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Science, technology investment determines future

WASHINGTON -- Warfighting effects and what is needed to achieve them drive the Air Force's science and technology program, the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology and engineering told members of Congress on March 27.

"We're committed to a robust science and technology program that enables us to achieve our vision of becoming an integrated air and space force capable of rapid and decisive global engagement," James B. Engle said to the House Armed Services Committee subcommittee on terrorism, unconventional threats and capabilities.

Therefore, Engle said, the Air Force is seeking $2.2 billion in science and technology funding in the fiscal 2004 president's budget request, a $535 million increase from last year's request.

One area in which the Air Force has increased its investment is in space communications technology, he said.

The service is working to identify, develop and demonstrate the wideband technologies needed to build a spaced-based laser communications network. Such a network would increase the amount of data that can be sent through the military's satellites, he said.

With an increase in science and technology funding, there has also been an increase in the involvement of the warfighting commanders and senior Air Force leaders in the planning of Air Force science and technology, Engle said.

"The latest senior leadership review focused on transformational technologies that can be developed to assist in combating terrorism and other asymmetrical threats," he said.

One example, he said, is spray coating developed by the Air Force to protect key buildings from explosions. It prevents flying debris and wall separation in an explosion, he said. The coating is being applied to the interior surface of the Pentagon's outer walls.

Another effort being jointly developed with the Marine Corps is the Vehicular Mounted Active Denial System.

The system is "a directed energy weapon that emits a non-lethal, non-damaging beam, which heats up the skin of a potential enemy," Engle said. "The resulting temporary pain causes would-be attackers to flee."

The Air Force is also accelerating new technology to improve the equipment of its combat controllers.

According to Engle, these improvements will reduce the size and weight of their equipment. They also enhance combat controllers' effectiveness by reducing the time it takes to target enemy threats and reducing the possibility of human error in the targeting process.

The technological advantage of the Air Force is the result of decades of investment in science and technology, and highlights the importance of continuing that investment, Engle said.

"In the next 50 years, advancements in nanotechnology will provide the greatest change in how man operates since the invention of powered flight itself," he said.

By working with elements at the nanometer level, scientists and engineers will have access to the building blocks of nature, he said. This will fundamentally change the way materials and devices will be produced, resulting in lighter, stronger and even programmable materials.

Biotechnology is another significant breakthrough that will change the way systems are developed, he said.

"We are studying the fundamental science necessary to incorporate biological components and organisms into Air Force systems," he said.

One example the Air Force hopes to adapt is the natural infrared sensors of reptiles, Engle said. These natural sensors do not need to be cooled and would offer a great advantage over current Air Force sensors, which must be cryogenically cooled.

These and other advancements will be determined by today's investment in science and technology, he said.

"Only by continuing the investment will the Air Force retain its dominance of air and space in future conflicts against both traditional and asymmetrical threats," Engle said.

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