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Military innovations: X-Planes, jumbo jet war machines, 'digital quarterbacks'

  • E-2D Advanced Hawkeye

    E-2D Advanced Hawkeye  (Copyright Northrop Grumman Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

  • P-8A Poseidon

    P-8A Poseidon  (Boeing)

  • VTOL X-Plane, Boeing concept

    VTOL X-Plane, Boeing concept  (DARPA)

Despite cutbacks, the defense industry continued to produce innovative military planes in 2014. Here’s a look back at three aircraft innovations readers’ found very promising – the Navy’s latest flying ‘digital quarterback,’ the hybrid X plane, and jumbo jets being adapted as war machines.

New Hawkeye aircraft is US Navy’s ‘digital quarterback’

The newest, most advanced Hawkeye aircraft achieved initial operational capability in 2014. The latest variant of this early warning command and control aircraft reported for duty.

Dubbed “the digital quarterback,” the Hawkeye E-2D gives warfighters even better awareness in the battle space and significantly boosts airborne battle management.

Made by Northrop Grumman, it provides the Navy fleet with next generation eyes. It can help manage missions, keep carrier battle groups out of harm’s way, and sweep ahead of a strike.

The aircraft’s design is unique.  It has a fully integrated all-glass tactical cockpit, a rotating rotodome, and a four vertical stabilizer tail configuration. Its 360-degree radar coverage provides enhanced situational awareness and all-weather tracking.

And it will provide 360-degree surveillance for American warfighters.

How is it more advanced?

Well, the newest Hawkeye has significantly evolved since the earlier E-2 models, with the more powerful AN/APY-9 radar system among its standout capabilities. Northrop Grumman describes Hawkeye’s radar technology, improved data processing and communications as not just next generation, but a two-generation jump ahead.

These advances give warfighters the ability to see more targets at much further distances.

Warfighters will receive better data more quickly, which means that they can now find out about and engage threats faster.

How will this “digital quarterback” be used? The Hawkeye can be deployed for a range of tasks, from missile defense to border security.  It will be key for time-critical threats.

Hawkeye’s combined capabilities are a big advantage in defending and protecting U.S. forces in coastal areas and on land.

Its excellent sensor data, battle space situational awareness, and connectivity to other airborne assets make this aircraft ideal for coordinating air strikes against hostile targets.

For example, well-concealed enemy launchers firing high-speed missiles that fly low with low signatures can be a threat. This type of threat often means that forces have very little reaction time once a missile breaks on the radar horizon.

For forces operating in littoral environments — or those that are part of bodies of water like a river or the ocean – safe access is crucial. The more common these advanced cruise missiles become, the more a solution like Hawkeye becomes important.

An airborne battle manager, the Hawkeye can operate from forward-deployed aircraft carriers.

In a scenario where adversaries suddenly gain possession of missiles, the Hawkeye can detect the threat and use FORCEnet communications to notify an Aegis missile cruiser of a launched threat. Aegis then receives ongoing continuous data to help it destroy the missile.

The aircraft system can help exactly locate and identify an adversary’s launch system.  It does so by simultaneously collaborating with various assets like satellite surveillance.

This versatile quarterback could also direct an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), or drone.


The longtime hunt for the ultimate military hybrid – part helicopter, part airplane – may finally be over.

DARPA has been pursuing the development of the “VTOL X-Plane,” which would give the military unprecedented capabilities.

The VTOL X plane is basically a helicopter mashed up with an airplane. Helicopters, with the ability to take off and land without an airstrip (otherwise known as VTOL, or Vertical Take Off and Landing) give the military access to areas that fixed-wing aircraft can’t reach. But fixed-wing aircraft provide better speed and range.

DARPA announced that the competition to build the X Plane has been narrowed down to a final four companies – Aurora Flight Sciences, The Boeing Company, Karem Aircraft, and Sikorsky Aircraft.

All have proposed designs for an unmanned X-Plane. While all in their conceptual stages, each of these designs and new technologies could ultimately revolutionize manned aircraft, too.

VTOL X-Plane challenges the teams to create one single hybrid aircraft that incorporates significant improvements in vertical and cruise flight capabilities.

The final four designs all leverage new multipurpose technologies. Developing technology that can do more than one thing is a smart approach – the aircraft will need fewer systems to operate.

Would this X-Plane be better than all the rest?

DARPA hopes so. The VTOL X-Plane will have a number of impressive capabilities.

The X-Plane project aims to provide an aircraft that can fly as fast as 460 mph, take off and land vertically, and hover efficiently. This would happen all while the plane hauls crates of heavy cargo.

Current VTOLs, like the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, are used operationally and give the military the option to land just about anywhere at relatively fast speeds. But the Osprey can reach only about 322 mph.

The plane’s lift-to-drag ratio — or the amount of lift generated by a wing or vehicle, divided by the drag it creates by moving through the air — will also be dramatically improved.

DARPA plans to invest $130 million to get the first X-Plane soaring in early 2018.

Jumbo jets to join the Navy

The U.S. Navy ordered $2.4 billion worth of a new reconnaissance and surveillance aircraft that resembles the plane you might fly to Cancun for a spring break.

The P-3C Orion is a four-engine, anti-submarine/surveillance aircraft that has acted as a maritime patrol plane for about half a century. It has advanced submarine detection sensors, such as directional frequency and ranging sonobuoys, which are sonar systems that are dropped from aircrafts to carry out underwater research. The P-3C Orion also has magnetic anomaly detection equipment.

But this new amped up jumbo jet P-8A Poseidon will boost even more maritime patrol capabilities. It will serve the military as a long-range anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft.

Maritime patrol aircraft act as the eyes of the fleet, and the Poseidon will fly farther and cover greater distances, scouring the world’s oceans for any potential threat. If a threat is detected, the aircraft will be able to respond very quickly.

Based on Boeing's 737-800 commercial airplane, the P-8A Poseidon holds a crew of nine and can operate as an armed platform to take on targets while getting critical data to everyone on the network at the same time.

It can communicate with unmanned aircraft and will leverage enhanced technology with even more capable weapons and sensors, all of which will contribute to a single fused tactical situation display that can be shared over both military standard and civilian Internet data links.

From jumbo jet to armed warrior

Ever flown in a 737? The P-8A is a derivative of this aircraft. It marks the first time Boeing has taken a commercial aircraft and modified it for war.

The P-8A has the fuselage of a 737-800 and the wings of a 737-900. Its two engines are made by CFM International and provide about 27,000 pounds of takeoff thrust each.

At 130 feet-long and with a wingspan of 124 feet, it can travel 564 miles per hour. The aircraft’s range is greater than 1,200 nautical miles, and it has a flight ceiling of 41,000 feet.

The Poseidon is a team effort from Boeing partners, including Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Spirit AeroSystems, BAE Systems, and GE Aviation.

Boeing has already delivered 13 P-8As to the U.S. Navy.  In December, the first patrol squadron was deployed to Kadena, Japan, where it has since been conducting operational missions.

Boeing announced it will produce 16 P-8A Poseidon aircraft for this order. Ultimately, the Navy plans to purchase 117 of the aircraft, which will replace its P-3C fleet.

Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries.  Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk”  where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.