As the U.S. Air Force looks to the future of special operations, vertical lifting takes center stage

WASHINGTON – In a future war against a technologically advanced counterpart like China or Russia, the US Air Force’s special operations forces will need planes that are faster, more resilient, and able to fly longer distances than the US Air Force. aircraft currently available, while being able to launch from austere non-runway locations.

The answer to the problem, according to Maj. Gen. David A. Harris, Air Force director of innovation and integration, could be found in the new high-speed vertical take-off and lift planes developed by the Air Force. ‘industry.

“If you look at the problem of time and distance which [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] introduces us, I have to be able to get somewhere quickly, ”he said in an August 24 interview with Defense News.

“Speed ​​is also survivability,” he added. “I want something that can land off the runway, but has enough useful cargo space where I can unload a runway repair kit, fuel, more base defense ammo [or] more weapons.

The Air Force is looking for a high-speed vertical take-off and landing aircraft that can reach speeds similar to those of jets, with systems such as active / passive threat detection and countermeasures that can make it more survivable. in a combat environment. The aircraft must also be large enough to transport cargo quickly and be able to connect to the service’s larger combat network.

Greater endurance and the ability to fly long distances is also a plus.

“[It’s] something that could fly maybe 800 miles, ”Harris said. “It’s low visibility, it’s a low signature, but it can go in and it can go out.”

High-speed VTOL aircraft technology is still relatively immature, and the Air Force has no registered programs to fund the development of such technology.

However, companies like Bell Flight and Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky have pitched concepts to the Air Force that have generated some interest, Harris said.

“There are a lot of different models out there,” he said. “We are always trying to go through and determine what will be the most beneficial for us in terms of the requirements that we have to operate and specifically support the logistics under attack.”

In August, the AFWERX Service Innovation Center hosted a showcase of 35 high-speed VTOL concepts, with participants from long-time defense contractors like Bell and newcomers like Horizon Aircraft.

With that event now over, companies are waiting to see if the service will allocate money for other development activities.

“We are working quite aggressively to prepare what we believe to be the true proof of concept, an aerial vehicle in flight,” said Jeff Nissen, senior director of advanced technology at Bell Flight. “It’s a plane doing something that’s never been done before. We think this is the aha time or the defining moment to really show what this technology can do. “

Longer ranges, tougher opponents

Special operations forces were often the spearhead during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, flying on AC-130 gunships or CV-22 Ospreys at night, inserting troops to conduct covert operations, providing close air support to troops on the ground, or rescuing a wounded serviceman stuck in a harsh environment.

“Coming out of the War on Terror, we had a penchant for action,” said Harris, who served as the senior navigator for Air Force Special Operations Command aboard AC-130s and aircraft. MC-130. “At the end of the day, you will always kill terrorists on the battlefield.”

But with a potential adversary like China, AFSOC will face a much more advanced enemy with long-range weapons capable of disrupting operations at most of the US Air Force’s major air bases in Asia-Pacific and to keep most of its current aircraft inventory at a distance.

High-speed VTOL technology could allow special forces to conduct missions such as personnel recovery and aero-medical evacuation, as well as discreetly insert and recover special operators, he said.

The technology could also be essential outside the SOF community for the implementation of the Air Force’s “agile combat employment” concept, which foresees that small packages of aircraft can be distributed over austere airfields to. inside friendly countries, where they can refuel, reload weapons and take out again.

“At some point you run out of fuel, and at some point you run out of ammo, and you have to be able to go into that contested environment to refuel,” Harris said. “And if your runways are bombarded or cratered and you can’t land things on them, how do you do it?” “

In early August, Bell unveiled designs for a high-speed VTOL platform, which could come in light, medium, and heavy variants. The company hopes to develop a rotorcraft capable of flying over 400 knots, well beyond what tiltrotor technology can currently accomplish, and reaching a mission radius of 500 miles.

Survivability is also a key feature of the design concept, and it is achieved by concealing the rotor blades after the aircraft takes off, folding them inward, and relying on the thrust of the jet during takeoff. of forward flight, Nissen said.

“If you look at our plane in its cruise configuration, you won’t see any rotating rotor and that’s what primarily drives the radar cross section of a rotorcraft, it’s the rotor disc,” Nissen said. “Look at this concept plane in its jet mode configuration. It’s true that it looks a lot like a jet. This means he will have the signature like a jet in the radar.

Bell has started reducing risk in what are considered the top three areas of technology development: the vertical lift component, flight controls, and engine technology.

Propulsion is particularly difficult due to the requirements of generating shaft power for the rotor system and then transitioning to jet thrust to allow high speeds and high cruising altitudes. A flight demonstrator for the light variant would use two different commercial engines to achieve this capacity, Nissen said.

“Other variations, you might be able to combine that into one engine,” he said. “We have done work, particularly with our supplier Rolls Royce Libertyworks, on what is called a convertible engine capable of both shaft power and turbojet thrust.”

While Harris mentioned that Sikorsky also presented information about his future rotorcraft concepts to the Air Force, the company declined to provide further information.

“While it is too early to comment on specific conversations and / or possible solutions, we look forward to working with the U.S. Air Force as it refines its needs,” said Jay Macklin, director of business development for Sikorsky for the future vertical elevator, in a press release.

Aerospace startups and other non-traditional vendors have also expressed interest in working with the Air Force on high-speed VTOL.

AFWERX’s showcase event included attendees such as Horizon Aircraft’s Cavorite X5 – which the company says will fly at speeds of 275 miles per hour over distances of 340 miles – and the hybrid-electric MAV55. by Jaunt Air Mobility.

Other candidates include a Northrop Grumman-Jetoptera team, who collaborated on a concept that will use “adaptive fluidic propulsion” to create an aircraft capable of flying like a jet and hovering like a helicopter, while using less fuel. .

Ultimately, the speed at which high-speed VTOL technology can be developed will depend on the Air Force’s willingness to adhere to a development program, Nissen said.

“We have made plans to demonstrate this quickly and create an opportunity to implement it quickly,” he said. “But it’s really going to be driven by a future acquisition and a record-breaking timeline program.”

Valerie Insinna is the Defense News reporter on air warfare. Previously, she worked for Navy / Congressional Beats for Defense Daily, which followed for almost three years as an editor for National Defense magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Washington office of the Tokyo Shimbun.

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