Pentagon plans for 21st-century air power

Computer wizards and long-range ''stand off'' weapons may dominate the battlefield of the future. But that does not mean that the leather-jacket-and-white-scarf ''right stuff'' guys are to be retired.

Far from it, as the United States tries to use its technological edge to offset much larger and increasingly sophisticated Warsaw Pact air forces. So-called Stealth technology is the best-known new wave in combat aircraft, incorporating soft shapes and composite materials to make attackers more difficult for enemy radar to spot. But there are many other far-out aspects coming to manned military flight as well.

Nuclear engines, supersonic helicopters, wings that can change shape in flight, fiber-optic systems that can mend themselves in battle, integrated controls using artificial intelligence that could allow the pilot to issue flight instructions through voice commands alone: These are some of the many emerging technologies that will characterize aircraft design and development into the 21st century, Defense Department scientists say.

The Pentagon spends one-third of its budget on aircraft, and critics note that the military has always been particularly fond of things that would-be heroes can ride in. One of those who testified on advanced aeronautics recently was noted test pilot Chuck Yeager - the first American to fly faster than the speed of sound, and more recently of movie and spark-plug commercial fame.

But a top official says, ''There are no foreseeable replacements which offer the combination of mobility and firepower afforded by aircraft.'' Or as the lead article in the current edition of Air Force Magazine puts it, ''Fighter pilots are here to stay.''

There are two basic reasons for this. First, there are many occasions even in the most futuristic combat situations when there still must be ''a man in the loop,'' as tacticians say. This is one of the arguments for maintaining the manned-bomber leg of the strategic triad. Bombers can be recalled. Missiles can't.

There also are clear signs that Soviet aircraft builders are moving ahead rapidly with new generations of aircraft. ''The Soviets are developing new planes in every category, and their technology is light-years better than what it was,'' John W. R. Taylor, editor of Jane's All the World's Aircraft, said recently. ''They have learned, and learned very quickly. The edge we felt we had in terms of better planes, better crew training, better control systems, and so on is rapidly disappearing. Put all these factors together and it's very formidable.''

The Warsaw Pact has fielded six new types of fighter and attack aircraft over the past decade, the 1983-84 edition of Jane's authoritative publication states. And ''Soviet fighters continue to roll off the assembly line at a rate of three a day, far surpassing NATO production,'' Jane's reports.

Given budget and other political constraints, there are no plans to match the Warsaw Pact's rate of aircraft production. But allied officials hope to widen the West's technological lead, which had been enjoyed for some years but now has narrowed considerably.

''Long-term, well-selected research and technology efforts are perhaps needed now more than ever before,'' Robert S. Cooper told a congressional committee last month. Dr. Cooper, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon, outlined for lawmakers some of the new technologies that he said ''could make an order-of-magnitude level of difference in military capability.''

He spoke of ''metal matrix and advanced organic matrix composite structures'' that could eventually reduce aircraft weight by up to 50 percent and withstand much higher temperatures. Higher ratios of engine thrust to aircraft weight could cut fuel consumption by up to 40 percent, he said. This would allow aircraft to fly farther and at higher sustained speeds. The potential for super computers to help designers find the best aerodynamic shapes for civil as well as military aircraft ''is staggering,'' Dr. Cooper said.

''Radical new design concepts in structures, propulsion, flight control, and aerodynamics can provide a quantum leap ahead of our adversaries,'' he said.

One new design is the Grumman Corporation's X-29A, which has a movable canard (a small wing toward the nose) and a forward-swept wing that is made of graphite epoxy composites instead of metal. The X-29A is scheduled for its first flight later this year. Even more radical ideas are under consideration - including nuclear-powered aircraft and defenses against laser attack.

''Nuclear engine propulsion is feasible for long endurance aircraft if R&D (research and development) is resurrected from the late 1950s,'' Dr. Cooper told the lawmakers. ''Endurance of days/weeks could be achieved in the early part of the next century.''

By this spring, aerospace companies will have submitted designs for the ''advanced tactical fighter'' that is to become operational toward the end of this century.

In Air Force Magazine, the Air Force's Aeronautical Systems Division commander, Lt. Gen. Thomas McMullen, describes the ''transatmospheric vehicle'' that may succeed the advanced tactical fighter. As envisioned by General McMullen, this air/spacecraft could fly in the upper atmosphere or even in low earth orbit, quickly reaching ''any hotspot in the world to perform multiple missions.''

Jane's Mr. Taylor observes that ''from a technological viewpoint, aviation has never faced more exciting and challenging prospects in the four score years since Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first tentative powered flights at Kitty Hawk.''

Which means that the days of stick-and-throttle are far from over.

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