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The US Air Force is tinkering with an unusual design for its biggest planes as it prepares for a potential long-range war with China

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A rendering of the Blended Wing Body prototype aircraft.

US Air Force

The Pentagon has awarded a contract for development a Blended Wing Body aircraft prototype.
The design promises more fuel efficiency, larger payloads, and the ability to use shorter runways.
The US Air Force sees all those qualities as vital for success in a war in the Pacific region.

The US Air Force has picked aviation startup firm JetZero to develop a full-size demonstrator aircraft with an unusual design that could transform how the service builds its tanker and cargo aircraft.

The investment in the Blended Wing Body reflects the Air Force’s interest in aircraft that can carry larger payloads farther while using less fuel and a wider range of facilities, which the service says it will need to win a war with China in the Pacific.

“We are in a race for a technological superiority with what we call a pacing challenge, a formidable opponent,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the service’s top civilian official, said while announcing the contract on Wednesday, in a reference to China.

“There’s a real potential in this technology to help increase fuel efficiency significantly, and that’s going to lead to improvements in not just the efficiency and capabilities of our force but also in our impact on the climate,” Kendall said at an event hosted by the Air and Space Forces Association.

Chaudhary, left, Kendall, center, and O’Leary at the contract announcement on August 16.

US Air Force/Air Force Association

The design blends the wings and the fuselage, “decreasing aerodynamic drag by at least 30% and providing additional lift,” the Air Force said in a release. “This increased efficiency will enable extended range, more loiter time, and increased payload delivery efficiencies,” which are “vital to mitigating logistics risks.”

While the design has been around for decades, it has not been widely adopted, but recent advances in design, materials, and manufacturing “have made large-scale production achievable,” the Air Force said. The latest investment aims to further develop the design and assess its capabilities and how to incorporate it in future aircraft.

Under the contract, the Pentagon will provide $235 million over the next four years, which will be coupled with private investment “to take the full-scale demonstration to fruition,” Tom O’Leary, JetZero cofounder and CEO, said at the event, adding that the goal was a first flight by 2027.

The Air Force is the US military’s biggest user of jet fuel, and its tanker and cargo aircraft are responsible for about 60% of that consumption annually. The service is interested in the increased fuel efficiency offered by Blended Wing Body aircraft — JetZero says its design “cuts fuel burn and emissions in half” — and Kendall and other officials touted that at the event.

A US Air Force flight engineer guides an R-11 Refueler next to a C-5M cargo plane at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in March.

US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Marco Gomez

“When you take a look at the challenges we have going forward, we know that operational energy is going to be a critical factor,” said Ravi Chaudhary, assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, installations, and environment.

Energy usage is “going to be the margin of victory in a near-peer competition, particularly in the Pacific. So we’ve got to be laser-focused on that — laser-focused on endurance, range, speed,” added Chaudhary, whose office is overseeing the project.

If the aircraft has 50% greater fuel efficiency, “you’re talking about doubling the ranges or possibly doubling the payloads,” said Tom Jones, president of aeronautics systems at Northrop Grumman, which is working with JetZero to build the demonstrator aircraft.

Along with assessing fuel usage, a full-size demonstrator will allow the Air Force to evaluate a Blended Wing Body aircraft’s ability to use shorter runways, a central element of the service’s Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, concept, which entails dispersing to smaller, less developed outposts to avoid being targeted at major bases by China’s long-range weapons.

“The most vexing challenge” in the Indo-Pacific region “is the logistics, with the way this adversary can challenge us at distance,” said Maj. Gen. Albert Miller, director of strategy, plans, requirements, and programs for Air Mobility Command, which oversees the service’s tanker and cargo fleets.

A C-130 Hercules lands at Northwest Field, next to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam in February 2010.

US Air Force/Capt. Andrew G. Hoskinson

“So having capabilities that the Blended Wing potentially brings you — of the ranges that you’re going to have to fly, the efficiency that allows you to carry cargo rather than fuel, efficiency that allows you to carry fuel to offload to others — that’s why this is critical to learn as much as we can learn from this technology, because ACE is completely dependent on the logistics,” Miller said Wednesday.

The aircraft could also be designed with folding wings, which “gives you a smaller spot factor, so you can fit more aircraft at potentially a remote location,” Jones said.

Earlier this year, the Air Force announced plans to pursue its future tankers and cargo planes — programs known as the Next Generation Air-Refueling System, or NGAS, and the Next-Generation Airlift System, or NGAL. Miller cautioned against “drawing linkages directly” between the Blended Wing contract and the NGAS and NGAL programs but did call the demonstrator “a prototype that we will learn from.”

The Air Force will soon begin an analysis of alternatives — an assessment of attributes like fuel usage, runway length needed, and electronic signature — for NGAS to inform what its future tankers will look like.

That future tanker will have to be able “to operate in threat environments that we’ve never had tankers have to operate in before,” Miller said, echoing officials who have said future wars will require the service to do more with its mobility aircraft.

A KC-46, the Air Force’s newest tanker, refuels an A-10 in July 2016.

US Air Force

There is “no presumption” that the Blended Wing aircraft “is necessarily the answer for NGAS, but we think that it could be informative in this process,” Miller said.

Chaudhary said the service may draw “links” between the Blended Wing project and NGAS or NGAL, “but right now keeping everything on the table is going to be critical because what we want to focus on is the knowledge of this capability, so we’re going to push hard with that and then we’re going to look for those entry points as they emerge.”

JetZero has already unveiled a Blended Wing design that the company says will provide a midmarket commercial airliner that’s more efficient than the planes it seeks to replace. That aircraft is years away from entering service, but US officials touted the possibility that their investment could benefit the private sector.

“The commercial industry, including passenger airlines and air freight companies, stand to benefit from development of this technology” through increased cabin space and decreased fuel costs, the Air Force said in its release.

Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense, said Thursday that the contract is “an important milestone in the development of a potentially transformational technology” and that its success “would be good news for the Department, our warfighters, the US aerospace industry, and the American taxpayer.”

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A rendering of the Blended Wing Body prototype aircraft.

US Air Force

The Pentagon has awarded a contract for development a Blended Wing Body aircraft prototype.
The design promises more fuel efficiency, larger payloads, and the ability to use shorter runways.
The US Air Force sees all those qualities as vital for success in a war in the Pacific region.

The US Air Force has picked aviation startup firm JetZero to develop a full-size demonstrator aircraft with an unusual design that could transform how the service builds its tanker and cargo aircraft.

The investment in the Blended Wing Body reflects the Air Force’s interest in aircraft that can carry larger payloads farther while using less fuel and a wider range of facilities, which the service says it will need to win a war with China in the Pacific.

“We are in a race for a technological superiority with what we call a pacing challenge, a formidable opponent,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, the service’s top civilian official, said while announcing the contract on Wednesday, in a reference to China.

“There’s a real potential in this technology to help increase fuel efficiency significantly, and that’s going to lead to improvements in not just the efficiency and capabilities of our force but also in our impact on the climate,” Kendall said at an event hosted by the Air and Space Forces Association.

Chaudhary, left, Kendall, center, and O’Leary at the contract announcement on August 16.

US Air Force/Air Force Association

The design blends the wings and the fuselage, “decreasing aerodynamic drag by at least 30% and providing additional lift,” the Air Force said in a release. “This increased efficiency will enable extended range, more loiter time, and increased payload delivery efficiencies,” which are “vital to mitigating logistics risks.”

While the design has been around for decades, it has not been widely adopted, but recent advances in design, materials, and manufacturing “have made large-scale production achievable,” the Air Force said. The latest investment aims to further develop the design and assess its capabilities and how to incorporate it in future aircraft.

Under the contract, the Pentagon will provide $235 million over the next four years, which will be coupled with private investment “to take the full-scale demonstration to fruition,” Tom O’Leary, JetZero cofounder and CEO, said at the event, adding that the goal was a first flight by 2027.

The Air Force is the US military’s biggest user of jet fuel, and its tanker and cargo aircraft are responsible for about 60% of that consumption annually. The service is interested in the increased fuel efficiency offered by Blended Wing Body aircraft — JetZero says its design “cuts fuel burn and emissions in half” — and Kendall and other officials touted that at the event.

A US Air Force flight engineer guides an R-11 Refueler next to a C-5M cargo plane at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware in March.

US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Marco Gomez

“When you take a look at the challenges we have going forward, we know that operational energy is going to be a critical factor,” said Ravi Chaudhary, assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, installations, and environment.

Energy usage is “going to be the margin of victory in a near-peer competition, particularly in the Pacific. So we’ve got to be laser-focused on that — laser-focused on endurance, range, speed,” added Chaudhary, whose office is overseeing the project.

If the aircraft has 50% greater fuel efficiency, “you’re talking about doubling the ranges or possibly doubling the payloads,” said Tom Jones, president of aeronautics systems at Northrop Grumman, which is working with JetZero to build the demonstrator aircraft.

Along with assessing fuel usage, a full-size demonstrator will allow the Air Force to evaluate a Blended Wing Body aircraft’s ability to use shorter runways, a central element of the service’s Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, concept, which entails dispersing to smaller, less developed outposts to avoid being targeted at major bases by China’s long-range weapons.

“The most vexing challenge” in the Indo-Pacific region “is the logistics, with the way this adversary can challenge us at distance,” said Maj. Gen. Albert Miller, director of strategy, plans, requirements, and programs for Air Mobility Command, which oversees the service’s tanker and cargo fleets.

A C-130 Hercules lands at Northwest Field, next to Andersen Air Force Base on Guam in February 2010.

US Air Force/Capt. Andrew G. Hoskinson

“So having capabilities that the Blended Wing potentially brings you — of the ranges that you’re going to have to fly, the efficiency that allows you to carry cargo rather than fuel, efficiency that allows you to carry fuel to offload to others — that’s why this is critical to learn as much as we can learn from this technology, because ACE is completely dependent on the logistics,” Miller said Wednesday.

The aircraft could also be designed with folding wings, which “gives you a smaller spot factor, so you can fit more aircraft at potentially a remote location,” Jones said.

Earlier this year, the Air Force announced plans to pursue its future tankers and cargo planes — programs known as the Next Generation Air-Refueling System, or NGAS, and the Next-Generation Airlift System, or NGAL. Miller cautioned against “drawing linkages directly” between the Blended Wing contract and the NGAS and NGAL programs but did call the demonstrator “a prototype that we will learn from.”

The Air Force will soon begin an analysis of alternatives — an assessment of attributes like fuel usage, runway length needed, and electronic signature — for NGAS to inform what its future tankers will look like.

That future tanker will have to be able “to operate in threat environments that we’ve never had tankers have to operate in before,” Miller said, echoing officials who have said future wars will require the service to do more with its mobility aircraft.

A KC-46, the Air Force’s newest tanker, refuels an A-10 in July 2016.

US Air Force

There is “no presumption” that the Blended Wing aircraft “is necessarily the answer for NGAS, but we think that it could be informative in this process,” Miller said.

Chaudhary said the service may draw “links” between the Blended Wing project and NGAS or NGAL, “but right now keeping everything on the table is going to be critical because what we want to focus on is the knowledge of this capability, so we’re going to push hard with that and then we’re going to look for those entry points as they emerge.”

JetZero has already unveiled a Blended Wing design that the company says will provide a midmarket commercial airliner that’s more efficient than the planes it seeks to replace. That aircraft is years away from entering service, but US officials touted the possibility that their investment could benefit the private sector.

“The commercial industry, including passenger airlines and air freight companies, stand to benefit from development of this technology” through increased cabin space and decreased fuel costs, the Air Force said in its release.

Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense, said Thursday that the contract is “an important milestone in the development of a potentially transformational technology” and that its success “would be good news for the Department, our warfighters, the US aerospace industry, and the American taxpayer.”

Read the original article on Business Insider
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