masiello said. “We want the machine to do what it does best and take off the burden from the individual.”

Currently, AFRL is testing the use of air collision avoidance systems, which provides autonomous control of an aircraft in the event that the artificial intelligence senses a possible midair threat.

Additionally, AFRL is developing a work-centered processing, exploitation, and dissemination cell with the goal of providing an analytic system capable of integrating large amounts of data and alerting an analyst to possible threats, he said.