Air University Review, September-October 1969

Technology and Aerospace
 Power in the 1970s

General Bernard A. Schiriever, USAF (Ret)

The title “Technology and Aerospace Power in the 1970s” leaves the inference that somehow technology will dictate military policy. I would like to correct that inference. While technology is vital, we have to have the proper policy and the proper attitude at the leadership level if we are to have the necessary aerospace power.

During the past several years, we have had a policy which has inhibited technology. For the past eight years, we have had a very active policy leading toward a political détente with the Soviet Union. I am sure no one quarrels with the basic idea of a détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. What is debatable is whether a détente is actually possible and how we should go about achieving it.

There were people who expressed the belief as far back as the early 1960s that the Soviet Union desired an accommodation with the United States. They felt that if we could only reduce cold war tensions by avoiding provocations with the Soviet Union we could in fact achieve a détente. Among the things which these people considered provocative was our strategic superiority, which they thought would induce or initiate action leading to new weapon systems. The theory was that these new systems would tend to escalate the arms race, especially nuclear weapon systems.

I will not argue whether these beliefs and the actions taken in recent years on the basis of these beliefs were right or wrong. I will leave it to your judgment to determine whether we have made any real progress toward a meaningful political détente. But the fact remains that in recent years we have slowed down our progress in military technology as a result of the détente theory.

Dr. John Foster, as Director of Defense Research and Engineering in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, stated last year in his testimony before the Congress that financial support for technology had been steadily reduced since 1964. Under this policy of reduced research and development, we have not initiated any new weapon system programs. Admittedly, we did begin a major program for the very large logistic transport aircraft, the C-5A, which is now undergoing airborne testing. But we did not initiate any new strategic systems. As a result, we now have reached a condition of strategic parity with the U.S.S.R. In one of his last statements before leaving office, Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford officially stated that we would arrive at strategic parity with the Soviet Union in 1969.

The advocates of political détente remain very aggressive today—aggressive and adamant that their approach is the right one. Their aggressiveness is manifested in a number of ways, particularly in the stories we see in the East Coast newspapers. Their attack on the antiballistic missile (ABM) system is unceasing. Unfortunately, there are some vulnerabilities in this system which make it a logical target for criticism. But, if they are successful in blocking the deployment of this system, they will undoubtedly expand their attack to include all other military developments as well. Their campaign includes constant references to the so-called military-industrial complex. Hardly a day goes by without some article in the Washington Post and New York Times on this subject. The articles in these papers and in some popular magazines as well contend that the military has done a miserable job in designing and developing new systems for national security, that cost estimates have been unrealistic, and that reliability has been low. The purpose of these attacks has obviously been to undermine the confidence of the American people in what was being done by the Defense community.

On 19 February 1969, Air University presented another Thomas D. White Lecture, when General Bernard A. Schriever, former Commander of the Air Force Systems Command, spoke on the subject “Technology and Aerospace Power in the 1970s.” Air University Review takes pleasure in presenting an adaptation of General Schriever’s views to it’s readers

The Editor

By comparison, there seems to be some change in Defense policy under the new administration. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, on the TV program “Face the Nation,” recently gave some very enlightening facts about what the Soviets had been doing to strengthen their military posture. He stated, for example, that in the area of defense against missiles the Soviets had been spending at the rate of 3.7 dollars to every 1 of ours. And that this ratio equated to about 7 to 1 if the gross national product of the two countries was taken into account. Mr. Laird also stated that the Soviets had maintained a substantial margin over the U.S. in their recent expenditures on offensive systems. I think this is the kind of factual information that the American people need to be told if they are to provide the right kind of recommendations to their political representatives in Washington on matters of national security. I think without question that the American people should express their beliefs about national security, but they cannot offer very sound opinions unless they have the essential facts. I was pleased that Mr. Laird offered these enlightening facts to the American people on Soviet military programs.

After the right policy has been adopted, its implementation depends upon the right attitude. Hence attitude among leaders is extremely important. Attitude can be described in many different ways, but I would think that a leader must exhibit a positive attitude, characterized by dedication, motivation, initiative, and innovation. Such a positive attitude is essential for leaders of groups and organizations in this dynamic technological age. The policy under which we have been operating during the past seven or eight years has placed a considerable amount of inhibition on our leaders in technology who would normally have a positive, can-do attitude. And the management procedures governing Defense R&D and systems acquisition have imposed additional frustrations on those who had a positive attitude. Instead of building hardware, the Department of Defense has conducted endless studies. And the sense of urgency that existed during the Fifties in developing our ICBM force and getting us into space has all but disappeared during the Sixties.

Let me cite examples from some of my personal experiences. The Thor, you will recall, was a medium-range ballistic missile. We selected a contractor for the Thor in two weeks’ time. Under present procedures, it would take a year or longer. In regard to the Minuteman, which is now the backbone of our intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, we had a similar experience. When I first went to the Pentagon to discuss the Minuteman, no one had ever heard of an ICBM with a solid propellant. But we gave a complete briefing on the planning and technical studies that we had carried out to determine the feasibility of such a missile, and within forty-eight hours we had approval to go ahead with the Minuteman.

Initially, we were authorized only $50 million for the first year of the Minuteman program. We knew it would take $150 million. But we were betting that the other $100 million would come, and it did. A year later, General White called me in to ask me to knock a year off the Minuteman schedule.

That was the climate of the day and the sense of urgency that existed during the Fifties.

In more recent years, the idea has been presented that we are on a technological plateau. Many of us who have spent our lives in technology simply cannot agree with that thesis. And I think the comments that I make later will substantiate the fact that we are not on a technological plateau. Back in 1963 and 1964 we made a massive study in the Air Force of the potential of technology—what we called a “technological forecast.” In other words, we tried to predict what technology could do, what deficiencies it could fill, what improved weapon capabilities it could provide during the next five-, ten-, and fifteen-year periods. The study was made by members of the government, both military and civilian, but the study group also included experts from industry and the academic community. Project Forecast, as it was designated, recommended certain high-priority areas for R&D, recommendations based on the greatest potential payoff for the future. Some areas promised major breakthroughs or quantum jumps.*

The technological areas recommended for high-priority R&D were rather broad. One area was materials; propulsion was another; aerodynamics was still another; and electronics in its broadest sense was recognized and recommended, along with nuclear weapons and lasers. I would like to address myself to a few of these, just two or three, because they are still, today, in 1969, the areas of highest potential. They still contain the promise of the quantum jump that we used to talk about in the Fifties.

Let us look first at materials. Materials are basic to everything we build these days, especially to aeronautics and to aerospace. Designers are always looking for lighter and stronger materials and for materials that can withstand higher temperatures. In recent years there has really been a breakthrough in materials, particularly in boron filament composites, carbon filament composites, and several other advanced composites. They are stronger and lighter than aluminum or titanium or stainless steel. Aircraft structural weights can be reduced by as much as 30 percent with the use of these materials. This weight advantage has been thoroughly substantiated in the laboratories. Detailed studies have been made by both nonprofit organizations, like the RAND Corporation, and by industry. This kind of weight advantage really constitutes a major breakthrough. As a matter of fact, it is probably the most important breakthrough in materials since the Bronze Age, and that was 3000 years ago.

Engine weights can also be reduced very substantially by the use of these advanced materials in compressor blades, engine cases, and all other parts that do not have to be subjected to high temperatures.

In addition, some high-temperature materials have been developed, as well as new cooling techniques, which together allow for a very substantial increase in turbine operating temperatures. To name one example: the airplane with the highest performance today, the SR-71, can fly at speeds of over mach 3 or more than 2000 miles per hour. It has a turbine inlet temperature of 2200°F. With the application of some of the new materials and cooling techniques, there is no reason why we cannot raise inlet temperatures to 3000°F.

If both the lightweight and high-temperature materials were used, engine designers could give us engines with thrust-to-weight ratios (a measure of the efficiency of an engine) of over 20, as compared with today’s common thrust-to-weight ratios of ten or less. These more efficient engines would give us substantial increase in fuel economy, or what we call specific fuel consumption.

These more powerful and more efficient engines and the stronger and lighter aircraft structures could be available during the Seventies. I think it is just a matter of sooner or later, not “if.” In fact, the first applications are already being made. For example, recently Lockheed selected a Rolls Royce engine for its new jumbo jet or airbus, the L-1011. Why? Because Rolls Royce was using carbon filament compressor blades, which substantially reduce the weight of the engine and give it considerable growth potential. Since Lockheed made that decision, both of the U. S. jet engine manufacturers, General Electric and Pratt & Whitney, have initiated programs to apply the advanced materials in their new engines. I am sure we will see these new materials being introduced in an evolutionary process in the newer engines that will soon be going into production.

The second technological area that was identified in Project Forecast for high-priority R&D was propulsion. A vital goal to reach in propulsion is supersonic combustion. All our jet engines today burn their fuels at subsonic speeds, even though the aircraft may be traveling at supersonic speeds. The result is a great deal of drag in the inlet ducts because the air has to be slowed down in going through the combustion chambers. With supersonic combustion, this drag would be eliminated and engine efficiency would be significantly increased. Supersonic combustion has been achieved in experiments, both in and outside the laboratory.

What does supersonic combustion mean for air-breathing engines? We have been struggling to design an aircraft that will fly at mach 3, three times the speed of sound. We are facing many difficulties in our supersonic trans-port (SST) program. Throughout the program, the state of the art has been pushed to build an aircraft that can fly at mach 3.2 economically for commercial use. With supersonic combustion, we can jump immediately from mach 3 to something like mach 6 to 10, meaning that we would more than double the speed of our fastest aircraft today. Theoretically, it is possible with supersonic combustion to attain speeds that are almost orbital. From a technical standpoint, the “aerospace plane” that we were talking about a few years ago—one that could take off on a runway and climb and propel itself into orbit—may not be as farfetched as some people then thought. I will not predict this kind of plane for the 1970s, but it certainly is technically feasible and could very well be developed before the turn of the century.

People who have been advocating a slow-down in military R&D, who oppose the research necessary to give us supersonic combustion, often support their arguments by claiming that such R&D would be too costly. I disagree. I do not think that a valid case can be made for a reduction in research and development, or for reduction in the Defense budget as a whole, on the grounds that defense costs are overstraining the national economy. Even with Vietnam, our military expenditures have been less than 10 percent of the gross national product per year. The 1970 budget is projected at $79 billion, and that is 8.2 percent of the GNP. Economists agree that this is not an overwhelming burden on the economy of a developed nation. The Soviet defense budget is closer to 15 percent of the GNP.

What can we expect to see in the 1970s and ‘80s? I think it is fair to say that technology—available technology—could bring about a revolution in aeronautics. I imagine this statement comes as a shock to many. When we climb aboard the commercial transports of the day and cross the country in four to five hours in parlor comfort, it is difficult for us to imagine that we could be just entering into a revolution in aeronautics. But we must remember that the Wright brothers made their first flight just a little over sixty years ago. When I went through flying school in 1932, we flew in open cockpits, wore helmets with goggles, and tied scarves around our necks. Snoopy didn’t have anything on us at all—we looked just like him. So, if we consider the progress that has been made since I entered flying school thirty-six years ago, it should not tax our imagination to foresee revolutionary progress in the next thirty-one years, between now and the year 2000. When I predict a revolution in aeronautics, I mean just that.

Let me give one example of how the revolution might develop in regard to our new logistics aircraft, the C-5A. This huge airplane will weigh over 700,000 pounds fully loaded and will carry over 100,000 pounds of cargo 6000 miles, nonstop. With some improvements to the engines, such as I have mentioned, plus the introduction of some advanced materials in the airframe, there is no reason why the range of that aircraft could not be extended to 10,000 miles with an increased payload.

With the advent of these large, efficient, and economical aircraft, we could have developments beyond airborne warning and control to, perhaps, a mobile air defense system. Those who are familiar with our technological forecast will remember that we talked about mobile air defense (MAD) and airborne defense. With large aircraft for command and control and with fighter aircraft similar to the F-12, which would have a long-range radar and long-range missiles on board, and with tankers for airborne refueling, it would be entirely feasible to use a force of that kind to sweep large air defense areas or to achieve and maintain air superiority. In other words, the mission of air defense for North America could be extended to other areas.

Taking a look at the aeronautical revolution from another direction, I foresee a regeneration of interest in nuclear propulsion for aircraft. We know that it is feasible to build nuclear propulsion systems for aircraft. There has been a lot of progress since the earlier program was canceled a few years ago.

But as we begin to design very large aircraft for very long-range operations, the demand for nuclear propulsion will return, and this time I think it will be heeded.

Another area in which there could be revolutionary development in aviation in the next decade or so is the short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft. We have had the technology to build STOL aircraft for quite some time, but we have not been able to build an economical or efficient one, for either commercial or military use, except for very specialized purposes. We are now entering a period in which we can expect profitable, efficient, high-performance STOL cargo aircraft. I know many airline executives who think that STOL aircraft will be the next major development in commercial aviation. I am convinced that, if we include some of the new technologies in materials and propulsion in the next generation of STOL aircraft, we can have an accept-able one. I think we might also be able to develop an effective STOL tactical aircraft quite soon, and eventually I am sure we will also be able to design one for strategic use.

There has been quite a debate about whether a requirement exists for an airplane with hypersonic flight, that is, flight above mach 5. There is no doubt in my mind that a requirement does exist, both commercially and militarily. Of course, one of the big problems with respect to the supersonic transport is that it will produce a sonic boom in excess of three pounds per square foot. That is completely unacceptable for overland flight. But a hypersonic airplane, flying at 150,000 feet, would create only a very low-order sonic boom that would be tolerable for overland flight. That same hypersonic vehicle might also serve as a reusable booster for space flight. The same propulsion technique could be applied. And a reusable booster would be a major step forward in economical space operations.

If we could couple a reusable booster with a lifting body (i.e., a wingless vehicle whose whole configuration develops lift), we could have controlled re-entry instead of today’s return to earth via ballistic trajectory, which has been the course followed by Gemini, Apollo, and other manned flights. A controllable or maneuverable re-entry vehicle would add a great deal of operational flexibility. We know that, technologically, such vehicles can be developed.

We need still other capabilities in space. To our proven capability to rendezvous, we need to add a rescue capability, a repair capability, a resupply capability, and a maneuverable re-entry capability. I call these the five Rs of space. They are all within our grasp, from a technological standpoint. If we could develop a reusable booster and a maneuverable re-entry vehicle, we would be able to add a whole new dimension to space operations. The technology is in the laboratory; we need to push the application.

Another area of technology on which I would like to comment briefly is electronics. Electronics was one of the areas identified by Project Forecast as having a high potential for development and deserving priority R&D. I would like to expand the term “electronics” to include inertial guidance systems, infrared technology, and some laser applications. One of our most difficult technical problems in the Air Force is finding and identifying targets and then being able to hit them accurately. This problem is particularly difficult at night and in bad weather. The answer to the problem lies in some recent developments in electronics, especially in infrared and laser technologies. Our experience in Vietnam has taught us again that our ability to find and identify targets is a pacing factor in the application of air power. We need to press forward vigorously with developments in electronics relative to this problem.

The state of the art in electronics also has strong impact on our ABM system, with particular emphasis here on infrared technologies and nonnuclear means for the destruction of warheads. Although most of the current debate about the ABM is more confusing than enlightening, the fact is that there are some soft spots in the system from the standpoint of technology. It might be well for us to remember that there never has been a 100 percent effective defense system against aircraft, and we would be wise not to expect one against missiles. But we do need to make a start. We have been carrying on R&D for a long time, and, as I said, we have made important advances in electronics applying to the ABM system. These technologies, however, will not move forward aggressively unless there is the impetus and motivation of having an active system program and the continuing responsibility of improving the system. This responsibility has always been the key to progress. In the ICBM program we started with the Atlas, a “soft” missile system. Within five years we had progressed to the Minuteman in hardened silos and the sea-protected Polaris and Poseidon missiles. In other words, we must get going in order to get there. In my opinion, we need definitely to proceed with an antiballistic missile system.

I am confident we can make the necessary technological advances to give us an effective ABM system, possibly as early as the 1980s. We know that the Soviets are working hard to improve their existing system. And the country that has an effective ABM system will have a tremendous advantage in the strategic balance of power. I would be very much concerned if the Soviets had it and we did not.

I hope that this discussion has pointed up the very great potential for further development in the next two or three decades in the areas of materials, propulsion, and electronics. A survey of those other areas of technology identified by Project Forecast would reveal the same kind of potential, I assure you. In short, we are not on a technological plateau. Technology remains extremely dynamic. It holds tremendous challenge, tremendous promise, and a very serious threat. The Soviets have not slowed down their efforts to advance technology. They have moved forward vigorously in every area and with all the speed they can muster. The advance of Soviet technology remains a threat.

If we are to get our technology moving forward again, we must have a change in policy and attitude. I believe such a change is in the offing, judging from what Secretary Laird has been saying recently. It is my observation that a feeling exists in the Department of Defense and in other governmental departments that under no circumstances can we allow our technology to lag behind the Soviet Union’s.

That does not mean that we cannot negotiate with the Soviet Union to try to bring about an end to the cold war or to reduce world tensions. There is no reason why we cannot advance our technology and negotiate at the same time. That is precisely what the other side will be doing.

We should also recognize that the high-risk R&D, which only the Department of Defense can justify and carry out, applies not only to our national security but also to our economy. Spin-offs from Defense research and development greatly benefit our economy.

As for the change I predict in policy and attitude relative to technology, let me add the qualifier that some of the procedures, some of the systems, that have been put into operation in recent years cannot be easily reversed or streamlined. After some twenty-odd years around Washington, I have learned that it is very difficult to unseat the bureaucrats. They become entrenched and very difficult to redirect. But I think there will be changes even there, though it will take a little time to bring them about. Along this line, do not expect any immediate changes in the level of Defense resources being applied to technology. However, I would expect the FY 71 budget to place substantially more emphasis on new weapon systems. The level of that emphasis will be influenced to some extent by Vietnam, unless we have been able to bring that situation under control.

I might point out that other government agencies are entering into the field of research and development. This is especially true of the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. I am sure that any of you who have to go through the traffic jams in New York or Washington or elsewhere will welcome additional R&D in these areas. Studies I have seen in transportation, in ground systems as well as air systems, have presented some fantastic futuristic schemes. I am convinced that we will see some of these in the next ten to twenty years.

Regardless, however, of the debate going on now relative to investment in security versus investment in domestic affairs, the nation will continue, in my opinion, to support in increasing amounts the technology necessary for our national security.

I am quite optimistic that we have turned the corner and that we are going to see technology pursued in a more vigorous manner in the future.

Arlington, Virginia

*Editor’s note: General Schriever’s article entitled “Forecast” was published in Air University Review, XVI, 3(March-April 1965), 2-12.


General Bernard A. Schiriever, USAF (Ret) (M. S., Stanford University) was Commander, Air Force Systems Command, when he retired in 1966. After flying training in 1933, he flew as a bomber pilot, commercial airline pilot, and Army Air Corps test pilot during the thirties. He attended the Air Corps Engineering School at Wright Field and late-studied aeronautical engineering at Stanford, 1941-42. He then joined the 19th Bombardment Group, Southwest Pacific Theater, and in 1944 assumed command of Advanced Headquarters, Far East Service Command. Postwar assignments were as Chief, Scientific Liaison Section, DCS/Materiel, Hq USAF; student, National War College, 1950; Assistant for Development Planning, Hq USAF, to 1954; Assistant to the Commander, Air Research and Development Command, and Commander, AF Ballistic Missile Division, ARDC, to 1959; and Commander, ARDC, until creation of the Air Force Systems Command in 1961. General Schriever is now Chairman of the Board, Schriever & McKee Associates, Arlington, Virginia. He is also president of the Air Force Historical Foundation.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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