Boeing unveils stealth cargo plane concept for high-end conflicts

Boeing has come up with a new advanced airlifter concept with stealth features to meet the growing need for more durable cargo and tanker planes.
Christopher McFadden
Stealth B2 Spirit Bomber.
Stealth B2 Spirit Bomber.

Wikimedia Commons 

Boeing has shown an idea for a tactical, stealth-capable cargo plane with a blended wing body, or BWB. It comes almost two weeks after Frank Kendall, the secretary of the U.S. Air Force, said that having more airlifters and aerial refueling tankers that can survive will be important in future high-end conflicts against near-peer adversaries, especially China.

The company has been funding this project internally up until this point.

"We thought it was a good time to share the major features of our Blended Wing Body concept, [instead of] the concepts we have shown previously to represent our BWB investigation," according to a statement Boeing gave to The War Zone. "We are continuing BWB concept research activities with government customers to advance [the] state of the art in military transport aircraft design," they said.

If you are unaware, BWB aircraft is a type of aircraft design that features a blended wing and fuselage rather than a traditional cylindrical fuselage with separate wings. The wings are perfectly attached to the plane's body. This makes the plane's shape more aerodynamic and could save fuel.

Some notable examples of BWB-designed aircraft include the B-2 and B-21 "stealth" bombers, NASA's X-48B research aircraft, Boeing's X-48C research aircraft, Airbus' MAVERIC (Model Aircraft for Validation and Experimentation of Robust Innovative Control) technology demonstrator, BAE Systems' MAGMA unmanned aerial vehicle, and Northrop Grumman's X-47B unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).

Even though BWB designs are often very stealthy, like the B-2 and B-21 stealth bombers, and often have shapes that look like flying wings, this is not always a low-observable design. Better aerodynamic efficiency is one of the most apparent benefits of a BWB configuration.

This can lead to better fuel economy and a more extended range. Also, internal volume can be advantageous.

The new design is very different from previous offerings from Boeing

The Boeing representative at the AIAA SciTech event said that the newly announced airlifter idea is a "significant departure" from the company's previous BWB projects. This has two completely internal jet engines and stealthy design features, like a fuselage with at least some chined edges and a snout that looks more like a beak.

Earlier Boeing BWB ideas, like the X-48 series, had fuselages and noses that were wider and more rounded, and the engines were in pods on top of the center of the rear fuselage.

According to a Boeing official, the new BWB airlifter design incorporates partly serpentine ducting into its engine inlets. This aids in hiding the turbine fan blades, which, if exposed, are particularly radar-reflective. When used with fan-face baffles, they can reduce the radar cross-section from the most important straight-on angle.

By making it hard to see the exhaust directly from most angles, especially from below, the exhaust and tail seem to be designed to reduce the plane's infrared signature. This is a fairly common way to make a low-observable aircraft. It dates back to the early days of stealth, and it would also reduce the radar signature of certain parts.

The model also has an exciting cockpit glass design with multiple sections and a large panel just above the front of the fuselage. A Boeing representative at the AIAA SciTech event said that, at least for now, the arrangement of the windows is just a thought experiment and doesn't necessarily mean anything else about the design.

This does not imply that Boeing is not also hoping to benefit from the BWB planform's increased overall efficiency. Information given to The War Zone suggests that this design idea could use about 30 percent less fuel than a traditional cargo plane with the same payload capacity.

At present, the design is still very much in the conceptual phase. Advanced modeling will look at different parts of the new BWB design, such as how air moves through its large ventral inlets.

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