Commentary: The Pentagon again vies to build a better 'X-plane’

After decades of being MIA in the skies, Washington is getting back into the business of building cutting-edge experimental aircraft that can expand the boundaries of state-of-the-art aerial.

DARPA artist rendering of the new vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) experimental plane Phase 2 design. Courtesy of DARPA,mil

With this, the United States could reclaim its long-prized title as the world’s leader in high-tech aerospace developments -- a title that Russia and China are now ferociously working to win.

A new generation of experimental airplanes, or “X-planes,” could lead to profound advances in civil and military aviation, which would boost the American economy, as well as U.S. military might.

They are the aerospace equivalent of science experiments. The more X-planes flying that test out new ideas and hardware, the faster the military and industry can improve blueprints for production-model aircraft. They don’t even need to be tied to any larger military or civil aircraft program, known as a “program of record.”

“It’s more flexible,” said retired Air Force Colonel Dan Ward, author of “The Simplify Cycle: A Field Guide to Making Things Better Without Making Them Worse, “and allows experiments to investigate a variety of situations, without having to wedge in to a predefined system or outcome. It’s less expensive because an independent prototype lacks the overhead associated with a large program, which also shortens the timeline to delivery.”

NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) -- the Defense Department’s main scientific division -- are taking the lead in this new X-plane effort. Their shared goal is to quickly produce many relatively inexpensive experimental aircraft and test them to determine which new technologies the military or civil aviation sector should embrace.

“I’ve been hearing about a paradigm shift,” Kevin Mickey, a vice president at Northrop Grumman, one of the top U.S. airplane manufacturers, told National Defense, a defense-industry trade publication, in January. “I hear DARPA talking about X-planes, the Navy talking about rapid capabilities.”

DARPA alone is working on at least two new X-planes. One, a hybrid vehicle called “LightningStrike,” can take off and land like a helicopter but cruise like an airplane, thanks to its rotating wing and 24 small engines embedded inside its thick, oversize wing.

The other is the XS-1 “space plane” that can reach speeds at least five times the speed of sound because of its powerful engines and advanced construction materials. It is capable of climbing to the edge of the upper atmosphere to boost small satellites into orbit.

Both these X-planes have military applications. The Pentagon wants new vertical-launching rotorcraft that don’t require runways. The craft must be as swift and long flying as conventional-winged aircraft, yet durable and safe to operate.

The Defense Department’s only current hybrid craft is the V-22 tiltrotor, which combines elements of a helicopter and an airplane. But it has been plagued by reliability and safety problems over its 30 years of development. In May 2015, for example, a V-22 crashed in Hawaii after its engines pulled in sand during a landing attempt. Two people aboard were killed and 20 others were injured.

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DARPA recently signed a contract with a Virginia aerospace firm, Aurora Flight Sciences, to build a small robotic version of the LightningStrike X-plane. The 44-foot-long prototype is to be ready to fly in 2018.

Ashish Bagai, who heads the DARPA aircraft effort, said he expects the experimental jets to be challenging for designers.

“There are other significant risks,” Bagai said, “like performance of the integrated wing and thrusters, electric flight, tilting wings, over-actuated control systems -- all critically important to enabling new technologies for new capabilities. We’re not out to design or develop a rerun of an existing type of aircraft.”

The remote-controlled XS-1 spaceplane could help the military launch many small satellites quickly and cheaply. Because each aircraft can be sent into space many times, it would help drive down the prohibitive cost of relying on single-use rockets to boost spacecraft into orbit.

In April, DARPA tapped three separate industry teams -- each headed by one of the leading manufacturers, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and Masten Space Systems -- to “evaluate technical feasibility and methods.” The agency plans to select at least one team to build prototypes and begin testing them in flight by 2020.

NASA’s X-planes cover a far wider range of applications. Expecting a $1-billion boost to its annual budget to cover these new aircraft, the space and aeronautics agency in February proposed a 10-year plan to build at least three new X-planes.

One is a “blended-wing” design -- a “flying wing” much like the Air Force’s B-2 stealth bomber. NASA predicts that its wing will be quieter and more fuel-efficient than conventional aircraft. As a proposed commercial passenger plane, this jet could save the airline industry hundreds of millions of dollars a year in fuel costs, while sharply reducing carbon emissions and noise pollution.

NASA is also designing an X-plane to test ultra-efficient subsonic flight; it would fly slower than the speed of sound and have lower costs and emissions than current airplanes. A third X-plane in the works will be a supersonic business jet that’s as large and as comfortable as current corporate jets – and potentially twice as fast.

“With this 10-year plan to accelerate the transformation of aviation,” Jaiwon Shin, a NASA associate administrator, said in a statement, “the United States can maintain its status as the world’s leader in aviation for many years to come.”

In a sense, however, all these X-planes could help restore the United States to the once-dominant aviation position it surrendered some time ago.

Steve Pace, an expert on X-planes and author of The Big Book of X-Bombers and X-Fighters, explained why this happened.

“The Korean War in 1950-53 drained U.S. air-power resources,” said Pace, “and large-scale replenishment became critical. Therefore, many new and advanced combat aircraft had to be designed and built to fill the void.”

During the Cold War, the Pentagon and NASA built scores of X-planes. There were superfast planes with rockets engines, countless small variations on conventional jet fighters and bombers, plus the vertical-launching “Project 1794” from the 1950s that was, in essence, a flying saucer.

But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s seemed to have lured Washington into a false sense of security. X-plane development ground nearly to a halt. NASA briefly tinkered with a few experimental spaceplanes, but its last effort, in the 1980s, was the X-29, an unusual, forward-sweeping wing design. The technologically advanced wing layout offered greater potential maneuverability, but also made it unstable. NASA developed better flight controls, but testing stopped in 1991.

The military, meanwhile, largely abandoned X-planes in favor of a small number of nonexperimental warplanes that it intended to build in large numbers, including the B-2, the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters.

Meanwhile, Russia and China pushed ahead with their own advanced aerospace programs. Russia produced its own version of a stealth fighter, launched development of a radar-evading bomber similar to the B-2 and poured money into hypersonic craft.

In the past five years, meanwhile, China has debuted two new stealth fighter prototypes and is reportedly working on at least one more. Beijing has also experimented with at least two hypersonic vehicles similar to DARPA’s space plane.

The Chinese developments, in particular, took the Pentagon by surprise. In January 2011, just a few weeks after China’s J-20 stealth-fighter prototype was revealed to the West, Vice Admiral David Dorsett, then the director of U.S. Navy intelligence, admitted this.

“The advances made by Chinese and Russian aircraft manufacturers since the early 2000s,” Pace said, “have literally forced the U.S. war machine to wake up. … To get busy on new and advanced combat aircraft to deal with unfriendly air forces as needed in the near -- not far -- future.”

But Washington clearly doesn’t view its current crop of X-planes merely as direct counters to Russian and Chinese developments. Rather, they are regarded as part of a broader effort to inject new life into the entire U.S. aerospace industry.

As happened in the past, Washington expects a more innovative aerospace sector would inevitably lead to more advanced passenger jets and warplanes. From the U.S. government’s point of view, staying ahead of the Russians and Chinese is a side effect -- if a crucial one.

About the Author

David Axe is the editor of War Is Boring and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast. He has written for Danger Room, “Wired” and “Popular Science.”

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.