The U.S. Air Force has chosen California-based JetZero, founded in 2020, to build and fly a Blended Wing Body (BWB) demonstrator to inform future cargo aircraft and the Next Generation Air Refueling System (NGAS), both of which are to operate in high-threat environments over long distances, including the Pacific theater.

“This is a prototype demonstration project that is intended to accelerate the next generation of large aircraft the Air Force needs in the future,” U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at an Air and Space Forces Association (AFA) Warfighters in Action forum on Aug. 16. “It’s a streamlined design that differs significantly from traditional tube-and-wing [aircraft] design. It will improve aerodynamic efficiency. There’s a real potential in this technology to help increase fuel efficiency significantly.”

Kendall said that the BWB concept has gained significant commercial interest and that the Air Force would like to leverage commercial demand for BWB planes.

Under the BWB concept, the wings are not distinct from the aircraft body but blended into it, and the engine may be on top of the aircraft or embedded in the airframe to provide more lift, range, payload, and less acoustic signature.

JetZero plans the BWB to enter service in 2030 and to have its first flight in 2027.

“As someone who’s lived this firsthand, I can tell you greater range increases lethality,” Ravi Chaudhary, assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, installations, and environment, said at the AFA forum on Aug. 16. “Fuel efficiency conserves our energy resources and allows us to generate more sorties, and smaller noise footprints means survivability. Seamless ground ops reduce ground time and gets us airborne quicker, and in an era in which installations will no longer be the sanctuary they were in previous conflicts, this [BWB] capability is gonna be critical to deliver effects for theater commanders where and when it counts.”

Chaudhary, whose Air Force biography says that he served as a C-17 pilot in combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, said that the Air Force has laid out $40 million in fiscal 2023 for the BWB demonstrator and about $200 million over the future years defense plan.

JetZero co-founder and CEO Tom O’Leary spoke on a panel after the announcement and said that fellow JetZero co-founder and chief technology officer Mark Page was part of a team that developed the BWB concept more than 30 years ago at McDonnell Douglas–now part of Boeing [BA]–“and never let it [the concept] drop.”

Tom Jones, president of Northrop Grumman‘s [NOC] aeronautics systems sector, said during the panel that Northrop Grumman partnered with JetZero after the potential for such collaboration emerged about a year ago. Jones said that Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scaled Composites–founded by aviation innovator Burt Rutan–will help develop and build the BWB prototype using carbon composites and that Northrop Grumman hopes to bring its expertise in rapid prototyping and technology evaluation to the project.

Air Force Maj. Gen. Albert Miller, director of strategy, plans, requirements, and programs at Air Mobility Command, said during the Aug. 16 AFA panel that BWB aircraft hold promise for Pacific operations requiring longer range aircraft that can land and take off from shorter runways.

Kendall spoke of the promise of BWB at a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) forum on Jan. 11 (Defense Daily, Jan. 18).

“Mobility is driven by the threat changes, by what the threat is doing to reach out to increasingly long ranges to engage our aircraft,” he said at the CFR forum. “Traditionally, we could take a commercial derivative aircraft, turn it into a tanker or transport. In the case of transports, we have built purpose-built aircraft like the C-17, but they essentially look like a commercial aircraft. They’re not designed with a high set of requirements for survivability. The threat’s taking that freedom away from us.”

“We are looking at–and it’s too early to have any results yet–at a next generation capability,” Kendall said in January, adding that a Blended Wing Body transport/tanker “is one of the very prominent candidates.”

The Air Force’s Operational Energy Directorate (SAF/IEN), which has been sponsoring BWB, has said that tanker, cargo, and non-stealth bombers account for 60 percent of the Air Force’s annual fuel burn of 1.2 billion gallons and that BWB aircraft across the tanker, cargo, and non-stealth bomber fleets could save the Air Force $1 billion annually in fuel costs and yield annual emissions reductions of 3.3 million metric tons.

SAF/IEN has worked with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and NASA to explore BWB design, performance, and long-term viability (Defense Daily, Aug. 4, 2022).

DIU has said that DoD is “the largest consumer of petroleum-based energy in the federal government, contributing to 77 percent of overall consumption.”

“The majority of that is attributed to fuel for aircraft sorties supporting global operations,” per DIU. “Decades of research and development indicate that advanced airframes such as blended wing body aircraft present aerodynamic efficiencies that could both reduce fuel consumption and increase operational effectiveness, enabling longer-range sorties and reduced fuel logistics/supply chain risks.”


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