Air Force Sees Drones In Its Future

The U.S. Air Force just released a strategy for the future, involving hypersonics and unmanned systems. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks about the plan with Air Force Maj. Gen. David Allvin.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Hypersonic speeds and nanotechnology - if it sounds futuristic, it is. But it's also part of the United States Air Force's 30-year plan. The Air Force just released that plan. And with us now to talk about it and to talk about some of the cooler aspects of it is Major General David Allvin. He is a two-star general who has served as the commanding general of the NATO Air Training Command in Afghanistan. Thank you very much for coming in.

MAJOR GENERAL DAVID ALLVIN: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think about the Air Force that you will pass on to the next generation of airmen and their leaders? What do you think? What is it going to look like?

ALLVIN: I think we will be a technical force. We'll be one that has a great marriage in partnership with technology. I believe we'll be a force that has more operations in space. I think we'll be more integral in the cyber domain - really understanding that domain as well as we have the air domain and even more so, we're getting into the space domain. I think it will be a smaller force - don't know how much smaller - but a very highly capable force and will remain the most dominant and responsive force for the country.

WERTHEIMER: The report talks about unmanned systems, General Allvin. And I understand that the Air Force already employees a certain number of unmanned systems which, you know, I think of as drones. Are they common now?

ALLVIN: They're certainly more common than they used to be. And the idea of unmanned aerial vehicles - the idea is certainly not new. When we were becoming an Air Force in 1947, we had visionaries, such as General Hap Arnold, who looked to the future. And they envisioned things such as unmanned aerial vehicles. But now we're finding that there's greater application for those types of vehicles. But we don't want to launch headlong into it and say then there's no purpose for humans to be in the aircraft anymore. There are some environments, some areas of operation when an unmanned aerial vehicle makes a lot more sense. However, to this day, there are still distinct advantages of having an operator in the loop that can have - exercise judgment in the employment of air power. So they're more common than they used to be. And as we move forward, we'll continue to look for applications where it makes sense for unmanned aerial vehicles.

WERTHEIMER: I understand that you went looking for some of those predictions when you were trying to see what the Air Force got right 60 years ago - 25 years ago. How right do you think your experts were?

ALLVIN: Well, it's - anytime you try and do predictions, you have to yield to the great philosopher Yogi Berra, who said predictions are tough, especially about the future. So - but we always seek to look further out than our initial gaze and see what may be - are the possible. And back in General Arnold's days, they had some quite visionaries who got some things rights. The idea of intercontinental ballistic missiles being able to take weapons across the globe - that was envisioned before it was really practical. But they saw the possibility. The ideas that there were - like I said, back then, they even thought about unmanned aerial vehicles. Some of those didn't come true. I think the document that we're referring to - the real challenge is not so much which predictions you got right, but what were the things that happened that we weren't predicting. So if we were to back-cast and look 10 to 15 years ago, who would've thought you could have a small device that could do anything for you - from, you know, understanding who's singing on the radio to finding a pizza place - in that small, tiny platform? So when we're looking forward, it's almost as important - and in some cases more important - not to get the future right, but to be able to adjust when you find out you may be wrong or things you hadn't thought of come into play.

WERTHEIMER: Major General David Allvin is a two-star general with the U.S. Air Force. Thank you very much for coming in.

ALLVIN: Thank you for having me.

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