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In the Air Force of the 21st century, some "bombers" won't carry bombs. Some won't even carry pilots. Those with a human in the cockpit may be steered not by hands on a wheel but by brain waves in a computer.

These are some of the notions the Air Force is pondering as it looks to a future with less money to spend and fewer people in uniform.The Air Force boasts that it already is the most powerful in the world. What it wants now is to find ways to stay ahead, to imagine how it can adapt to the post-Cold War era and compete with the other military services for war missions.

Some of the answers are sketched out in a 2,000-page report, "New World Vistas," Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall said Wednesday. An advisory group of outside experts - mostly scientists and engineers - compiled the 15-volume report at Widnall's request. One volume is classified secret.

"The changes will be as profound as those experienced by the Army in moving from horse to tank or by the Navy in converting from sail to steam," a summary volume says.

Widnall said the Air Force is setting aside money to pursue these ideas, which apply to a broad range of Air Force activities from collecting and transmitting information in space to airlifting supplies in peacetime and war.

Prominent among the "Vistas" ideas: Use unmanned aircraft to do more than the spy missions they perform now; let them take the place of some combat planes. Guided from control centers inside the United States, robot planes could roam the world with laser weapons to destroy ground and air targets.

Although it goes against the grain of traditional Air Force people, the idea of pilotless combat aircraft has inherent advantages over manned warplanes.

Unmanned craft could be more survivable, for starters. Shape and function need not be constrained by a cockpit, a human body or an ejection seat.

Gene McCall, who directed the "Vistas" project, told a Pentagon news conference an unmanned strike plane could be designed to accelerate at 20 times the force of gravity, or double what a pilot can withstand. With such speed of maneuver, the unmanned plane could simply outfly a hostile missile, McCall said.

An unmanned bomber or fighter also could be stealthier, McCall said. The plane could be perfectly flat on the bottom, reducing vulnerability to radar detection. The landing gear could be on top rather than on the bottom, and a simple rollover maneuver - impossible with a human in the cockpit - would put it in landing position.

For all its promise, remotely piloted combat planes aren't likely to enter the Air Force for another 20 years or so, McCall said.

Even then, McCall said, pilots will not become extinct. "I don't think we're ever going to replace completely the manned aircraft," he said. The pilots who remain may not steer with their hands; scientists are working on ways to use the electrical impulses from a pilot's brain waves to guide the plane.

Among the other innovations foreseen for the early part of the 21st century:

- Hypersonic missiles. With on-board links to navigation satellites, they not only will be faster but also more accurate. McCall said a one-second electronic emission from a hostile surface-to-air, or SAM, missile radar would be enough to enable an Air Force plane 200 miles away to strike it within one minute.

"We can make the operation of SAM sites the world's most dangerous occupation," McCall said.

- More powerful explosives. Besides being more accurate, munitions will be more powerful, per unit mass, by a factor of 10. Tiny bombs using just grams of explosive could destroy moving targets, even tanks or missile batteries.

- Drugs. Using what the "Vistas" report called "chemical intervention," the endurance and performance of pilots and other Air Force people can be enhanced. Chemical and other means can be found to reduce physical and psychological effects of jet lag, for example.