Few people are better positioned to close the gap between science fiction and reality than Douglas Beason. Not only is Beason responsible for visualizing and helping to mold the U.S. Air Force’s future in space and cyberspace, he’s also an accomplished science fiction author who has seen elements of his writings become reality over the past two decades.
Much of Beason’s work these days is focused on the nexus between the space and cyberspace domains, which are linked because they both deal in crucial data. The Air Force needs capabilities that are not only secure but also rapidly reconfigurable, which suggests different architectures than exist today, he says.
A related area that is critical to enabling the capabilities envisioned by Beason and others is space launch, where the Air Force seeks not only reduced costs for large payloads but low-cost quick-reaction capabilities for smaller ones.
But perhaps Beason’s biggest challenge is coming up with near-term technology and operations concepts that can be implemented in a budgetary environment that is putting the squeeze on science and technology spending.
Beason spoke recently with Space News correspondent Leonard David.
Late last year, U.S. Air Force Space Command carved out a set of long-term science and technology challenges. What are those and why have they been identified as important?
It really comes down to where the Air Force is going in the future. It all has to do with budget and new technology and how we insert advances in a timely manner. Last December, Gen. William Shelton [commander of Air Force Space Command] codified a new vision, mission and goals for the command. Four challenges were identified: Eliminate cyber restrictions; provide a full-spectrum launch capability at dramatically lower cost; provide real-time, cross-domain, predictive, assured situational awareness; and establish intrusion-resilient cyber networks.
Who was asked to address these challenges?
The memo was sent to the commander of Air Force Materiel Command as well as Gen. Shelton’s commanders and other acquisition authorities in the Air Force. The four challenges have been coordinated with the Air Force Research Laboratory, Space and Missile Systems Center, and 14th and 24th Air Forces. I work very closely with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), advising them on what future capabilities at Space Command we would like to have. And it’s not only near-term and midterm, but we’re also putting a stake in the ground 20 to 30 years out.
Eliminate cyber restrictions means what?
We mean specifically as a limitation to situational awareness in command, control, communications and computers, such as position, navigation and timing provided by the Global Positioning System. You can see we’re mixing cyber in with communications because they all have to do with data. If we cannot have assured autonomous, reconfigurable data capability, then we will not be able to fight in any type of future warfare environment.
How do you define assured?
We need to know that the data our warfighters are receiving are actually the data we intended them to receive and that adversaries can’t mess with the data. They’re not jammed, not altered in any way. And that includes distinguishing environmental effects like solar storms. So the idea is to augment legacy systems, as well as smaller, fractionated, reconfigurable network systems. I think it’s fair to say our future systems, to be able to overcome cyber restrictions, will not look like what it looks like today.
Why chase the Holy Grail of low-cost launch?
We just can’t keep going the same way. We need to not only drive down the cost for large launches but augment them with midsize and smaller on-demand launchers. There’s a lot of talk about cubesats, microsats, smaller satellites. We’re not saying flood the skies with those. But we may need the capability to launch, on demand, these smaller satellites. So when we say full-spectrum launch capability we can envision a future where we have the large launches, even though they are expensive, and we can augment those with midsize and smaller launches. That’s how they fit together.
Can you in some way quantify what you mean by dramatic cuts in launch costs?
Of course we would like to get down to a rapid routine of affordable launch. Ultimately, we like to get to factors of 10, but factors of two would be great. Realistically, we can’t apply that factor of 10 to the very large launches. Elon Musk and Space Exploration Technologies are showing that we can drive launch costs down, but not by a factor of 10.
How do you move toward assured situational awareness, your third challenge?
There are important words in this challenge: real-time, cross-domain, predictive and assured situational awareness. It’s a paradigm shift to dynamic situational awareness for both space and cyber. Right now we catalog and then react, tasking sensors one by one in a serial manner. We want to have relevant, actionable knowledge. For example, if we’re lucky, we get three days of advance warning for a conjunction between two satellites. If you can see out farther, even fusing disparate, nontraditional data, we can try to understand why it’s happening. Is it because of solar storm activity? Because of a malfunction? Or is it because of nefarious intent?
What’s needed to establish resilient space and cyber systems?
We have to invent autonomous and scalable technologies. For instance, we need to exploit virtualization with human-machine interfaces. What’s key in this fourth challenge is to be able to rapidly reconstitute and to reconfigure both our space and cyber systems. No matter how bad things are, how do we operate through to be able to accomplish the mission? Is an adversary a 13-year-old kid or a nation-state? We don’t know sometimes.
It’s a daunting list of challenges. Did anything fall off the table in your deliberations?
Actually, no. I worked with colleagues at AFRL and colleagues, say, at the National Reconnaissance Office and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. These four challenges give the science and technology community what we call in the Air Force high cover. That’s the ability to make investments in these areas that may be innovative but are not your typical solutions that the operational community is demanding. We’re not looking at purely evolutionary increases in capability; we’re looking at real revolutionary capability. It allows them to align their basic research with their applied research.
Does being a science fiction author benefit your job of looking into the future for the Air Force, or vice versa?
The type of science fiction I write is not fantasy. It’s nearer-term science fiction. Some of the stuff I wrote 20 years ago has already come to fruition. In my Air Force job as chief scientist, it’s a chance to work with some of the visionaries in the science and technology community to help realize what some of these future capabilities could be — alternate visions of where Space Command might want to go.
What are the drivers, or assumptions, as you look decades out into the future?
Two points are drivers. For the first time that I know of, we are looking at changing the way that we have new capability, not necessarily driven by national security threats. It’s driven by economic threat — having less money. That really provides not only a challenge but an opportunity because technology is changing so fast. We can take advantage of those changes and get away from the old paradigms.
If we’re going to have these capabilities in the 2030 time frame, how do we steer this big ship to get there? Some of it may not be realizable. Others may come within a few years because of technological breakthroughs.
The second thing has to with the personnel structure of Space Command. Every one of our senior leaders has a background in science and technology. The upper leadership here is so different from what it was 20 years ago. They get the necessity of what science and technology can do.