This article was originally published as the Leading Edge column in the Apr. 16 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
Photo: US Navy
Budget cuts not only put pressure on the scope of defense research, but also emphasize the speed with which results can be fielded to improve today’s weapon systems.
The Office of Naval Research (ONR)—responsible for science and technology (S&T) across sea, air, land and space realms for the US Navy and Marine Corps—is looking to field technologies faster to meet the objectives of the Defense Department’s new strategic guidance.
“ONR’s strategic plan, released in the fall of 2011, refocused us in the right areas,” says Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research. “We knew anti-access/area-denial would be important, so we refocused our core S&T.” Focus areas that support assured access, he says, include autonomy and unmanned systems, expeditionary and irregular warfare, information and cybersecurity, power projection and integrated defense.
“We knew times are going to be tough, so we reduced from 13 focus areas to nine,” Klunder says. ONR also diverted some funds from foundational “discovery and invention” research to programs that could deliver results more rapidly. Some of these ONR has been working on for several years, and could be in the fleet within 1-3 years, he says.
Others are “leap-ahead” technologies that ONR wants to accelerate. “We are absolutely committed to prototypes to get capabilities out to the fleet more quickly,” Klunder says. “We feel confident, in a tougher budget, that we have [up to] three leap-ahead technologies that will get into the fleet.”
Examples include the electromagnetic rail gun. The Navy was aiming for a weapon with a muzzle energy of 64 megajoules (MJ), an exit velocity of Mach 7.5 and a range greater than 200 nm, for fielding by 2025. Now the program is focused on a smaller, 32-MJ, 100-nm weapon that can be delivered sooner and integrated more easily onto existing ships such as the DDG-51.
BAE Systems and General Atomics have delivered 32-MJ tactical prototypes for test firings. Now they are developing pulsed-power and thermal-management systems. They plan to deliver prototype multi-shot, actively cooled rail guns for firing tests in 2017, leading to a multi-mission weapon.
The free electron laser (FEL) program has also been restructured. Plans to develop a 100-kw prototype as a step toward the envisioned megawatt-class weapon have been put on the back burner. Instead, ONR will mature solid-state laser technology, already being pursued by the Army and Air Force. A solid-state laser would be less powerful, but smaller and could be adapted more quickly for shipboard use.
The Navy continues to believe FEL is the best solution for a naval directed-energy weapon, as its beam is tunable to minimize atmospheric absorption and distortion in a maritime environment, but “[we] also realize that some of the technologies still have a ways to go,” Klunder told Congress last month.
ONR’s two newest prototype programs, meanwhile, have an aviation focus. The Variable-Cycle Advanced Technology (VCAT) effort will take the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology (Advent) demonstration and apply it to propulsion systems for next-generation manned and unmanned carrier-based strike and surveillance aircraft. Under Advent, Rolls-Royce and General Electric will test variable-cycle engines combining high thrust for supersonic speed with low fuel burn for subsonic endurance.
The Autonomous Aerial Cargo/Utility System (Aacus) program will enable unmanned vertical-takeoff-and-landing aircraft to drop off and pick up loads in adverse weather and harsh terrain. The “platform-agnostic” system will allow the aircraft to autonomously avoid obstacles, select an unprepared landing site and touch down precisely, with the ability to react to unplanned events.
Aacus and VCAT support the newest of ONR’s five “national naval responsibilities” (NNR)—sea-based aviation. NNRs are “areas where the other services, the federal research establishment and the private sector may not have the incentive to investigate, [so] the sole responsibility rests with the Navy,” says Klunder. Aviation NNRs focus on challenges associated with launch, recovery and deck operations of manned/unmanned aircraft on carriers and other air-capable ships (see photo).
A key goal of an NNR is to provide funding stability to maintain an industrial capability unique to the Navy. “Supporting the industrial base is very important,” says Klunder “If we tell them where our priorities are, and don’t go off on tangents, industry is then willing to invest its independent R&D dollars. The trend line is getting better; we are providing clearer direction and reducing wasteful dollars.”
Klunder is also keen to bring the acquisition community into the S&T process earlier, to ease the transition from R&D to procurement. “It is always a challenge integrating new technologies on to platforms,” he says. “As we develop prototypes, we need to bring on engineers from the acquisition side to tell us what interface standards they would prefer. We can compress the acquisition process when we work side-by-side.”