Last week, the Royal Air Force Capabilities Office and the branch’s Team Tempest held a virtual briefing to provide updates regarding their forthcoming 6th generation fighter dubbed “Tempest.” Along with industry updates and discussion about the program’s progress, the UK’s Ministry of Defence also revealed a new artist’s rendering of the new fighter (shown above).
Team Tempest includes a laundry list of defense contractors who are currently working on facets of the forthcoming aircraft, and they’ve made some lofy claims about what this new fighter will be able to do. Industry partners involved in the program include BAE Systems (the aircraft lead), Rolls-Royce, Leonardo, and MBDA.
“We have been a world leader in the combat air sector for a century, with an enviable array of skills and technology, and this Strategy makes clear that we are determined to make sure it stays that way. It shows our allies that we are open to working together to protect the skies in an increasingly threatening future – and this concept model is just a glimpse into what the future could look like,” UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said.
Like the U.S. Air Force’s Next Generation Air Dominance program (NGAD), the Tempest aims to leapfrog the capabilities offered by the world’s most advanced fighter jets in operation today–5th generation fighters like the F-35, F-22, J-20, and Su-57. However, the leap from the 5th to 6th generation is more about marketing than it is about function. Generational designations are effectively just industry shorthand to describe the design and production process that went into a platform.
While there are no formal requirements for the informal title of “6th generation” fighter, there are a number of assumptions defense experts have made regarding the capabilities such a jet would need to bring to the table. You can read a more thorough breakdown of those capabilities in our analysis of the 6th generation of fighters here. In the interest of brevity, some anticipated capabilities include the use of artificial intelligence to assist the pilot, the ability to manage drones in support of the fighter, and all the advancements that came along in the 5th generation, including stealth and data fusion.
According to this graphic created by BAE Systems, the Tempest promises to meet each of those requirements.
“Tempest is one of the UK’s most ambitious technological endeavours and designed to deliver a highly advanced, adaptable combat air system to come into service from the mid-2030s. This next generation combat aircraft, which forms part of a wider combat air system, will exploit new technologies as they evolve to respond to the changing nature of the battlespace, addressing increasingly high-tech and complex threats and conflict.”
-UK Ministry of Defence statement
In order to build upon the data fusion success of flying supercomputers like the F-35, Tempest’s project lead for electronics and avionics Leonardo has been developing a new Multi-Function Radar Frequency System specifically for the new fighter.
This system will leverage massive amounts of computing power to collect and process a claimed 10,000 times the data of existing radar systems. As Leonardo puts it, the Tempest will be able to gather and process the “equivalent to the internet traffic of a large city every second,” offering its pilot a positively unmatched degree of situational awareness. If the F-35 is considered a “quarterback in the sky,” Leonardo hopes to make the Tempest into an offensive coordinator.
In keeping with that breadth of awareness, BAE aims to create what would effectively be a virtual cockpit pilots will use in conjunction with a similar augmented reality interface to that of the F-35. Pilots would be able to customize every facet of the cockpit around them, using digital switches that can be rapidly re-mapped to serve different roles. The helmet interface and heads up display would allow the pilot to place the information they need where they can use it most.
Not to be outdone, Rolls Royce is working on a new propulsion system that will burn hotter than previous engines. These new engines are expected to be more efficient and powerful that past iterations, creating the significant power spurless Tempest will need to leverage directed energy weapons that are likely to come. The aircraft’s heat dissipation will also be manageable, according to BAE, so pilots can prioritize capability over stealth, or vice versa.
And like the U.S. Air Force’s Skyborg program, Australia and Boeing’s Loyal Wingman, or Russia’s recent efforts to pair their Su-57 with the Hunter UCAV, the Tempest will be designed to operate with its own flock of drones. These drones will extend the Tempest’s sensor reach, engage targets on the pilot’s behalf, and potentially even sacrifice themselves to save the crewed aircraft from inbound attack.
All that is to say that the Tempest has made some big promises, though arguably no bigger than those of the U.S., China, or Russia’s 6th generation fight programs. The question will really be, who will be able to deliver these new capabilities first, and ultimately, who will do it best?
The U.S. Marines are about to start receiving real robotic exoskeletons for testing, but these exo-suits aren’t headed into combat any time soon. Instead, they’ll be supporting logistical operations like loading and unloading pallets of gear and ammunition in the field.
While that might not sound like the sort of high-speed missions you imagined for the first widely-used military robotic exoskeletons, it’s really the most logical (and feasible) use for this burgeoning technology. America’s Special Operations Command spent years working to develop the TALOS robotic exoskeleton for specialized combat applications, but found the various systems they employed were too finicky for serious combat ops. While exoskeletons can significantly augment a person’s strength, they also consume a huge amount of power, often requiring that they stay tethered to a power cable.
Mock up of a TALOS suit. (U.S. Army photo by Anthony Taylor, 85th Support Command Public Affairs Office)
TALOS was ultimately canceled last year, but a number of different technologies developed for the forward-thinking system continue to live on in various weapon development programs that fall under SOCOM’s purview. Sarcos Defense’ new suit isn’t derived from the TALOS program, but offers some of the same significant advantages, including the ability to increase the strength and endurance of whoever’s strapped in. Despite the TALOS program’s progress in a number of areas, it was ultimately deemed infeasible for combat.
However, just because robotic exoskeleton technology isn’t quite advanced to the point where it can be used outside the wire quite yet, it could be an extremely useful solution to problems service members still have inside forward operating bases. Unloading literal tons of equipment, ammunition, and supplies that arrive on pallets is one such challenge.
By utilizing the Sarcos Defense Guardian XO Alpha robotic exoskeleton, a single Marine can do the offloading work that would normally require an entire dedicated fire team.
“As the U.S. Marine Corps focuses on logistics and sustainment modernization as one of their key priorities and looks to reduce the manpower required to conduct expeditionary operations, the Guardian XO is well-suited to fulfill a wide variety of logistics applications to address their needs and requirements.” –Sarcos Defense
As America’s premier expeditionary force, The Marines have placed a renewed emphasis on Expeditionary Advanced Basing Operations (EABO) in recent years. Put simply, EABO is all about increasing the operational capabilities of Marines working in austere environments that may not be near large military installations. The intent behind incorporating new technology like the Guardian XO Alpha is to bring big installation capabilities to forward operating areas. Whereas large military installations can utilize forklifts to rapidly load or unload supplies, smaller FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) have to rely on manpower to unload supplies when they arrive.
“Instead of a team of four Marines, maybe you only need a Marine with this capability to offload pallets or move or load munitions,” Jim Miller, Sarcos Robotics’ vice president of defense solutions, explained last year.
Sarcos Guardian® XO® Full-Body Powered Exoskeleton: Alpha Unit Preview
In the short term, Marines will be assessing this new robotic exoskeleton to see just how useful it might be in a variety of operations, including some the team at Sarcos might not have thought of yet. Of course, another important part of the testing process will be figuring out what this exo-suit can’t do, and that’s where the Marines may really shine. After all, if you want to find out just how hard you can run a piece of gear before it dies, there are few organizations more qualified for such a torture test than the United States Marine Corps.
The Guardian XO robot, an exoskeleton suit to help reduce the risk of injuries by improving human strength and endurance, is on display at the 2019 Modern Day Marine Expo on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., Sept. 18, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Yuritzy Gomez)
“The Sarcos Defense team is very pleased that the U.S. Marine Corps will be testing use cases for our Guardian XO Alpha version this year,” said Ben Wolff, CEO, Sarcos Defense.
“Our military branches need to regularly address changing personnel issues and reduce the risk of injury from performing heavy-lifting tasks. We believe that our full-body, powered exoskeletons will be a huge benefit to the Marines as well as the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and USSOCOM, who we are also working with on our exoskeleton technology.”
Boeing Co. has unveiled a new concept for an unmanned fighter that would work autonomously alongside fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft.
Dubbed the Airpower Teaming System, the drone-jet hybrid would be a multi-mission craft using artificial intelligence to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions to supply pilots with more information during a conflict, according to the company.
The aircraft, which Boeing is co-developing with the government of Australia for that country, was unveiled at the Avalon Airshow.
The jet is 38 feet long and can fly more than 2,000 nautical miles, the company said. It uses A.I. “to fly independently or in support of manned aircraft while maintaining safe distance between other aircraft,” according to its fact sheet.
Boeing intends to hold its maiden flight sometime in 2020.
The concept is similar to an ongoing U.S. military effort.
A full-scale model of the Boeing Airpower Teaming System air vehicle.
The concept is part of the service’s Air Superiority 2030 road map, which the Air Force debuted in 2016. The road map outlines next-generation air dominance, defined as advanced fighter aircraft, sensors or weapons — or all of the above — in a growing and unpredictable threat environment.
The Navy will launch formal flight testing in 2021 for a new, first-of-its kind carrier-launched drone engineered to double the attack range of F-18 fighters, F-35Cs, and other carrier aircraft.
The emerging Navy MQ-25 Stingray program, to enter service in the mid-2020s, will bring a new generation of technology by engineering a new unmanned re-fueler for the carrier air wing.
“The program expects to be in flight test by 2021 and achieve initial operational capability by 2024,” Jamie Cosgrove, spokeswoman for Naval Air Systems Command, told Warrior Maven.
The Navy recently awarded a development deal to Boeing to further engineer and test the MQ-25.
A central key question informs the core of this technology effort: What if the attack capability of carrier fighters, such as an F-18 or F-35C, could double the range at which they hold enemy targets at risk? Could such a prospect substantially extend the envelope of offensive attack operations, while allowing carriers themselves to operate at safer distances?
The Navy believes so; “the MQ-25 will provide a robust organic refueling capability, extending the range of the carrier air wing to make better use of Navy combat strike fighters,” Cosgrove said.
Perhaps enemy targets 1,000 miles away, at sea or deep inland, could successfully be destroyed by carrier-launched fighters operating with a vastly expanded combat radius. Wouldn’t this be of crucial importance in a world of quickly evolving high-tech missile and aircraft threats from potential adversaries such as near-peer rivals? Perhaps of equal or greater relevance, what if the re-fueler were a drone, able to operate in forward high-risk locations to support fighter jets – all while not placing a large manned tanker aircraft within range of enemy fire?
Boeing’s MQ-25 Stingray.
The emergence of a drone of this kind bears prominently upon ongoing questions about the future of aircraft carriers in light of today’s fast-changing threat environment. Chinese DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship guided missiles, for instance, are said to be able to destroy targets as far away as 900 nautical miles. While there is some question about these weapon’s ability to strike moving targets, and carriers of course are armed with a wide range of layered defenses, the Chinese weapon does bring a substantial risk potentially great enough to require carriers to operate much further from shore.
In this scenario, these Chinese so-called “carrier-killer” missiles could, quite possibly, push a carrier back to a point where its fighters no longer have range to strike inland enemy targets from the air. The new drone is being engineered, at least in large measure, as a specific way to address this problem. If the attack distance of an F-18, which might have a combat radius of 500 miles or so, can double – then carrier-based fighters can strike targets as far as 1000 miles away if they are refueled from the air.
Also, despite the emergence of weapons such as the DF-21D, senior Navy leaders and some analysts have questioned the ability of precision-guided long-range missile to actually hit and destroy carriers on the move at 30-knots from 1,000 miles away. Targeting, guidance on the move fire control, ISR and other assets are necessary for these kinds of weapons to function as advertised. GPS, inertial measurement units, advanced sensors and dual-mode seekers are part of a handful of fast-developing technologies able to address some of these challenges, yet it does not seem clear that long-range anti-ship missiles such as the DF-21D will actually be able to destroy carriers on the move at the described distances.
A U.S. Navy X-47B unmanned combat air system demonstrator aircraft prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Furthermore, the Navy is rapidly advancing ship-based defensive weapons, electronic warfare applications, lasers, and technologies able to identify and destroy approaching anti-ship cruise missile from ranges beyond the horizon. Carriers often travel in Carrier Strike Groups where they are surrounded by destroyers and cruisers able to provide additional protection. One such example of this includes the now-deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air system, or NIFC-CA. This technology combines ship-based radar and fire control systems with an aerial sensor and dual-mode SM-6 missile to track and destroy approaching threats from beyond-the-horizon. Ship-based laser weapons and rail guns, in addition, could be among lower-cost ship defense weapons as well.
The MQ-25A Stingray is evolving out of a now-cancelled carrier-launched ISR and attack drone program called Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike system, or UCLASS.
A Northrop demonstrator aircraft, called the X-47B, has already performed successful carrier drone take-offs and landings. Accordingly, the ability of the Navy to operate a drone on an aircraft carrier is already progressing and has been demonstrated.
An existing large fuselage tanker, such as the emerging Air Force KC-46A, might have too large a radar signature and therefore be far too vulnerable to enemy attack. This, quite naturally, then creates the need for a drone able to better elude enemy radar and refuel attack aircraft on its way to a mission.
The early engineering process thus far has been geared toward MQ-25A Stingray technical and task analysis efforts spanning air vehicle capabilities, carrier suitability and integration, missions systems and software — including cybersecurity.
This article originally appeared on Warrior Maven. Follow @warriormaven1 on Twitter.
When Erich “Bubi” Hartmann died in 1993, he was still the most successful fighter pilot in the history of aerial warfare. With an astonishing 352 kills, his record is all but assured until World War III comes around. He’s not the only former Nazi Luftwaffe pilot whose name is at the top of the list. In fact, the top ten pilots on that list all have German names, including Gerhard Barkhorn (301 kills), Günther Rall (275), and Otto Kittel (267).
How did one of the most notably absent air forces in history rack up such impressive kill counts?
Hint: They had to be good because their bosses were so bad at their jobs.
The reason German pilots scored so high is a combination of skill and time in the air. There’s probably also a dash of luck in there, if they managed to survive the war. Since the Luftwaffe saw its best successes at the beginning of the war, taking on obsolete and unprepared air forces in enemy countries, Nazi pilots were fighting for years before American pilots. When the war came home, the number of German pilots dwindled, and enemy targets over Germany rose.
A skilled pilot could rack up quite a kill count in that time, especially if they had to fight until the whole war was over, or they were killed or captured.
And they did.
In contrast, American pilots would be sent home, or rotated out after a certain amount of time spent in the air. At the height of World War II, allied fighter pilots were required to spend at least 200 hours behind the stick of a fighter aircraft before being eligible to be rotated home. American pilots dutifully fought the required amount of time and went home for some RR.
Even Richard Bong, the Army Air Forces’ highest-scoring ace – the “Ace of Aces” – scored 40 kills in the Pacific Theater from September 1942 until December 1944. His stay was extended because he was also training pilots in the Philippines. He ended up spending much longer in the area, leading missions and training pilots. Even though he wasn’t allowed to seek combat opportunities, Bong still racked up an astonishing 40 kills against the Japanese.
It seems being one the top aces of any war is just a matter of time… and not getting shot down.
Two Department of Energy security experts took off to San Antonio in March, 2017. Their mission was to retrieve potentially dangerous nuclear material from a nonprofit research lab. Just to be certain they were getting the goods, they were issued radiation detectors along with a disc of plutonium and a small amount of cesium to calibrate their sensors.
When these two security experts stopped for the night along the 410 beltway, they left the nuclear materials in their rented Ford SUV in a Marriott parking lot that was not in the best neighborhood. The next morning, they were surprised to find the vehicle’s windows smashed in and the nuclear materials gone.
For the uninitiated, plutonium is one of the most valuable substances on Earth. It’s also one of few elements that will undergo nuclear fission, which is used in nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. It’s an extremely deadly and dangerous substance with a half-life of just over 24,000 years. One kilogram of plutonium can explode with the force of 10,000 tons of TNT. Luckily, the Idaho National Laboratory says the amount stolen isn’t enough to make a nuclear bomb — that requires nine pounds of uranium or seven pounds of plutonium.
Something the size and weight of a kettle bell could fill the material need for a nuclear weapon.
Cesium is an element that can be used in highly accurate atomic clocks and dirty bombs. It’s one of the most active elements on Earth and explodes on contact with water.
No one briefed the public, no announcement was made in the San Antonio area, and no one would say exactly how much fissile material was stolen and is currently in the hands of someone who thinks they’re just holding cool pieces of metal while slowly irradiating themselves and those around them.
And the military doesn’t have to do any of that, so they don’t. In fact, it happens so often there’s now an acronym for it: MUF – material unaccounted for. An estimated six tons of fissile material is currently considered MUF.
If there’s an acronym AND a powerpoint about it, you know that sh*t is happening all the time.
The Government Accountability Office doesn’t even have a thorough record of material it loaned to other nuclear nations, what the status of that material is, and if their systems are rigorously inspected. At least 11 of those sites have not been visited by U.S. inspectors since before the September 11, 2001, attacks.
In one instance, 45 pounds of enriched uranium — enough for five nuclear detonations — loaned from the military was listed as safely stored when it was actually gone as of 2009 and had been missing for as long as five years. Since 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency tracked 270 incidents where dangerous fissile materials were trafficked with the intent of doing harm.
“He seems totally trustworthy to me. Let’s transfer our plutonium immediately.”
The security contracting firm who lost the equipment was given an award, government bonuses, and a renewed contract. Since the Idaho National Lab considered the amount of nuclear material stolen to be of little consequence, they closed the case.
The Mk 22 is a modified Smith & Wesson M39 pistol with a silencer, but it’s mostly known as the “Hush Puppy.”
During the 1960s, the Navy SEALs were just starting to develop their clandestine techniques that would eventually turn them into one of the finest fighting forces in the world. Being special operations commandos, they had their pick of conventional and non-conventional military weapons.
One of those was the M39. But after a few runs in the field, the frogmen started asking for modifications, which resulted in a longer barrel threaded at the muzzle to accept the screw-on suppressor, among other modifications.
“We’d go into these villages at two or three o’clock in the morning, and the dogs and ducks raised all kinds of kain [noise],” said former Navy SEAL Chief James “Patches” Watson in the video below. “We needed something to shut them up without disturbing the whole neighborhood.”
The gun was fantastic for silencing noisy dogs, hence its nickname. (Editor’s note: please don’t kill dogs.)
American inventor, Hiram Percy Maxim created the first commercially successful firearm suppressor in the early 1900s, giving way to the quietest gun on the battlefield.
Ironically, his father, Hiram Stevens Maxim, was the inventor of one of the loudest — the Maxim Gun. This weapon was the first fully automatic machine gun, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Maxim Jr.’s suppressors were popular in the 1920s and 30s among shooters and sportsmen before being adopted by the Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor of the modern CIA — during World War II. The next use by the American military were by the Navy SEALs, according to this American Heroes Channel video:
The Humvee — High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV) — has been a workhorse for the United States military for over three decades. The vehicle is showing its age, as insurgents have been doing a lot of damage with improvised explosive devices and RPGs. While the former can be a problem, the humble HMMWV may soon have a counter in the form of an active protection system.
Wait, you might be saying, aren’t active protection systems a tank thing? Well, not necessarily. Yes, they can be heavy, but they don’t have to be. According to a handout from General Dynamics at the Association of the United State Army expo in Washington, D.C., there is an active protection system that can fit on a HMMWV – or bigger vehicles.
The Iron Fist Light is a system that comes in at 551 pounds. Yep, you did not miss a fourth digit there. This means that the cargo carrying capacity of most vehicles is not seriously compromised. The system can be bolted on to just about any vehicle and uses both infra-red and radar systems to track incoming missiles and rockets. Then, it can fire an interceptor to destroy or deflect the incoming projectile.
The system works in both open terrain and urban environments, and also offers the ability to detect other types of hostile fire, such as bursts from small arms. The system provides 360 degrees of coverage and can also handle high-angle shots. Furthermore, it doesn’t draw a lot of electrical power from the vehicle.
The Iron Fist was originally developed by Israel Military Industries. It was selected by the Army for use on vehicles last year, and will also be fitted on Dutch infantry fighting vehicles. One thing for sure, the HMMWV, which will be around for a while, is not going to be an easy target for bad guys.
During the course of covering the five entries for the Navy’s FFG(X) program, much has been made of the light armament of the littoral combat ships. They are limited to what are essentially point-defense systems, specifically, the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile. This missile has a range of about five nautical miles, and usually comes in launchers holding 11 or 21 missiles.
Now, the RIM-116 is joined by the Mk 15 Phalanx as the major point-defense systems on U.S. Navy ships. But there are some drawbacks that one has to keep in mind with these systems: they both have a finite supply of ammo (albeit the Phalanx’s ammo issues are not as bad as the RIM-116’s), and their limited range means that the ships may take some damage when the missile is stopped by those systems (albeit not as much as it would take from a direct hit).
The RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile has a range of five nautical miles, but the launcher can only hold so many rounds.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Gary Granger Jr.)
One of the ways that those drawbacks will be addressed is from a system called HELIOS. According to materials obtained from Lockheed at the 2018 SeaAirSpace expo in National Harbor, Maryland, this sea-based directed-energy weapon could either replace both of these systems or help supplement them.
Lasers would bring the best of both the RIM-116 and Phalanx systems for just about any warship. They would offer the extended range of a system like the RIM-116 (possibly a little more), and they would have almost no limits on the ammo (just keep the juice flowing!). This is a good thing for something like the littoral combat ship.
The Mk15 Phalanx carries more ammo than the launchers for the RIM-116, but has a much shorter range.
(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class William Weinert)
Lasers have been used to guide bombs in the past, and the United States tested an airborne laser on a 747 for a number of years before the plane was dismantled. Still, it may be that when it comes to beating missiles headed for ships, BRRRZAP could replace BRRRRRT or a missile launch in the near future.
Decades before America’s Space Shuttle would roar into the sky, the United States already had plans to field a reusable spaceplane. Born out of Germany’s World War II efforts to create a bomber that could attack New York and continue on to the Pacific, Boeing’s X-20 Dyna-Soar was to be a single-seat craft boosted into the sky atop American rockets.
It would soar in the sky in the blurred line between earth’s atmosphere and the vacuum of space, bouncing along the heavens before releasing its payload over Soviet targets miles below. The X-20 was a 1950s science fiction fever dream born of the nuclear age and the earliest days of the Cold War… And according to some experts, it very likely would have worked.
Operation Paperclip and the burgeoning Cold War
As World War II came to a close, the United States and Soviet Union’s relationship with one another was already beginning to sour. Nazi Germany’s war machine had torn through the continent, often on the backs of Germany’s state-of-the-art military technology, but geopolitics is a game of theater and pragmatism in equal measure. While the world ached for justice, defense officials in both America and the Soviet Union already saw the Cold War looming large on the horizon. Justice mattered in the minds of these leaders, but not quite as much as surviving the next great conflict to come.
Nazi technology had given Germany an advantage on multiple military fronts, and both America and the Soviet Union knew the scientists responsible for these technological leaps would soon be looking for a means to escape prosecution for their roles in the conflict. Both nations, recognizing the strategic advantage their knowledge could offer, quickly set about capturing as many Nazi scientists and researchers as they could. In the United States, this effort to leverage Germany’s scientists came to be known as Operation Paperclip.
In all, Operation Paperclip, which was organized by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA) and largely executed by the U.S. Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps, brought some 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians to the United States following the war, where they were given roles in America’s ongoing military and technological efforts. NASA’s famed Wernher von Braun, the man who developed the Saturn V rocket that brought America to the moon, was perhaps the most high profile German scientist to come through Paperclip, but among the others were Walter Dornberger and Krafft Ehricke.
In their newfound roles at Bell Aircraft, an American aircraft manufacturing firm, Dornberger and Ehricke first proposed the concept of a sort of vertical-launched bomber and missile in one. In Germany, they had called this theoretical platform the Silbervogel, or Silver Fish. Today, the plan seems quite logical: The vehicle would be sent aloft atop a rocket booster and propelled all the way into a sub-orbital but exoatmospheric altitude where it would briefly enter space, before gliding down toward the atmosphere and being “bounced” back up thanks to the vehicle’s wings.
Today, the idea of launching a reusable spaceplane into a suborbital altitude practically sounds run of the mill, thanks to similar concepts being leveraged by everything from nuclear ICBMs to the most advanced, cutting-edge hypersonic weapons, but Dornberger and Ehricke’s proposal was submitted in 1952 — five years before the Soviet Union would launch the world’s first man-made satellite into orbit. Operation Paperclip was devised specifically to leverage Germany’s scientists to help kick-start America’s own exotic military programs, and in hindsight, it’s hard to argue that the effort wasn’t a success, regardless of the ethical implications.
Working in the shadow of Sputnik
On October 1, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first man-made satellite. It was a small, metal sphere, measuring only about 23 inches in diameter, with four external radio antennas trailing behind it broadcasting signal pulses back to Soviet scientists, as well as the rest of the world. What followed has come to be known as the “Sputnik Crisis” in the Western world.
America had been the de facto world leader in terms of both military and economic might following the end of the Second World War, but the success of Sputnik placed America’s supremacy into question. The Soviets had matched America’s nuclear weapons with a test of their own in 1949, and again with the hydrogen bomb in 1953. Now, instead of matching America’s success, the Soviets were starting to take an intimidating lead.
The United States had taken to developing Dornberger and Ehricke’s concept in three separate programs: a rocket bomber (RoBo), a long-range reconnaissance vehicle (Brass Bell), and hypersonic weapons research. Just days after Sputnik 1 launched, the U.S. re-organized their efforts, combing all three programs into the new single Weapons System 464L program, also known as Dyna-Soar.
The new Dyna-Soar effort was to mature in three stages. Dyna-Soar 1 would be a research vehicle. Dyan-Soar 2 would add reconnaissance, and Dyna-Soar 3 would incorporate bombing capabilities. America intended to work fast, planning to test the first iteration by 1963 in glide trials, with powered trials to follow the next year. By then, the Dyna-Soar 2 was expected to exceed Mach 18 in powered flight. A missile based on the Dyna-Soar program was expected to enter service by 1968, with the spaceplane itself operational by 1974.
In order to meet these deadlines, proposals were fielded by both Bell Aircraft and Boeing. Despite Bell’s head start, Boeing ultimately secured the contract and set about work on developing what was to be the X-20 Dyna-Soar.
Building a Dyna-Soar
By 1960, the spaceplanes overall design was largely settled, leveraging a delta-shape and small winglets for control in place of a traditional tail. In order to manage the incredible heat of reentry, the X-20 would use super alloys like the heat-resistant René 41 in its frame, and molybdenum, graphite, and zirconia rods all used for heat shielding on the underside of the craft.
“It was a hot-temperature structure using a nickel super alloy,” said Dr. Richard Hallion, former Air Force chief historian.
“The leading edges of the wing would be made of an even more exotic alloy. There was provision for active cooling.”
That same year, astronauts were chosen to fly America’s new space bomber. Among them was a thirty-year-old Navy test pilot and aeronautical engineer named Neil Armstrong, who would go on to leave the program in 1962.
By the end of that same year, the program was given the designation X-20 and it was unveiled to the public in a ceremony held in Las Vegas. America’s mighty B-52 Stratofortress was chosen to air-drop the X-20 for in-atmosphere flight tests, and the first firing of the rocket booster intended for higher altitude drop-tests was also a success. The project was incredibly ahead of its time, while somehow also being entirely feasible with the technology of the day. In the early 1960s, it seemed all but assured that America would soon be flying space bombers.
Once built, the X-20 Dyna-Soar’s first mock-up measured 35 and a half feet long with a 20.4-foot wingspan. It used three retractable struts for landing. Although it would have its own A-4 or A-9 rocket engine to help it reach an exoatmospheric trajectory, it would effectively glide throughout most of its mission, dipping down into the atmosphere just far enough to create lift, which it would use to bounce back up, skipping across the air enveloping the earth like a stone over a pond. It would continue to skip until it had lost enough velocity to prevent another bounce back up, at which point the pilot would glide the craft back down to earth just like the Space Shuttle.
The X-20 Dyna-Soar goes extinct
Although the X-20 concept was quite literally out of this world, it was still technically feasible, and early tests suggested that the Dyna-Soar may indeed work as advertised. However, the program was also incredibly expensive, and with the new National Aeronautics and Space Administration moving forward with its Gemini program, America’s civilian leaders were becoming more interested in fielding an actual spacecraft they could use to compete with the Soviets, rather than a weapon that offered little in the way of international prestige.
“If we had pursued it as a black-world program like the U-2, it might have gone ahead,” explained Hallion. “I never saw any technical issue that would have been a show stopper.”
On December 10, 1963, the X-20 program was canceled. The United States had invested $410 million in its development, or more than $3.5 billion in 2021 dollars, but the Dyna-Soar was still a long way off from being the space bomber it was intended to become. Even per Hallion’s positive recollection of the effort, the X-20 was still at least two-and-a-half years away from working and would have required at least another $370 million to complete. A space bomber would indeed offer global range, but in 1957, the U.S. Air Force had demonstrated that the B-52, the same bomber tasked with helping test the X-20, could circle the globe all on its own, without any need for pricey rockets.
Upon canceling the X-20 program, the U.S. government diverted its remaining funding to the Manned Orbiting Laboratory effort that used Gemini spacecraft to demonstrate the value of a crewed military presence in Earth’s orbit.
But the X-20 was not completely swallowed up by history. Elements of the program could be found in NASA’s Space Shuttle, and of course, the Space Force’s secretive X-37B bears more than a passing resemblance to the X-20. The X-37B is not touted as a space bomber and almost certainly isn’t, but the reusable spaceplane may, in fact, be one of America’s most capable reconnaissance assets.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis goes by many badass nicknames, including “Mad Dog,” “Warrior Monk,” and “Chaos.”
So it’s only fitting that the aircraft he usually flies on while functioning his official capacity is known by an equally badass name — “Nightwatch.” Its name hints at its original mission — a doomsday plane, equipped to provide the president and high-ranking members of the military with the ability to retain control of America’s offensive forces in the event of an all-out nuclear war or cataclysmic event.
Nightwatch now serves as an airborne command post for the SECDEF, allowing him to remain in touch with the U.S. military he oversees while traveling anywhere in the world, especially useful should the unthinkable occur.
The Air Force possesses four Nightwatch aircraft — converted Boeing 747-200 jumbo jet airliners. Like their civilian counterparts, these airplanes come with a considerable operating range and internal carriage capacity. However, that, and a passing external resemblance, is where all similarities end. Underneath the hood, these are completely different aircraft with unique systems and sensors that allow it to do what no other aircraft in the Air Force can.
Unlike a commercial Boeing 747, these aircraft, officially designated E-4B Advanced Airborne Command Posts, lack the rows of plush seats, fold-out meal trays and entertainment screens. Instead, each E-4B is divided up into compartments for its Battle Staff, a joint services team of controllers and coordinators ready to interface with various military units should they be called into action.
Nightwatch crew quite literally have the ability to call virtually connect to any phone number in the world, thanks to a complex satellite communications suite aboard the aircraft. It’s this suite that allows them to also relay commands and orders to America’s nuclear arsenal, forward-deployed submarines and Navy battle groups operating around the globe, or even to speak directly with the President at secured locations.
Because Nightwatch was designed during the Cold War, where nuclear war was still a distinct possibility, it was built to fly with incredible endurance. Defense analysts estimate that each E-4B could spend up to seven days flying continuously with the help of aerial refueling, though the Air Force has only actually flown its E-4Bs up to 35 hours in testing thus far.
The cockpit of the aircraft looks just as it would in the 1980s, with a few modifications. Instead of LCD screens and touch-pads, the Air Force has kept the original analog gauge-type flight instruments, as they’re less susceptible to failing after experiencing an electromagnetic pulse blast from a nuclear explosion.
That’s right… the E-4B is built to be able to fly through the immediate aftermath of a nuclear detonation without sustaining any damage to its systems. The entire aircraft is sealed off and pressurized with special “scrubbers” in its air conditioning system constantly filtering out harmful particles that may find their way inside the cabin. Should an E-4B actually fly through nuclear radiation, its crew inside will be completely safe and sound. The aircraft also carries a considerable amount of rations and potable water for its crew, as well as sleeping berths and its own troubleshooting staff, ready to assist with technical malfunctions and glitches as needed.
However, flying theses monsters isn’t very cheap at all – each Nightwatch costs an average of around $159,529 per hour to fly. Sourcing parts for the fleet isn’t easy either, especially considering that Boeing ceased production of the 747-200 platform decades ago.
It’s estimated that by 2039, all four E-4Bs will have served out their entire useful lifespans, and will have to be replaced, this time with an even more capable long-range aircraft that will assume the mantle of being America’s doomsday plane. Until that day comes, Nightwatch still serves at the Secretary of Defense’s pleasure, ferrying him around on official trips and visits as a visible sign of American military power.
The US Air Force plans to declare its newest gunship, the AC-130J Ghostrider, ready for combat — or initial operating capability in acquisition parlance — this month, but the aircraft won’t actually deploy to a war zone for a couple more years, a general said.
“We are declaring IOC, Initial Operating Capability, this month on the AC-J,” Lt. Gen. Marshall “Brad” Webb, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said Sept. 19 during a briefing with reporters at the Air Force Association’s annual conference outside Washington, DC.
However, the general added, “That doesn’t mean anything with respect to putting it in combat — we’re still just shy of two years away from wanting to put those in combat.”
The reason for the delay is because the high pace of operations in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria makes it difficult to train special operators on the new weapon system, Webb said.
“We’re not waiting around,” he said. “This is a fully configured gunship … The challenge that we have, it’s my problem, is how do we fight the current fight — we have gunships deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — and use those same people to convert into a new weapon system?
“We’re not going to have the luxury of doing what most normal units do,” he added, referring to the typical transition period for returning troops.
“So, how do I navigate having some capability in the fight, transition those same guys in those same squadrons to a new weapon system, and then build them up at the same time?” Webb said. “So, that draws out the timeline from IOC of airframes to train the guys who come back from combat into a new weapon system, have them have a deployed-dwell time to make sure that they’re going to have families at the end of their 20-year career, then bring them back on the battlefield in the Js.”
A heavily modified C-130, the AC-130J features fully integrated digital avionics, as well as a “Precision Strike Package.”
The latter includes a mission management console, robust communications suite, two electro-optical/infrared sensors, advanced fire control equipment, precision guided munitions delivery capability, as well as trainable 30mm and 105mm weapons, according to the Air Force.
The cannons can be mounted on both sides of the aircraft.
The Air Force currently has 10 of the Ghostriders and plans to buy a total of 37 from manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp., the general said.
The service recently retired the AC-130H and, as of last fiscal year, had a total of 31 AC-130s in the fleet, including three Ghostriders, 16 Spookys, and 12 Stinger IIs, according to information compiled by the Air Force Association.
The Russian Navy’s decline since the fall of the Soviet Union has been very dramatic, especially when it comes to major surface combatants and nuclear submarines. The Russians have, however, been making advances in other areas.
One of those has been in what the ships they do have are capable of shooting. This includes the VA-111 Shkval, or “Squall,” a weapon that has been operated by Russia’s submarine force since 2003, according to deagel.com. The Shkval has a range of roughly five and a half nautical miles and a top speed of 200 nautical miles per hour, according to militaryperiscope.com.
MilitaryPeriscope.com reports that initial versions were armed with a nuclear warhead, but later versions have a 460-pound warhead. While the torpedo is very fast – able to cover its maximum range in a minute and a half – it is also effectively a straight-run weapon, with effectiveness in limited situations and locations.
One such location is the Strait of Hormuz, where Iran reportedly tested its own version of the Shkval earlier this year. Iran’s Russian-built Kilo-class submarines and home-built Ghadir-class mini-submarines are both capable of firing this torpedo from their 21-inch torpedo tubes.
While the 460-pound warhead might not do much to the United States Navy’s supercarriers like the Nimitz-class nuclear-powered vessels or the newest ship, USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78), it could very easily cripple or sink the valuable escorts like the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Amphibious vessels could also be vulnerable to this weapon. In all cases, the submarine would need to get very close to the target vessel.