Disruptive technologies, asymmetric threats and a changing geo-political landscape are only a few of the challenges facing today’s Air Force. We’re joined by Senior Fellow in Defense Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council and former USAF Chief Futurist, Lt. Col. Peter Garretson (Ret.) to discuss the key political, technological & social trends driving future air power.
Peter, you have a tremendous list of honors & accomplishments, but for the audience sake I should frame things by saying that over the 15 years I’ve known you, and I’ve always understood your role to be the chief futurist for the Air Force, and that’s how I wanted to approach this interview. Would that be accurate?
Certainly at the time that we met, that was my role. It was actually one of my titles. I was in charge of looking at the longterm trends, and our charge was further out than most. We were always looking out beyond 15 years, and usually in the 30 to 50 year timeframe.
My job was to imagine how different trends in technology, demographics, and black swan events that could disrupt our expectations, which involved a lot of scenario planning.
I also functioned as a tech scout, looking for potential surprises and reviewing emerging technology to provide the USA with an advantage for it’s armed forces & foreign policy.
I realize that futurism is a constantly changing playing field because technology continues advancing — but taking that into account, let me ask where you see the future of air power going in the next few years?
Well, I think right now is an extremely rich time for air power theorists because we’ve just seen the organizational split of the Department of the Air Force into separate air and space forces. This means that many of the concepts that have been traditionally associated with air power, such as global intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance now belong to the Space Force.
This puts the Air Force in a position with both upsides and downsides. For instance, the USAF is now limited to thinking purely atmospherically, but the upside is that it makes the narrative very clear and allows them to really think about what aviation can do in terms of national power and warfare. I think this shift will be very good to help the Air Force achieve its mission.
In terms of that mission, in the air power is facing a revolution in military affairs along with challenges posed by advancing technology. Military aircraft provide amazing power projection over theater and even global distances, but advances in both short and long range missiles can threaten aircraft where they previously couldn’t. How does air power overcome the fact that it no longer has sanctuaries anywhere?
This is one of the big questions we have to answer — along with asymmetric risks like a multimillion dollar aircraft being held at risk by a quadcopter, and a whole new realm of threats from short range air defenses from guided missiles to UAS mortars, and cross-domain threats from cyber attacks & ground-to-air lasers. We’re getting squeezed in a lot of ways, but that usually also results in significant innovation.
What are some of the predictions you and your team have made in the past that have come true, and what are some predictions that we’re likely to see become reality in the future?
You know, the privilege of the futurist is being able to immerse yourself in the trends, where others are forced to focus on today’s problems. So it’s perhaps no great gift of foresight that by looking at what’s likely to come, you see it before others. In fact, that’s why your bosses employ you to do that — to minimize their surprise.
One of the things I wrote about early in my career was personal digital assistants. Back when the very first Palm Pilot came out I realized they’d become indispensable tools. I was also ahead of the curve on GIS systems, which we now call Google Earth & Maps, as well as being early proponent of precision airdrop, which actually saves lives using GPS guided parachutes.
Another area I was ahead of the curve on was advances with drones — both unmanned as well as remote, augmented & mixed reality systems. I also predicted trends in cyber warfare & outlined the need for cyber-defense planning, and along with both the need & inevitability of the space force.
My team also contributed to several joint reports, such as the Air University “Fast Space” report that laid out the contours of the reusable launch revolution, low-earth satellite mega constellations and reasons we should surf that curve.
I’ve got a book coming out this summer called Scramble For The Sky which describes this in more detail, and makes the argument that nations are increasingly going to frame space in terms of its economic value — which makes affordable access to space resources very important.
The United States has air supremacy compared to both our allies and rivals. Are nations like China or Russia are closing the gap at all, and do you think that we’ll see real competition in the future in this area?
Okay. So first of all, you only know if you actually have air supremacy or really any measure of air control when it’s actually contested in a conflict. Right now in peace time, nations control the sovereignty of their own borders, and regions like the near abroad have only been tentatively tested. This means that our best estimates come from doing a net assessment of relative numbers, technology and training — and based on those standards of comparison, we look pretty good.
But you know, for Americans concerned with national security, there’s a genuine reason to worry, because after a decade of focus on land-based irregular warfare we have’t kept up in terms of air power. It hasn’t decayed, but we’ve sort of run in place while our competitors have sought to catch up. They’ve been able to study us and see exactly how we operate — which tells them about our strengths & weaknesses, what they should copy, and what should they should attempt to deny.
Honestly, we’re facing very capable & intelligent potential adversaries who have full access to our open society and are able to largely benefit from the fruits of our initial investment. China in particular has just put an immense amount of resources into attempts to copy what we’re doing right and attack the places where we’re wrong.
In this case, however, it’s important to realize that the primary Chinese strategy is not to actually win a war with the United States, but instead to make the prospect of war too costly & uncertain for the United States to come to the aid of our allies. If we perceive the game is too rich for us, then we’ll withdraw and they’ll expand their sphere of influence without war itself.
The example of the South China Sea comes to mind, but China is also doing essentially the same thing on our doorstep at the Panama Canal and South America, as well as domestically in the United States with 5G and telecom. This raises some hard questions about whether we want to live in a world where the USA is a second-tier power that has to ask permission about what we can say or share on the internet.
I think a spate of recent books have really cataloged this well, including Stealth War, The Shadow War, China’s Vision of Victory, and Trump vs. China. The scale and importance of this threat to our way of life isn’t appreciated to the degree that it needs to be, and it threatens both our foundational leadership in the world and our political liberty at home.
There have been a lot of allegations of intellectual property theft by China, and the FBI is currently investigating around 1,000 cases of Chinese espionage — many of which are related to dual-use civilian & military technologies. Is the potential for losing our technological advantage a real threat, and is this something that the Air Force is actively working to prevent?
So here’s the problem, Tim. The Air Force completely appreciates this problem in technology, and what you would you said is completely accurate. We face an across the board theft of intellectual property and the penetration of our defense contractors and tier-2 suppliers. It is a deliberate strategy of corporate espionage and predation waged very deliberately by the Chinese state specifically to undermine our power in the long run.
The problem is that while the Department of Defense understands how severe this problem is, they literally control none of the levers that matter in this. This is trade policy within the Department of Commerce, the Department of State, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, and our court system as well. Nearly everything that it would take to secure America is outside the competency and authority of the Department of Defense.
To be honest, it took a while for the Pentagon to understand the scope of the threat in the first place, because the industrial base isn’t something the military actively controls or manages in a free society. The DoD looked at this as being somebody else’s problem until it became clear how much this was adding to enemy capabilities because of their ability to a reverse engineer and denude our industry.
There are two types of threats we face: direct and indirect. A direct threat is when I launch a missile against your F35 aircraft. Indirect could mean that I buy up all the suppliers of microchips so that the only way that you can build that F35 is with Chinese microchips, or perhaps I buy up and put out of business everybody who’s not a Chinese supplier of rare earth metals, so nobody can build those microchips. That gives me a coercive lever to shut you down.
Another indirect threat is if I invest heavily in your companies so that during a time when you want to come to the aid of your ally, I say, “you need to lobby your Congressman not to do that, or I’m going to withdraw my financial support for your company.” We’ve also seen China invest in US companies, move key technology back to China and then shut down the US subsidiary.
The bottom line is that China is playing for advantage to get back to what it thinks is the proper relationship of the universe, in which is where it is the central polity and everybody else kowtows or bows to its cultural superiority. That’s a vision that Americans may not want to participate in, and requires awareness of a national security threat that penetrates many aspects of our society, from politics to technology, trade and investment.
Let’s jump into the technology side of things: as technology advances and the physical demands on pilots continue to increase, do you think we’ll end up reaching a point where all combat aircraft are remotely piloted?
Let’s start by asking with the underlying question: does the technology allow that? Absolutely. In fact, technology has allowed that for a while — and machine learning is only making it better. In fact, if you look at the primary method for air-to-air kills in today’s world, it’s already remote. I mean, what is a missile except a drone aircraft that terminates by killing itself?
Remotely piloted aircraft are already here — they’re just not ubiquitous. We already have drones that fly themselves most of the time for surveillance and targeted strikes. Autonomy is coming, but there are strategic reasons not to move too fast, and there are cultural reasons why we may never get there.
First of all, countries like to have people on the front lines because it raises the bar of commitment. Many thinkers have looked at war as a sort of bargaining or signaling game. By placing your soldiers on the front lines, it serves as a commitment to say that you cannot help involving us at a very deep level.
Secondarily, we still have a comparatively higher trust in humans as autonomous agents. There is the fear that you might’ve incorrectly programmed something or the autonomous system won’t be able to adapt to some innovation or deception by the enemy.
Finally, you also have to take into careful consideration whether this autonomy is going to is violate any conventions, be suitably discriminant in what it attacks, and give human commanders adequate control.
This raises a lot of big, difficult questions. If something goes wrong and it shoots down an airliner or bombs a hospital, who’s to blame, and how do we hold people accountable? I actually worked on the Pentagon’s policy on autonomous systems, and part of that is being able to hold people who command military actions accountable.
I was also wondering about the limits of human endurance for long-missions, like the news stories about pilots living on caffeine & go-pills during the Iraq War. Human pilots get tired, mistakes happen, and lives can be lost — but with machines that doesn’t happen, right?
You are right that we routinely encounter the limits of human fatigue and endurance in a diversity of systems, along with the cognitive limits of planning and coordination. This is one of the reasons why you’ve seen the rise of ISR-based drones — it splits the endurance of the aircraft from the endurance of the crew. You can trade out the crews on the ground and keep the aircraft up for 24 hours or so.
The problem isn’t that autonomy isn’t already there. We have aircraft already that can take off on their own, be remotely commanded to a position, drop bombs and come back. That’s all been demonstrated. The real problem is that its prohibitively expensive to retrofit a legacy fleet, and it’s also expensive to go and buy a bunch of brand new aircraft.
That puts us in a position very like militaries were at the eve of World War I, where you would see some mechanized forces, but also a lot of horse drawn carriages. The reality is that we’re stuck with a legacy force that we just don’t have the money to recapitalize right away.
There’s certainly ample room for innovation in this space, and I think we’ll see it, but it has been unbelievably slow. If you had asked me 15 years ago where I thought we’d be today I would have been much more bullish on having pilots out of the cockpit and moving towards unmanned.
What about propulsion systems? I know this is an area you’ve carefully explored looking at avenues for innovation. Will we see future change in this area, or simply more refinement in petroleum-based turbine engine systems in military aircraft?
You know, for high-end aviation it’s really tough to beat density and handling qualities of hydrocarbons. Now at the margins of long endurance, there have been innovation in hydrogen, electric, solar powered , and power beaming, but I’ll be surprised to see large aircraft and particularly fighter aircraft move away from hydrocarbons anytime soon.
If you’re going to imagine an ideal energy storage medium, you want to have the maximum energy storage per volume and per weight, and there’s almost nothing that outperforms hydrocarbons. They also have advantages in terms of handling qualities — even compared to something like high energy density nuclear systems, which are simply too big & heavy for aircraft.
Ages ago, people looked at augmenting the C5 with a reactor for cruise power to increase overall range and reduce the aircraft’s long term hydrocarbon footprint. But how many nations want those things flying overhead?
Budgets play a role in propulsion, too — when you’ve got limited investment dollars and a large installed base, there’s a lot of uncertainty involved. Without having an opponent moving first in a direction that gives them new latitude, it’s probably not going to happen. If I were a betting man, I’d say that 30 years from now military aircraft will still be primarily hydrocarbon based.
What about the bleeding-edge concepts we used to see at the STAIF Conference? I remember one intriguing proposal for an aneutronic fusion scramjet capable of horizontal takeoff and landing and potentially even near-earth space travel.
Well, let’s put a pin in that and I’ll come back to it, because I think that it’s one of those really interesting dark horse ideas. Again, I think we’re going to see a a lot interesting innovation at the margins in the near future.
OK, so for the installed base of civil and military aviation, I’d be very surprised if we saw a major change inside of 30 years or so, and they will be the last to convert. However, amazing things are happening at the margins — like the drone revolution, and even personal helicopters and hover vehicles for individuals.
You’re seeing all kinds of experimentation with electric propulsion both at low altitude and high altitude, not just battery powered vehicles, but also advances in ion-propulsion, along with what I see as a big potential for beamed power propulsion. These innovations lead to fascinating possibilities, but we don’t know how fast it will happen or how far-reaching it will be.
We’re already starting to see change happening today. For instance, if you counted every quad copter that’s flying, how many of those are electric? You know, the next time we have a COVID-19 type of scenario I expect I’ll be getting my groceries delivered by a quadcopter — which will require an entirely new system for coordinating airspace, along with recharging stations.
For applications like this, where you have lightweight, autonomous vehicles that don’t have to charge for hours or need to stay up and resident, it makes sense to move towards power beaming. So I expect that you’ll see a small, niche aviation power beaming market begin to emerge.
For larger aircraft, our current form of fission-based nuclear power could make sense. The Air Force explored this back in the 60’s on cruise missile with projects Pluto and Slam, and the Russians tried to do a similar thing as well.
This was a cold-war idea for a cruise missile that would basically just circle around in the skies indefinitely, and in the event of a war it would go in and drop a bunch of nuclear warheads. The idea was interesting, but very dirty — it would put a bunch of radioactivity into the atmosphere, and I gather from the incident that the Russians had that the technology is still not mature.
During the cold war, we also explored the idea of having a manned, nuclear-powered bomber — the Valkyrie was part of an effort to mature that technology. That project essentially stopped when we figured out that we could do air-to-air refueling with hydrocarbons fairly easily.
But now we come back to our real dark horse, which is fusion. Bob Zubrin’s wonderful book, The Case For Space, also makes the case that when Elon Musk began the reusable space launch revolution, he inadvertently also kicked off a race to fusion.
Zubrin essentially said that people looked at the SpaceX ability to land a rocket and started thinking that the issue wasn’t technology, but institutional. This led to fusion research via private startups — and right now I’m aware of at least eight fusion startups being funded by various billionaires.
If a compact fusion reactor comes out of one of these startups, there are a lot of different directions that it could go. I can remember people saying that fusion propulsion in general is likely to be a lot easier than sustained fusion energy — but I’m not sure if aneutronic fusion is the path that would ultimately win for propulsion.
Right now, there’s no significant investment in fusion propulsion, and part of the reason is that there’s no requirement for it. If you want that to change — and if want America to be on the path towards a fusion rockets to open up the solar system as well, then tell your elected leaders that our newly created Space Force should have an asteroid defense mission.
It’s likely going to take an ambitious goal like that to move fusion propulsion forward, because other than the asteroids, the military can get pretty much everywhere it needs to go with conventional propulsion.
Peter Garretson is an independent strategy consultant focusing on space and defense. His accomplishments include a 33 year career with the Department of Defense, and service in a number of prestigious roles such as the Chief of Future Technology for USAF Strategic Planning in the Pentagon, the Director of the Space Horizons Task Force, and the Division Chief of Irregular Strategy, Plans and Policy, and as a strategic policy advisor to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.
Peter has also served as an assistant professor of comparative military studies at the USAF Air Command and Staff College, as member of the National Space Society Board of Directors, and in his current role as Senior Fellow in Defense Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. Learn more on his website at: http://www.spacestrategist.com/