Transport aircraft can become invisible, making it easier for special forces to enter behind enemy lines. (Epoch Times Cartography)
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It is no longer a matter of suspense that stealth bombers can penetrate the defense line and attack high-value targets behind the enemy at any time, especially after the advent of the B-21. But sending a group of special forces soldiers to a tightly guarded enemy rear or a complex and fiercely contested front line is something that no military has yet guaranteed to be able to do. The U.S. military is trying to do just that.
The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced on November 15 that it plans to develop a vertical take-off and landing transport aircraft for special forces by Aurora Flight Science. This is DARPA’s “speed and runway independent technology”. ” (SPRINT) program, this new transport aircraft will be a game-changing air mobility capability that impacts future battlefields.
Aurora is Boeing’s advanced aerospace research and development subsidiary. According to DARPA’s requirements, the company will develop a high-lift, low-drag fan-wing (FIW) demonstrator (X-Plane). This is a wing-body fused fan-wing transport aircraft concept developed as part of a US military program to explore the idea of a fast-flying vertical take-off and landing transport aircraft.
The program will be developed based on the design experience of the combined Aurora and Boeing teams in vertical lift, cruise transition technology, and wing-body fusion. For example, the Boeing X-48 hybrid wing-body aircraft and the Aurora Excalibur drone combine jet vertical lift with electric lift fans to form a wing-body fusion platform, including a moderate sweep angle, embedded engine and fan. This design historically combines vertical takeoff and landing with a cruise speed of over 830 km/h in a single transport aircraft, providing game-changing air mobility capabilities.
The wing-body fusion design helps reduce radar observability. Aurora’s proof-of-concept aircraft appears to have the characteristics of a stealth aircraft, including the shape of the leading edge of the nose, the dorsal spine and the aerodynamic layout of a buried engine with a hybrid air inlet on the top of the aircraft. The aircraft’s vertical tail shape and layout are also common in low-observability designs. On the surface, some of its features are reminiscent of Lockheed’s stealth bombers, particularly its flat fuselage, which is similar to the B-2 bomber. It even has similarities to more modern stealth designs.
This is the first time the U.S. military has combined a stealthy wing-body design with a real transport aircraft. Boeing has extensive experience with such designs and just earlier this year unveiled a new stealth aircraft that takes off and lands in a traditional way. But the difference this time is that the U.S. military requires it to be able to take off and land vertically.
In order to provide the vertical takeoff and landing capabilities required by SPRINT, Aurora has two air inlets and two tail nozzles at the front and rear of the fuselage. There are two pairs of vertical lift fans in the middle of the fuselage hidden in separate hexagonal cabins under the fuselage. cover underneath. In the early renderings released by DARPA, the lift fan has a circular cross-section, but the core design concept is the same.
Although details of the design revealed by Aurora are very limited, in past fan-wing concepts, the lift fan was powered through a drive shaft connected to the aircraft’s main engine. This is the same as the working principle of the F-35B lift fan, except that the F-35B’s lift fan is installed on the front fuselage instead of the wing. Another possible solution is to use a direct power source separate from the aircraft’s main engine to drive the lift fan. In recent years, the technology of using turbines to power electric motors on aircraft has made significant progress, but it is difficult to say whether it can meet the energy required by DARPA’s SPRINT project, because after all, this is an aircraft that is not as big or as heavy as a fighter jet. Small transport aircraft.
Due to the complexity of the drive system and related power devices, the layout of the lift fan is very difficult. Although the vertical takeoff function may be rarely used in actual use, the aircraft must also bear the increased volume and weight. Because considering the extremely demanding missions that aircraft need to perform, designers may believe that it is worthwhile to make some sacrifices in certain performance.
Prior to this, Aurora also developed an unmanned vertical take-off and landing aircraft called the XV-24 Lightning Strike. The design uses two sets of articulated wings containing an array of articulated fans powered by a central turbine engine for both vertical and horizontal flight. The project was canceled by DARPA before full-scale flight testing.
Neither vertical take-off and landing aircraft nor the fan-wing concept are new. In fact, North American Aircraft Company, which was later acquired by Boeing, proposed a wing-body fused transport aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capabilities in the 1990s. It also adopted a lift fan design and had some similarities with the design concept proposed by Aurora. .
But it may still be the closest to reality that engineering can get to combining vertical takeoff and landing, stealth and speed in a tactical transport aircraft. The central goal of the SPRINT program is to demonstrate key technology concepts that combine flight speed and runway independence and then scale them to military aircraft of different sizes.
DARPA simply requires that the aircraft must be runway-independent, capable of hovering over unpaved surfaces in austere environments, and capable of cruising at speeds in excess of 800 kilometers per hour. However, parameters that are very important for a transport aircraft, such as payload capacity, cargo compartment internal volume and range, are not disclosed. These parameters determine the aircraft’s capacity, that is, how many people or what kind of equipment it can transport to how far. . Of course, judging from the development concept of this aircraft, it cannot be expected to be able to transport many personnel or heavy equipment. It should be a tactical transport aircraft used to break through the front line. Even if it can transport only a few personnel and light equipment, it is a pioneering concept and even a milestone in the history of tactical transport aircraft. It will provide unprecedented capabilities for battlefield maneuver operations.
The U.S. Army Special Forces’ general requirements for a transport aircraft with comparable range and speed are quite consistent with the Aurora’s development plans. The U.S. Army requires such an aircraft to land and take off from target areas in any conditions without relying on runways. Special Forces have also expressed interest in additional capabilities to make the aircraft more survivable and better able to access denied access to sensitive locations. The U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) proposed a similar project called High-Speed Vertical Takeoff and Landing (HSTVOL) in 2021. The differences between these projects may be reflected in quantitative differences in some parameters of tactical and technical requirements, but the overall capabilities are basically the same.
The U.S. military has recently seen a surge in interest in runway-independent aircraft. Judging from the Russian-Ukrainian battlefield, the benefits brought by these capabilities in the theater have attracted increasing attention. The U.S. military, particularly the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps, believes these capabilities are closely related to the concept of distributed, long-range operations. These capabilities will help reduce reliance on large bases and reduce force vulnerability. Especially in any potential conflict with China in the Pacific, these capabilities will be critical in launching large-scale strikes against key strategic facilities in the early stages of the operation. Not relying on runways or short-run capabilities will give the U.S. military unprecedented combat opportunities. .
Aurora chief Thomas Lawhead said, “Our analysis of potential future major conflicts shows that more aircraft will be lost on the ground than in the air.” U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in November The 13th also stated that it is a good ability to be able to get rid of the use of relatively long runways, which makes the aircraft more survivable.
Gen. Tony D. Bauernfeind, commander of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, emphasized the importance to future special air operations of aircraft that do not require runways or large ground crews. He explained the importance of this capability using the MC-130J water transport aircraft as an example. He said runway-independent mobility capabilities like the MC-130 can increase the complexity and unpredictability of adversaries’ decision-making processes by forcing them to defend themselves everywhere, thereby forcing adversaries to develop costly strategies. He believes that the U.S. military is not strong enough in its ability to cause trouble for adversaries in contested or denied environments.
DARPA said its goal is to fund the creation of an actual demonstrator for demonstration in the second phase of the project, but it will take time to select which projects will move into the second phase.
In any case, the fan-wing concept appears again and attempts to design a creative tactical transport aircraft are well worth looking forward to. This design may be particularly suitable for supporting forward operations of U.S. Army and Navy special forces. SPRINT could create a new path for the U.S. military to finally realize its dream of acquiring this capability, even if it does not have a timetable for acquiring this capability, even if it may be small in scale.
Written by: Xia Luoshan (reporter of “The Epoch Times”, who has experienced military life for more than ten years, mainly engaged in military teaching and some technical management work)
Produced by: Current Affairs Military Production Team
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