So thus far, I’ve pondered the strategic objectives of the editors at Vogue China, mulled over the significance of masks in pop culture, and studied the formal techniques of a graffiti artist. In considering art, fashion, and artifacts, I’ve paid credence to Mr. Jacobs and Mr. Starck and initiated my exploration of aestheticism.  And so now, I shall turn my attention to militarism by examining the ultimate symbol of jingoism and hawkishness – the fighter jet.

However, unlike Wolfman of Top Gun fame, watching planes get shot down does not give me a hard-on, so rather than focus on air-to-air combat or aircraft armament (B.O.B.) , I will address fighter aircraft design and proposals for the production of the “More Electric Aircraft.”

Before discussing the “More Electric Aircraft” (more ominously referred to as the F-X), it is important to briefly consider the evolution of the fighter jet. NB. For the purpose of this discussion, I will liberally omit several important technological developments, focusing primarily on those that interest me most. It’s my blog and I can’t write what I want to (write…I hate split infinitives). Significantly, one should note that the airplane (invented in 1903 by the Wright brothers) was not initially employed in actual hostilities. On the contrary, it was considered more of a sportsman’s toy (think Howard Hughes).

Nine years after the airplane’s invention, in 1912, when the Royal Flying Corps was formed, the British military began outfitting aircrafts with machine-guns and light bombs. This changed EVERYTHING – literally. The re-invention of the aircraft as an aggressive instrument was a spectacular revolution. The first dedicated fighter was the Fokker EI, a monoplane (with a single pair of wings) fitted with a synchronized machine-gun firing through the propeller arc.

While the aircraft was used primarily as a “scout” for aerial reconnaissance in the early stages of World War I, by the outbreak of World War II, aerial combat and dogfighting became more common. Pilots began to develop a growing repertoire of aerobatic maneuvers to evade enemy fire. The invention of the turbojet engine, which (unlike rocket engines) relied on the atmosphere rather than its fuel supply for oxygen, was maximally efficient at high speeds and altitudes. In 1941, the Gloster Meteor MK-I was designed around a pair of Frank Whitte/Rolls Rouce W.2B Welland turbojets and mounted with four 20mm Hispano cannons to perform high altitude interceptions.

At the onset of World War II, the United States, Britain, and Germany had advanced radar designs. Although decimeter waves were used at the beginning of the war to direct fire against ships and aircraft, microwaves improved the accuracy of automatic tracking sets intended for directing anti-aircraft guns. By 1938, radar was the lynchpin of the British integrated air defense system – radar stations could detect incoming German attacks as early as possible so that Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter squadrons could be directed along an interception route. Radar enabled the RAF to generate a higher level of situational awareness by generating a constant flow of accurate information about enemy movements. Several eminent historians, including J. Montgomery Hyde, contend that radar “won” the Battle of Britain.

The outbreak of conflict in Korea in the 1950 and worsening of Cold War hostilities in the 1950s precipitated the expansion of the U.S. Air Force’s requirements for advanced supersonic fighters. (Another parenthetical remark – if you haven’t observed a correlation between the onset of conflict and advancements in military technology, I recommend visiting Lumosity and trying out some cognitive exercises).  An aircraft is said to be supersonic if the speed of the aircraft is greater than the speed of sound (~750 mph).  Between mid-1951 and early 1953, the USAF authorized development of a total of six new supersonic fighters, which later became known as the “Century Series” fighters. The world’s first operational supersonic fighter, the North American Super Sabre, entered service in 1954. These planes could, potentially, fly at supersonic speeds to intercept an invading bomber formation before it came into range with its nuclear payload.

As Soviet surface-to-air missiles became increasingly deadly, the USAF became increasingly interested in the development of a stealth aircraft. Although experiments with visual stealth technology commenced with a 1943 U.S. Navy project code-named Yehudi (to help Navy patrol aircraft sink German U-boats), Lockheed Martin was not awarded the contract to build the “Have Blue,” the world’s first stealth aircraft until 1976.  During the Gulf War, Lockheed Martin’s F-117A Nighthawk stealth fighter flew behind enemy lines, hitting targets in Baghdad with impressive accuracy. And in the 1999 Balkans War, the B-2 bomber (a descendant of the F-117A) precisely struck over a dozen targets per mission, returning without a scratch.

It’s a looker, eh?…

The Air Force is now investingly heavily in F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The F-22 has been described as the “world’s most capable air-to-air comat aircraft” (although it also has an attack capability). It boasts stealth features, supercruise, thrust-vectoring for high maneuverability, and integrated avionics that integrate information from on-board and off-board sensors. Procurement of the F-22s began in fiscal year 1999. 187 have been produced since 1999, with each costing over $300 million to build. However, the F-22 force was grounded after a fatal crash, possibly due to its onboard oxygen-generation system. The USAF is now gradually putting the F-22s back in service.

The F-35 is also a stealthy, supersonic, strike fighter (although the F-22 is a bit more stealthy and capable in air-to-air combat). Since the F-35 is cheaper to produce, it is considered a more affordable complement to the F-22 (at $112 million per aircraft, the F-35 is an obvious pick for the thrifty) . The F-35 test fleet was grounded due to problems with an internal electrical generator; however, the F-35B successfully executed a vertical landing on the deck of the USS Wasp (LHD1), an amphibious assault ship on October 3rd!

Recently, rival stealth fighter designs have appeared in Russia, China, and Japan. In August 2011, Russia demonstrated the Sukhoi T-50, their first supersonic stealth fighter.  The T-50 features all-weather capability, ability to use a take-off strip of 300 to 400 meters, capacity for supersonic flight through repeated in-flight refueling, and the ability to attack air and ground targets simultaneously. The first clear pictures of Beijing’s prototype stealth fighter jet were published on several unofficial Chinese and foreign defense-related websites in December 2010. The Chinese J-20 prototype could compete with the F-22 and according to experts, is decisively superior to the F-35. Japan’s Shinshin fighter, a high-moeuvrability stealth aircraft, is the product of the Advanced Technology Demonstrator (ATD-X) program to develop an indigenous fighter. Although the Shinshin is still a trial product, the Japanese plan to fly a fully-functioning demonstrator by 2014.

While the USAF continues to spend more and more on the F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, they are also proceeding with the development of the next generation of advanced fighter warcrafts – the “More Electric Aircraft” to sustainability enthusiasts or the “F-X” to the more bellicose (and those who prefer abbreviations…often one and the same) . The F-X program is less focused on radar evasion and more broadly focused on energy efficiency, which could facilitate increasing the fighter’s payload to accommodate new weapons and other capabilities.

Although the F-X program remains unfunded, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is executing research under USAF Chief Scientist Mark Sullivan’s direction.  The AFRL is currently working on an aircraft electrical infrastructure loosely modeled on commercial hybrid car designs. Their archetype incorporates hybrid-style electric systems to circumvent the need for the bulky hydraulic system installed in current airplanes. The system is built around internal capacitators, which store power drawn from the main engine. Basically, the system would use energy from the engine that otherwise gets absorbed in fuel tanks or released back into the atmosphere (making the fighter an easier target for infrared and heat-detecting sensors). Using smart computerized management, the capacitators could release power to selected sensors, weapons, and mechanical systems as required. Moreover, the system would use purely electric actuators which should be faster-reacting, more efficient, and more reliable – allowing a higher sortie rate.

This system could help the USAF reduce its fuel consumption by approximately 2.5 billion gallons/year. In addition, the F-X could include laser and microwave weapons and more powerful sensors (R&D folks are already dreaming about the ability to launch ‘electronic attacks’ by jamming or inserting software viruses into enemy radar systems).

The AFRL is also pursuing a new type of jet engine. To power the F-X’s electrical systems, the AFRL is investigating a combined cycle engine designed to be equally efficient for low-speed cruising and high speed springs. The development of this engine would result in performance and efficiency improvements.

But now it’s time for another quote from a Tom Cruise flick (albeit delivered by Cuba Gooding Jr. ): “Show me the money.” Unfortunately, one must spend green to go green (although it is frequently possible to recoup the initial investment in energy savings over the fighter’s lifetime). The AFRL will need to spend about $300 million to develop the electrical systems and combined-cycle engine and insiders predict that this sum will only increase as the initiatives take off (pun intended). That said, researchers assure the miserly that the power system and engines promise savings in the billions of dollars with improved war fighting capability.

Pardon my cynicism but wars will not go away – our ozone layer will. Others might argues that our cash might disappear too. Unfortunately, military conflicts have historically driven military innovation. In an age of persistent warfare, the need for invention may seem less urgent while the need for austerity seems quite pressing. To prudently address this issue, the military should consider a crowd-sourcing (or co-creation) platform to mobilize citizens to design and construct a “more electric aircraft.” In February 2011, DARPA announced the “Experimental Crowd-Derived Combat-Support Vehicle Design Challenge” (or more simply, XC2V), facilitated by Local Motors, to develop a body design for a military vehicle that could support Combat Reconnaissance and Combat Deliver & Evacuation missions. All submissions were reviewed and all participants received feedback from Local Motors’ community of more than 12,000 designers and enthusiasts. Victor Garcia’s FLYPMode design was ultimately selected and built (by Local Motors and Dassault Systems with additional input from their online community) into an operational prototype…WITHIN SIX MONTHS! This example provides proof of the potential of crowd-sourcing to develop military vehicle designs. Undoubtedly, a similar system can be utilized to create more efficient and effective fighter jets.

I cannot predict when or if the F-X will be rolled out. However, I can tell you that next time I see the Blue Angels fly, I will try to identify the jets.


Resources on the history of aircraft design:

A few super cool innovative jet concepts:
Marc Newson Ltd’s Kelvin Concept Jet (Commissioned by the Fondation Cartier)
William Brown’s Stratoliner (commissioned by Lockheed Martin)
Timon Sager’s “One” Private Jet (commissioned by AvA)
And finally…Kyuseop Lee’s Deos – Futuristic Flying Police Vehicle
Aviator-inspired fashion: