While the Army's fleet of Future Combat Systems vehicles are being designed to be quickly and easily transported to any trouble spot in the globe (see "Future Combat, Part 1"), there are some doubts as to whether the existing fleet of military transport planes, particularly the aging C-130, are up to the task.

While no funds for a new transport plane have been allocated yet, Boeing's Phantom Works has already designed three new alternatives to today's transport planes that would complement the aims of the Future Combat Systems program. The work was discussed during the biannual Army Science Conference, held recently in Orlando, Fla.

Gigantic Pelican

Should it be developed, the mother of all transport planes would be the Pelican Ultra. The main fuselage compartment of the Pelican Ultra is designed to be 50 feet wide by 200 feet long. The height of 18.3 feet would be sufficient for two tiers. Two more cargo areas would be located in the wings. Together, the four cargo areas offer 29,900 square feet of space.

With a wingspan of 500 feet, the Pelican Ultra would carry a maximum of 2.8 million pounds of cargo--that's 17 M1 battle tanks--for a distance of up to 3,000 miles. For longer-range missions of up to 10,000 miles, the aircraft could carry payloads of up to 1.5 million pounds. With the possibility of access to foreign airfields being denied during a conflict, the Pelican Ultra thus offers a way to transport armor and large weapons to a destination without a stopover.

To make that 10,000-mile journey, the Pelican Ultra would fly at a cruising speed of 240 knots at a very low altitude over water, exploiting the aerodynamic benefits of wing-in-ground-effects to help extend its range. Over land, the Pelican Ultra would cruise at 390 knots at 20,000 feet but the range would be reduced to about 6,000 miles.

But can a plane that dwarfs a 747 land at a conventional-size airport? Fortunately, the Pelican Ultra can as the plane folds its wings for landing and takeoff, reducing its wingspan to a slightly more diminutive 340 feet while on the ground, says Lorin A. Bliss, manager of strategic development, advanced transports and tankers for Phantom Works.

A Plane for Non-pilots

Another concept, dubbed the Light Aerial Multipurpose Vehicle (LAMV), may be of particular interest to the Army. It could be flown by non-pilots using the orbiting satellites in the Global Positioning System, GPS, as a navigation tool--thereby reducing the Army's dependency on Air Force for transportation.

Avoiding the issue of gaining permission to use landing strips altogether, the LAMV would use pulsed-ejector thrust-augmentor engines for vertical landings and takeoffs. Small, efficient turbofans mounted atop the fuselage are designed to provide a cruising speed of 300 mph. The range of the LAMV would be 2,000 kilometers and it would have a 3,500-pound payload. The LAMV would have removable wings, so that it could be shipped to a war zone in a conventional 40-foot container. Upon arrival, the LAMV would be used for squad-sized insertion and extraction of troops, medical evacuation and the delivery of supplies.

Landing on a (750-foot) Dime

A larger lifter that would employ a tilt-wing design for very steep takeoffs and landings is also being studied by the Boeing Phantom Works. Called the Advanced Theater Transport (ATT), this plane would have a payload capability of 80,000 pounds but would still be able to land on a short, 750-foot runway. Powered by four turboprop engines, each ATT would be able to accommodate two of the lighter-weight 20-ton vehicles that are part of the Future Combat System plans. An on-board automated cargo-handling system would alleviate the need for material-handling equipment at the ATT's ultimate destination, making it an attractive option for supplying forward bases and for humanitarian missions to remote areas.

Frank Vizard is co-author of The 21st Century Soldier.