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Capability assessment helps AF prepare for future

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 05, 2005) -- Air Force leaders use a future capabilities assessment to assist in planning for 2025 and beyond.

More than 100 participants from the Air Force's planning, operations, research and development communities gathered Oct. 4 in Herndon, Va., to play out scenarios that may threaten the United States in years to come.

Together, those leaders discussed how the Air Force of the future will defend America against threats with the tools it has now. They also discussed what new tools the Air Force will need to fight future threats, said Col. Gail Wojtowicz, division chief for future concepts and transformation of the Air Force plans and programs directorate.

"We are looking at the 2025 time frame and asking what does the Air Force look like 20 years from now," she said. "In the next 20 years, we don't know exactly what it is we will be doing, but we know there are some challenges that we will have to focus on fixing."

This year, those gathered at the assessment focused on two key areas the Air Force believes it can improve: long-range strike capabilities and persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Long-range strike capability is the ability to reach out across the globe and hit a target. That could mean a gravity weapon used by today’s aircraft, or it could mean use of a space weapon 25 years from now.

"Long range strike is the key to everything for us," Colonel Wojtowicz said. "We don't do it as well as we'd like, but we do it better than everybody on the globe. If I want to do long-range strike against country X, today it may be a B-2 [Spirit] delivering a gravity weapon. Twenty years from now it may be a space weapon. So I am calling space command, and they are going to go ahead and put hardware on targets. Our challenge is we need to reach across different stovepipes in the Air Force."

Colonel Wojtowicz also said long-range strike could mean a computer attack on an enemy's command and control networks, or use of a high-powered microwave for the purpose of disrupting network systems.

Persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is the ability to monitor an enemy 24 hours a day with an unblinking eye. It is a capability the Air Force is going to need in the future and something discussed at the assessment to end Oct. 6.

"You are going to have to be able to stare in order to find the things we are looking for," Colonel Wojtowicz said. "If you can't find where the nuclear weapons are, if you don't have the eyes to do that, there is no way you can affect it later on."

During the assessment, participants were given scenarios to play out that involve finding nuclear weapons inside enemy territory. Persistent ISR may be one capability they discover they will need to locate that weapon.

Today, the Air Force has not fully developed persistent ISR that allows it to look deep inside enemy territory. Unmanned aerial vehicles that fly along a nation's borders cannot peer deep enough inside to see what the Air Force needs to see. In space, orbiting satellites’ revisit rate is not enough to provide persistent ISR, and there are places where satellites cannot operate in a geosynchronous orbit.

One solution to providing persistent ISR includes balloons floating in "near space," an area about 18 miles above the surface. That is significantly higher than where a UAV may fly, but not as high as a satellite.

"Currently what we have is weather balloons," Colonel Wojtowicz said. "You have things that look down (with) cameras or we can use them as a communications relay point. Something that high up gives you an incredible amount of range that you can see."

In the past, the future's capability assessment has been called a "war game." Today, it is more of a guided strategic discussion about the Air Force's future capabilities. Participants are challenged with any number of future wartime scenarios and will be called upon to find solutions to those scenarios.

"These are challenges we have to have our senior leaders address today, so we have the tools to affect these things 20 years down the road," Colonel Wojtowicz said.