Air Force peers into future; sees `smart' helmets, radar in space

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In the year 2000, Air Force pilots may wear ``Super Helmets'' to improve their vision. A computer image of the outside world would be displayed on the helmet's visor -- friendly planes, enemies, and targets clearly marked by cartoon images.

This futuristic idea is but one of many to emerge from Project Forecast II, a recently completed Air Force study of what high technology might hold for air power in the next century.

The six-month study was undertaken by the Air Force Systems Command (AFSC), the arm of the service charged with weapon-system development. It is intended as a follow-up to the original Project Forecast, put together in 1963, which picked for special treatment a number of items now in use: reusable space vehicles, large cargo aircraft, and composite materials, among others.

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``The Air Force needs a quantum leap into the 21st century. Despite advances, we're still on the frontiers of aerospace,'' said the AFSC's commander, Gen. Lawrence Skantze, in a recent speech.

The Forecast II team, about 150 people strong, evaluated some 1,500 ideas before sifting out 70 emerging technologies they felt were particularly important. Over the next eight years the Air Force will invest some $2 billion in research and development funds in these winners.

Other technologies picked for development include:

Nuclear-powered ``space pickup trucks,'' for shuttling cargo from low-Earth orbit to high geosynchronous orbit.

Methods for inserting false data into enemy command and control computers.

Space-based radar to detect aircraft and cruise missiles.

Advanced composite materials and alloys for use in airframes and engines.

Antiproton propulsion, a process in which oppositely charged hydrogen particles are forced together. The particles ``annihilate one another totally, producing pure energy which could provide rocket thrust,'' according to AFSC documents.

The Smart Helmet (sometimes called the Super Cockpit) is one of the most promising of these projects.

Since the fighter planes of the future will undoubtedly be more maneuverable than today's models, cockpits may well be smaller and feature reclining seats to allow more fuselage streamlining. Under such conditions, the pilot's view of the outside world would be restricted. This is where the new helmet comes in.

Using data from sensors in the aircraft's nose, on-board computers would generate a schematic picture of the world outside and channel it to the Smart Helmet, the visor of which would become a display screen.

Pilots would feel as if they were sitting inside a giant and very realistic video game. White cartoon aircraft might be friendly, for instance, with flashing red ones enemy. Projected flight path might be marked by a yellow road winding away into the distance. Large red shapes by the side of the road might designate areas of danger created by surface-to-air missile sites.

``Such visual information would be easily retained by pilots under even the harshest conditions,'' notes an AFSC summary of some Forecast II technologies.

And the stresses caused by high-speed turns might be great indeed, if another Forecast II idea, the advanced aerospace vehicle (AAV), comes to pass.

As far as Air Force planners are concerned, AAVs -- sometimes known as hypersonic planes or transatmospheric vehicles -- would be unparalleled air-superiority fighters or strategic bombers. ``We're talking about the speed of response of an ICBM and the flexibility and recallability of a bomber,'' said General Skantze.

Autonomous weapons are yet another Project Forecast II goal. Whereas today's tactical missiles use only one sort of homing mechanism each, such as heat-seeking or radar-homing, autonomous weapons would use a combination of such technologies.

Launched from warplanes in a combat area, they would pick their own targets, use pre-programmed computer memories to identify enemy tanks, planes, or buildings, and remember which was the most important to destroy.

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