Powering the Future: Advances in Propulsion Technologies Provide a Capability Road Map for War-Fighter Operations

By Kelly, Michael F. | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Powering the Future: Advances in Propulsion Technologies Provide a Capability Road Map for War-Fighter Operations


Kelly, Michael F., Air & Space Power Journal


Editorial Abstract:Gen Hap Arnold's commitment to "preeminence in research," the belief that technology superiority leads to air and space superiority, remains the hallmark of Air Force culture. Air Force success in providing the nation with a rapid air and space response capability requires researchers to continue to provide advancements in a number of technologies. Propulsion and power solutions for aircraft, weapons, and space systems are especially important technologies and are recognized as critical enablers, also making the test facilities that support the research and development of those revolutionary and transformational technologies critical to our progress.

GEN HENRY H. "Hap" Arnold, architect of American airpower, said it plainly and persuasively nearly six decades ago, "The first essential of air power is preeminence in research." That simple, yet prescient statement in the early, heady days of flight revealed Arnold's vision for aeronautical research and development that went on to profoundly shape the future Air Force.1 By combining his vision, political savvy, piloting skills, and engineering knowledge, Arnold was able to forge a mission and place for the US Air Force. As one of the country's first to earn his military aviator wings from the Wright brothers, he was especially interested in the development of sophisticated air and space technology that could give the United States an edge in achieving air superiority. Arnold went on to foster the development of such transformational innovations as jet aircraft, rocketry, and supersonic flight.2

In many ways Arnold institutionalized a commitment to research that remains evident today as the Air Force upholds a position of technological leadership-leadership that delivers a steady infusion of new technology to war fighters through high-risk, high-payoff research in the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). More importantly, his vision of building technological superiority laid the foundation for our capacity to achieve today's Air Force distinctive capabilities-air and space superiority, information superiority, global attack, precision engagement, rapid global mobility, and agile combat support. Arnold's commitment to technology superiority remains the hallmark of Air Force culture.

For over 85 years, Propulsion Directorate scientists, engineers, support personnel, and contractors have been answering Arnold's call for world-class research that puts capabilities into the hands of Air Force war fighters to help them dominate air and space-now and in the future. Its 450 ongoing programs, over 1,000 people, and an annual budget of more than $300 million not only have provided a complete spectrum of advanced propulsion technologies for aircraft, rockets, and spacecraft but also have conducted leading-edge research and development in air and space fuels, propellants, and power systems.3 Their inventions have expanded the envelope of propulsion technologies and pushed air and space vehicles higher, faster, and farther-even into space-than Orville and Wilbur Wright ever could have imagined. Today, those technologies are flying in air and space on more than 130 military and commercial systems, including the F/A-22 Raptor, the newly christened F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), and the twin Mars rovers-Spirit and Opportunity, which successfully landed and began their explorations on the red planet in January 2004.4 This article discusses mainly the directorate's efforts and their actual and potential impacts-efforts that have been accomplished, are in progress, and are planned for the future.

Technological advancements in the early days of flight brought a whole new set of challenges, and history books confirm the key role that propulsion technologies played in meeting those challenges and in the nation's many air and space accomplishments. The late Melvin Kranzberg, professor of history at case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, said the technical innovation in the Wright brothers' airplane quickly necessitated additional technical advances to make it more effective.

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