Airmen at Osan Air Base, South Korea, build bombs. The Air Force Research Lab is examining the possibility of modular weapons to save money. (Staff Sgt. Chad Thompson/Air Force)
The Air Force has a vast inventory of weapon systems developed and purchased through dozens of programs. Maintaining that disparate arsenal is costly and, in a time of budget cuts, increasingly important.
Luckily, the Air Force Research Laboratory believes it has a solution in its flexible weapons program.
“If you look at open literature on the weapon systems we have, and you put them together on a single piece of paper, you’ll see that a lot of the weapons look alike,” said Leo Rose, program manager for flexible weapons with AFRL. “They’ll have a tail end that may be different, or a front end which may be different, but for the most part, the bomb kind of looks the same. And that’s a very inefficient way for the Air Force to do business, in my opinion.”
The key to Rose’s project is making sure technology can automatically sync up when added to the core of a weapon. He compares it to building a personal computer, in which anyone can pull out a processor and install a brand new one without a hitch.
“One of the things we want to show is that you can develop an open architecture common interface, such as component A and component B inside the weapon can be connected and self-realize,” Rose said. “So if I have an EO/IR [electro-optical/infrared] seeker and I plug it into the weapon, then the control module says, ‘Oh, you’re an EO/IR sensor, I’m going to function in this fashion.’ [Then later] I take that off and put [a radio frequency] seeker in, and the control module says, ‘You’re now an RF seeker, so I have to fly this way.’ ”
There are two major areas that would benefit from flexible weapons: capability and cost.
Flexible weapons could eliminate the technology gap between when a weapon is developed and when it can be integrated onto a platform.
“We have made it so that our war fighter gets technology several years later than he should get it, and that’s wrong,” Rose said. “If we’ve done the risk reduction, if we’ve improved capability in some fashion, we should be able to put that in his bag of tricks today. So part of what flex weapons are going to try to do is look at how we can make technology refresh more economical.”
The technology might also allow the development of smaller weapons, which would allow the war fighter to carry a higher payload.
Envision a scenario in which a platform is loaded with several extended-range weapons, which have larger propulsion systems on the back. Under the architecture being explored by AFRL, those propulsion systems could be easily removed, shrinking the size of the weapon and increasing the number that can be equipped for a mission.
With the Air Force looking at shrinking its number of platforms, that kind of flexibility could prove vital.
“If we had fewer airplanes, I need more weapons on those airplanes. How do I do that? One way is to make [the weapons] smaller,” Rose said. “More weapons on the airplane is better.”
Cutting the number of weapons purchased and maintained also should result in lower Air Force costs overall. As an added benefit, Rose said he believes his program could have a “powerful” effect on industry.
Companies spend millions of dollars developing new weapons technologies, with the winner reaping the benefits and the losers looking at sunk costs. With flexible weapons, the service would not have to decide on a single winner.
“If I had this open architecture already defined, then I don’t have to choose between company A and company B’s seeker. I can buy a mixture,” he said, allowing that second company to recoup some or all of its expenses.
Given the potential returns, there is no surprise that service officials are keeping an eye on the program.
“We are in continuous communication with [Air Combat Command], who would be the customer, and they are cautiously optimistic,” Rose said. Additionally, “we’re in communication with the Navy and the Army. We’ve gone to them and invited them to participate.”
Rose believes all three services will have to consider a move in this direction, but conceded that change might not come easily.
“If you built your house with direct current and I’m telling you that [alternating current] is a much better way to go about it ... it’s a hard sell to tell you to change to AC,” he said. “So we have this huge investment in resources that is out there already. It’s not that people aren’t interested, but it’s how you get from point A to point B.”
At the same time, Rose points out that the movement toward open architecture is Pentagon-wide.
Frank Kendall, defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, has expressed an interest in seeing the military move in that direction on a number of programs.
But don’t expect to see flexible weapons in the field anytime soon. AFRL is still figuring out which pieces and parts are needed to prove that the concept can succeed. That would be followed by a series of planned demonstrations that should be completed by fiscal 2017.
Eventually, Rose said, he hopes to see “everything we have in inventory” replaced with a flexible weapon.
“If we prove that this is a smart business case and we can do technology refresh ... when technology is ready, as opposed to when I can afford to do [it], I just think it makes a lot of sense,” he said.