Future Flights: Anticipating 2011

7 December 2010 (Last Updated December 7th, 2010 18:30)

From the JSF to the KC-X and A400M, 2011 is set to be an important year for air force aircraft. With budgetary cuts and strategic defence reviews taking up most of 2010's headlines, we look ahead to some of next years likely story makers.

Future Flights: Anticipating 2011

Good news for the JSF

After several years of fits and starts, the Joint Strike Fighter programme could finally make some headway in 2011. The Lockheed Martin-developed F-35 Lightning II and its many variants are expected to undergo continued flight trials, some months after the F-35C variant officially made its maiden flight in June 2010.

The US Air Force expects to take delivery of 11 aircraft in 2011 as it prepares for their entry into service, with Turkey expected to formally commit to the programme with an order for 100 aircraft.

While the UK isn’t expecting any 2011 deliveries just yet, the flight test did prompt a change in order from the ‘B’ variant to the larger winged carrier–class ‘C’ aircraft, with other nations expected to do the same.

“Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles are also forecast to see a busy year.”

Although Lockheed Martin denied early reports that the long awaited aircraft would make an appearance at Aero India, Asia’s largest aerospace show, in India in February, a cockpit demonstrator is expected to be on display.

Supposedly some distance behind the JSF, Russia’s equivalent, the Sukhoi PAK FA, is also tipped to make its debut as a second prototype, the T-50, is now due for trial throughout 2011.

Airbus issues finally abating

2010 hasn’t been the best of years for Airbus. The A400M programme is now thought to be costing the company up to €100m each month and provisions had swollen to €4.2bn as of October 2010. Developments are on the horizon, however, as the aircraft nears certification and entry into service.

Final agreements with the UK, Germany, France and other participating nations will be signed in Q1 2011 as the aircraft continues to rack up completed test flight miles. 672 of the 2,700 necessary for certification were completed as of late October and paratroopers successfully completed the first jump from the plane in late November.

The wings for the aircraft, known as MSN6, arrived at the final assembly line on 28 October and the fuselage and nose are still expected to arrive by the turn of the year, with a final hopeful flight date set for mid of 2011.

KC-X programme ready for fruition?

The long-awaited and much-delayed KC-X programme, designed to identify a replacement for the US Air Force’s KC-135 aircraft, could make a forward leap toward completion next year as contracts are expected to be awarded.

Boeing is the frontrunner and has recently submitted proposals for its NewGen Tanker, based around its commercial 767 aircraft, to replace 179 of the 400-strong KC-135 fleet.

Whichever aircraft is selected it must meet or exceed 372 mandatory requirements described in the final KC-X Request for Proposal and be capable of performing a multitude of roles and missions.

Future UAVs to take flight

When it was unveiled at Warton Aerodrome in June 2010, BAE System’s Taranis UAV certainly raised eyebrows.

Ten years in the making, Taranis will make use of research and development into low observables, systems integration, control infrastructure and full autonomy at a program cost of £143m to date.

Flight trials are widely expected to begin next year as the project, involving technology from BAE, Rolls-Royce, GE Aviation Systems, QinetiQ and the UK Ministry of Defence pushes on forward.

“The US Air Force has already experimented with biofuel mixes in a number of aircraft.”

Boeing’s new autonomous medium-altitude UAV, the Phantom Ray, has also successfully completed low-speed taxi tests, and should be on course for a 2011 debut following 6 months of scheduled flight tests at Edwards Air Force Base in California.

Another BAE UAV program which could see more development is the Demon “flapless flight” craft, developed by BAE Systems in conjunction with ten UK universities.

The aircraft is designed without the use of mechanical elevators and ailerons, relying on aerodynamic control devices for flight.

With a number of benefits generated by such an approach, including increased stealth and a reduced need for maintenance, BAE expect this to be a big step in the development of novel technology and intelligent autonomy.

Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV) are also forecast to see a busy year, with the Indian Navy keen to induct a number of Israel’s IAI Harop UCAVs, which were originally developed for suppression of enemy air defence missions.

Sweeping sentry upgrades

As the UK’s Royal Air Force copes with reduced fleets in the wake of the Strategic Defence Spending Review, Northrop Grumman has been tasked with upgrading their Sentry E-3D aircraft in order to take full advantage of its early airborne warning capabilites.

The $64m contract will see Northrop design, develop, integrate, test and support the mode S upgrade to identification friend or foe (IFF) systems on the aircraft next year, enabling the airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft to be used in controlled airspace.

The move may signal a delay to seeking replacements for the Sea King 7 ASaC helicopter, which is now nearing the end of its service schedule.

Fuel for thought?

A trend which will almost certainly see developments next year is the experimental use of biofuel blends in military aircraft as air forces across the globe seek greener fuel equivalents. The US Air Force has already experimented with biofuel mixes in a number of aircraft, with a biomass-derived jet fuel blend used to power an A-10 Thunderbolt II in March this year.

To date, the US has tested 50:50 biomass-derived fuels in aircraft including F-18 Hornets, F-15 Eagles, C-17 Globemaster IIIs and an F-22 Raptor.

“2011 has been designated as the “year of choices” in some quarters for biofuels.”

The US Air Force remains the largest user of jet fuel globally, amassing 2.4bn gallons of jet fuel per year. The extended use of a 50:50 biofuel mix would see CO2 emissions fall from 6.1m tons to 3.6m tons per year.

2011 has been designated as the “year of choices” in some quarters for biofuels, with a variety of blends and mixes expected to be unveiled and tested as countries seek an environmentally friendly alternative to jet fuel.

The US Air Force is confident of meeting its 2011 goal to certificate its entire turbine fleet to use blended fuels, a move which would be seen as a significant development in the use of biofuels.