The Complex

Is DARPA's New X-Plane The Future of Aviation?

Airplanes are great, but they can't hover without crashing. And helicopters are great, but they can't fly very fast. Attempts to tie the two together, such as the Harrier jump jet, V-22 tiltrotor or Sikorsky X-2 are aerodynamic compromises that end up doing neither especially well.

Aircraft need air moving fast over the wing to create enough lift to support the plane's weight, and since the wings are fixed in position it needs to keep moving. Helicopter rotors work like wings, they're spinning fast enough to generate enough lift to let the helicopter hover, but the rotor needs to be pointed upwards, otherwise nothing is generating lift.

But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency aims to change that, and they've just started handing out money for a new X-plane program. DARPA wants the airplane to fly at least 350mph -- faster than most small general aviation planes, but not as fast as an airliner -- while carrying up to 12,000 pounds. It's harder than it might seem. To do so, you need to step away from conventional airplanes and helicopters.

Aurora Flight Sciences, a relatively small Virginia-based company, just got $14 million to build a scale model prototype of their system, whatever it is. Aurora is known for its innovation, doing unusual things with experimental one-offs or low-production drones; their most prominent programs to date are large experimental airplanes meant to stay airborne for days or years at a time. Just what they are pitching to DARPA we don't yet know -- the company did not immediately return phone calls. But it may look a lot like some other recently-introduced entries, and nothing like what's in the skies today.

One proposal is Boeing's Phantom Swift, which uses a winged fan-in-body configuration, with two rotors inside the fuselage of the aircraft itself and two ducted fans on either wing to hover. The ducted fans tilt forwards to act as propellers, and the internal rotors help take the load off so they don't have to be especially powerful. For forward flight the ducted fans tilt forward to become propellers, while the wings -- and crucially, the fuselage -- can generate lift. Other companies are using some or all of the same ideas.

"We're looking at doing this in an elegant fashion, we're not looking for brute force," DARPA program manager Ashish Bagai said when the program was announced. "There is a lot of technology now available to directly address shortcomings" of previous designs, he added.

The first phase of the contract involves a few competitors, flying scale models and making their best pitches for the real thing. The second phase, starting in 2015, will downselect to a single competitor to build a full-scale airplane.

Nobody is expecting this to happen quickly -- X-planes are built to test ideas, not work operationally -- but the potential benefits to aviation are huge.

The Complex

Situation Report: Idris forced out of Syria, aid suspended

By Gordon Lubold

A shock to the system: Gen. Idris of Syria is forced to flee to Qatar after an attack by Islamist fighters. The WSJ's Adam Entous and Rima Abushakra: "Islamist fighters ran the top Western-backed rebel commander in Syria out of his headquarters, and he fled the country, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The Islamists also took over key warehouses holding U.S. military gear for moderate fighters in northern Syria over the weekend. The takeover and flight of Gen. Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army shocked the U.S., which along with Britain immediately froze delivery of nonlethal military aid to rebels in northern Syria. The turn of events was the strongest sign yet that the U.S.-allied FSA is collapsing under the pressure of Islamist domination of the rebel side of the war. It also weakened the Obama administration's hand as it struggles to organize a peace conference next month bringing together rebels and the regime." Read the rest here.

The NYT's Michael Gordon, Mark Landler and Anne Barnard: "...The administration acted after warehouses of American-supplied equipment were seized Friday by the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist fighters who have broken with the moderate, American-backed opposition, but who also battle Al Qaeda. Administration officials said that the suspension, confirmed on Wednesday, was temporary and that the nonlethal aid, which is supplied by the State Department, could flow again. But with rebels feuding with one another instead of concentrating on fighting Mr. Assad, and with the United States still groping for a reliable partner in Syria, the odds of any peace conference breaking the cycle of bloodshed appeared to have dimmed. For the White House, which has pinned its hopes on a political solution, the fracturing of the opposition raises a number of thorny questions, including whether the United States should work more closely with Islamist forces."

Former State Dept. official Frederic C. Hof to The Times: "For all practical purposes, the moderate armed opposition that the administration really wanted to support - albeit in a hesitant and halfhearted way - is now on the sidelines." More here.

And there's this: Are world powers jeopardizing the safety of Syria's chemical weapons? FP's Colum Lynch: "In October, the Syrian government asked the world's major powers for armored vehicles and other security gear that it claimed were absolutely vital to safely transporting hundreds of tons of chemical agents out of the country. Many of the most sensitive of those appeals have been widely rejected or ignored, according to United Nations-based sources and internal documents obtained by Foreign Policy. Washington and other Western capitals have been reluctant to hand over to the Bashar al-Assad regime equipment that could also be used in its war against Syria's rebels. But the U.N.'s chemical weapons watchdog believes that Damascus' requests are legitimate, raising the uncomfortable question: are the U.S. and its allies doing enough to keep Syria's deadly chemicals safe?" Read the rest here.

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Diplomacy's golden age? John Kerry spoke at Foreign Policy's big "Transformational Trends 2014" event at the Four Seasons in Georgetown yesterday. FP's Yochi Dreazen: "Secretary of State John Kerry offered a wide-ranging defense of the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts across the Mideast, acknowledging that its ongoing talks with Iran, Syria and Israel had no guarantee of success but insisting that they offered the only real chance of bringing peace to one of the world's most troubled regions. Kerry, speaking at an event sponsored by Foreign Policy and the State Department's Policy Planning staff, focused much of his remarks on the administration's controversial nuclear pact with Iran and its chemical weapon deal with Syria, but he also spoke passionately about his current push to secure a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians." The rest here. The full text of Kerry's speech (some said it was rousing) at FP's Transformational Trends 2014 here.

Passport trouble: Edward Snowden is one of FP's "Global Thinkers," but he couldn't make FP's big party last night at the Four Seasons. Foreign Policy threw a big party for the Global Thinkers it honored last night after the "Transformational Trends" event during the day. The room at the Four Seasons was itself transformed into a big shindig with colorful spotlights, music and numerous "food stations" with delicious but sometimes unidentifiable food - turns out that wasn't chicken! - in little glass cup-dishes and an open bar. The party started with a brief panel discussion with FP's own David Rothkopf and the NYT's Thomas Friedman then opened up. At the top, though, a statement was read for Edward Snowden, a Global Thinker who couldn't quite make the party. Snowden's statement, in part: "It's an honor to address you tonight. I apologize for being unable to attend in person, but I've been having a bit of passport trouble. Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras also regrettably could not accept their invitations. As it turns out, revealing matters of ‘legitimate concern' nowadays puts you on the list for more than ‘Global Thinker' awards." Read the rest here.

Israel-Palestine issue ain't front-and-center in the ME anymore. FP's Elias Groll, who covered yesterday's Transformational Trends 2014 (#FPTrends) for FP: "The United States may be heavily engaged in shepherding peace talks between Israel and Palestine, but according to Anne Patterson, who has been nominated as the State Department's next top Middle East official, the issue just isn't a top priority for the United States any more. In an exchange Wednesday with Vali Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Patterson chimed in to agree with the former Obama administration official that Israel-Palestine has moved away from its central place in U.S. policy toward the region. ‘It's certainly not the most urgent problem that we face now in the Middle East, but it's one that could have enormous long term consequences,' Patterson said." Read the rest of what they said here.

There's another winter storm brewing: Vets aren't huge fans of the budget deal. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America believe the budget deal potentially reached this week would be disastrous for vets and are planning a "winter storm" on Capitol Hill (you don't have to run out and buy any milk for this one) to protest it. From an IAVA statement: "Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America  today blasted a key component of the Congressional budget agreement that would reduce the annual cost-of-living adjustment for military retirees and survivors, leading to a 20 percent cut to retirement benefits over the course of their lives. The budget proposal is the latest instance of veterans being affected by Washington dysfunction. Sequestration and the government shutdown already affected many services that support veterans and their families. This change to military retiree pensions would have a devastating long-term impact on the benefits already earned by those who have sacrificed the most for this country.

This week, IAVA members are converging in Washington for the inaugural IAVA Winter Storm. IAVA is urging Congress to renew focus on the VA disability claims backlog and to demand Congress stay in session until it brings up four bills that are ready for a vote." More about how they feel here.

Open Secrets Department: Chuck Hagel officially lifted the veil on the secret base at al-Udeid in Qatar that had become a lot less secret over the years. NYT's Thom Shanker: "Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's visit to the advanced air operations center here this week was not just a stop at an important outpost of the United States military. It was also a major step forward for Pentagon transparency. The highly classified American facility, officially called the Combined Air and Space Operations Center, coordinated all of the attack and surveillance missions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - and would be equally critical if an American president decided that only bombs and missiles could halt Iran's nuclear ambitions. It hosts liaison officers from 30 allies in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Until this week, however, its location was carefully guarded by the Pentagon and the Qatari government, out of concerns from both about sensitivities to its presence.

"In the past, journalists had to sign nondisclosure agreements if they wanted to report from inside the base in the desert outside the capital, Doha. And, when asked, the Pentagon said the operations center was somewhere in Southwest Asia. But on his latest trip to the region, which ended Tuesday, Mr. Hagel lifted the gag rule." More here.

FP's Shane Harris wrote about Holder's problems with the White House with the nominee to head Justice's national security division. Others have followed it, including CNN's Evan Perez: "President Barack Obama's pick for the Justice Department's national security prosecutor is expected to be among several nominations to move in the coming weeks as Senate Democrats start wading through the presidential appointments backlog built up amid partisan fights. John Carlin's nomination to head the Justice national security division had come under fire in recent days after some critics groused in a Foreign Policy magazine article that Attorney General Eric Holder's pick, his former aide Amy Jeffress, was passed over by the White House. Jeffress, who recently was posted to the U.S. Embassy in London, had long been the assumed choice for the national security job among Justice officials. That is until Carlin, a career prosecutor who helped coordinate the department's cyber security and intellectual property efforts, became the pick." Read the rest here. Shane's piece here.

Forbes and Auslin in the WSJ: The U.S. is letting down its allies in Asia. Rep. Randy Forbes, the Virginia Republican and AEI's Michael Auslin wrote today in the WSJ on the U.S. response to China's ADIZ. Their BLUF: "China has shown how a rising power expands the dimensions of its military capabilities into realms long under American control. While no one believes the Chinese air force is a match for American airpower today, a combination of lack of political will at home and a slow deterioration in our traditional advantages may lead to a dramatically different environment in just the next decade. Then, for the first time in over a half-century, American troops will look to the skies wondering if they are safe, as our ability to maintain global stability is increasingly tested." Read the rest here.

In response to an item we ran from Tom Ricks the other day about shrinking the military to make it better, here, Bob Kettle, a retired Navy intelligence officer who served on Capitol Hill as a leg liaison, had this to say in an e-mail to Situation Report: "Presence matters.  Tom Ricks in a recent WaPo op-ed asked, "Want a better U.S. military? Make it smaller."  He makes the point the military needs to be smaller in order to be more nimble and adaptive to tomorrow's threats. Understand but shrinking the overhead in the military as is starting to happen with headquarters staff is one thing but his general call is a different matter.  The Navy cannot get any smaller with respect to ship numbers. His examples point out some combat scenarios for the Navy but he forgets the full-spectrum types of operations the Navy does.  With the Navy quantity has a quality all its own.  Presence matters.  In order to make an impact in the world you have to be out in the world and you need ships and aircraft to do that.  Now calling for the right types and mix of ships is fair.  Calling for a general cut is not and could harm U.S. national security."

Ouch! Bill Sweetman in Aviation Week on the "U.S. Chair Force" and how the A-10 is a "victim of difficult choices." Sweetman: "Once again, the U.S. Chair Force wants to sacrifice the blood of the heroic infantry in favor of Mitchellesque strategic-bombing dreams and white-scarf fighter missions. It should be disbanded and its functions assigned to fighting services made up of Real Men. That view is not far beneath a debate over close air support that has smoldered over decades like a case of inter-service malaria. The latest attack of fevers and night sweats has been triggered by the revelation of Air Force sequester-based budget plans that include retirement of the A-10 Warthog, which nobody ever calls by its official name of Thunderbolt II.

The Air Force is in a fiscal trap that is partly of its own making. Aging combat fleets and an unmanned aerial system force that can't survive against any form of air defense are two of its closing walls. The service cannot find the will to escape from its commitment to raise its F-35 Joint Strike Fighter buy rate to 80 per year, but it also sees a stark need for aircraft with longer range." The rest here.

Dude's got smooth - again. In anticipation of the Army-Navy game Saturday, the middie-crooner from the Naval Academy is back with a new spirit video. From BroBible: "When it comes to fantastic hype videos, no one beats the swag of the U.S. Naval Academy. This Bro was the star of the U.S.N.A.'s smack-talking hype video for the Air Force game back in October. Now he's back with a silky smooth cover of "Suite and Tie" that bashes Army. Get on his level, West Point. Watch his smooth here. Watch the original video against the Air Force here.