US Defense contractor Boeing has unveiled a new concept for a stealthy tactical cargo aircraft with a blended wing-body (BWB) design as Pentagon and the US Air Force (USAF) explore options to modernize the aircraft fleet.
The concept, displayed at AIAA SciTech, a forum and exhibit put on by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) in Fort Washington, Maryland, in the United States, was presented as a scaled-down model with no additional information provided by the manufacturer.
The first images of the concept were revealed by journalist Guy Norris, senior editor of Aviation & Week, who described it as a “refined design.”
It may be worth noting that Boeing unveiled the concept months after the US Pentagon called for a blended wing body aircraft concept in April 2020, which, it said, would be used for future military tanker and cargo aircraft.
A solicitation posted by the Defense Innovation Unit last year read: “The Pentagon wants concepts of design of an advanced aircraft configuration that provides at least 30 percent more aerodynamic efficiency than the Boeing 767 and Airbus A330 families of commercial and military aircraft, enabling operational advantages such as increased range, loiter time, and offload capabilities.”
At the time, a USAF official clarified that the solicitation was not associated with the KC-Y program of the service. However, the official did not specify whether the solicitation was connected to the KC-Z, which the Air Force has not yet defined but is expected to be a stealthy aerial refueling aircraft.
Further, Boeing’s concept for the stealthy cargo aircraft comes weeks after the US Air Force (USAF) Secretary Frank Kendall said that having more survivable airlifters and aerial refueling tankers will be essential in future high-end conflicts against near-peer adversaries, especially China.
On December 11, Kendall said in a webinar that the Air Force must transition away from conventional tankers and cargo aircraft in favor of stealthy ones due to the challenge posed by China’s precision missiles.
In an elaborate interaction, he warned mobility aircraft must be built with survivability in mind since adversaries like China can monitor and shoot at American aircraft from long ranges. In case of a conflict with Beijing in the Indo-Pacific, stealthy aircraft that can evade the enemy radars would come handy for the USAF.
Boeing’s Quest With The BWB Concept
With the USAF and the Pentagon insisting on a blended wing design for its future aircraft, Boeing’s proposal comes at an opportune moment. The company told The War Zone, “We thought it was a good time to share the major features of our Blended Wing Body concept instead of the concepts we have shown previously to represent our BWB investigation.”
Blended Wing Body design is essentially like the flying wings of the USAF, such as the B-2 and B-21 bombers. These aircraft have the advantage of having a low profile and a naturally smaller radar cross-section, especially if vertical control surfaces are eliminated during design.
The BWB aircraft design has drawn interest from commercial airlines, cargo services, and the military for well over a decade due to its potential enormous interior volume and aerodynamic efficiency. The blended wing body allows the aircraft to carry more fuel and fly greater ranges without refueling.
“When integrated with projected 2030 engine technology, this advanced aircraft configuration is expected to provide at least 60 percent mission fuel burn reduction compared to current-day technology,” the DIU said last year.
Boeing developed a BWB design for the X-48 program and constructed and successfully flew a subscale demonstrator in 2007. Similarly, another US defense giant Lockheed Martin has also been proposing BWB proposals for cargo planes and tankers for several years.
Boeing also worked quite a bit on the Speed Agile concept. The objective was to build an extremely STOL aircraft that could fly very slowly and cruise at higher speeds of 0.8 Mach (possibly transonic), with take-off and landing distances of 2,000 feet or less.
The previous Boeing BWB concepts, such as the X-48 series, featured wider, more rounded fuselages and noses and engines positioned in pods on top of the center of the rear fuselage, as compared to the latest concept design.
The exhaust and tail configuration of the latest design seems to be intended to lessen the plane’s infrared signature by obstructing the straight line of sight into the exhaust from most angles, mainly from below. This would also alleviate the radar signature from certain features.
Military experts believe a BWB cargo aircraft could eventually replace the current cargo aircraft in the USAF inventory. This is a significant observation as the Air Force is working on the specifications for a replacement for the C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft, which hasn’t been produced since 2015.
Secretary Kendall previously stated that the service intended to begin more active work on a program to create a next-generation airlifter this year during a speech at a convention in October 2022.
Currently, Boeing has not revealed any additional information about the concept design. However, it has become clear that the future of the US Air Force is looking to be dominated by BWB-designed aircraft ranging from bombers to cargo planes to refueling tankers.
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