USAF examines X-aircraft candidates

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US Air Force research laboratories are examining three potential X-aircraft programmes to explore new forms of persistent strike, including combat application of directed energy.

The three programmes - designated MAS-X, MQ-X and DE-X - are part of what Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) researchers are referring to as a new emphasis on experimental aircraft in exploring persistent strike missions for the air force.

Planning for the new X-programmes was revealed in presentations shown at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' (AIAA) Unmanned, Unlimited conference in Chicago.

AFRL adaptive structures team leader Dr Brian Sanders told the conference the proposed Morphing Aircraft Structures (MAS) -X programme was being scoped as a follow-on to the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) existing morphing aircraft structures technology demonstration.

The current DARPA MAS programme is due to conclude in 2009. The MAS-X programme with AFRL would run from 2010 through to 2014.

Sanders acknowledged planning for the proposed MQ-X and DE-X programmes, but was unable to provide further data about them. MQ-X is believed to be a new multirole strike platform, possibly unmanned.

DE-X is believed to be based on development of a dedicated air vehicle that would carry directed-energy weapons. A concept drawing included in Sanders' conference presentation showed a Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules equipped with an energy-beam weapon as part of his discussion of areas of current persistent strike research by AFRL. Sanders says AFRL is "right now very interested in getting X-planes going again".

The three proposed new X-programmes remain distinct from the DARPA-led Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) technology demonstration programme for which Boeing and Northrop Grumman are competing.

J-UCAS programme director Dr Michael Francis told the conference that MAS-X, MQ-X, DE-X and J-UCAS "are different ideas, some of which may make the cut, some of which may not, some of which may have a technology solution that is here, and some of which may come up with an answer that we are not yet ready for".

PETER LA FRANCHI / CHICAGO