Technology

Could American dream concept plane ever take off?

China's military activity has prompted the 'Liberty Lifter' ground-effect vehicle programme, experts say.

The US military's experimental branch has released concept footage of a ground-effect vehicle, launching the 'Liberty Lifter' programme to strike a balance between military cargo planes and ships.

DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – wants submissions to make use of the wing-in-ground effect, an aerodynamic principle that gives fixed-wing aircraft a boost while travelling at an altitude less than their wingspan, with the option of flight up to 10,000ft.

Richard Aboulafia, managing director of the AeroDynamic Advisory, says demand for the Liberty Lifter comes amid increased Chinese aggression in the vast ranges of the Pacific.

Any vehicles put forward to DARPA will hope to solve issues of slow ship speeds and a reliance on ports, while also avoiding runways required by airlift solutions.

The US envisions a heavy lift vehicle at sea for weeks at a time, able to deliver large amounts of cargo or forces to wherever needed.

Mr Aboulafia suggests island bases in the region, as China continues to establish itself as the "long-term, pacing threat" to America and the West.

However, he said the programme won't be without its challenges.

Liberty Lifter Large seaplane CREDIT DARPA
The concept ground-effect vehicle 'Liberty Lifter' (Picture: DARPA).

At sufficiently low altitudes to benefit from the wing-in-ground effect, potentially high seas would require the vehicle to possess advanced sensors, despite DARPA looking for x-planes to be affordable.

The concept art rings familiar for all of those with knowledge of the Soviet Union's 'Ekranoplan' vehicles, or the 'Caspian Sea Monster' programmes, which ran into their own difficulties and never saw service.

What's more, US Special Operations are already looking at the idea of converting the C-130J Super Hercules into a mammoth cargo plane with amphibious capability.

Mr Aboulafia suggests programme delivery time, affordability and convenience would likely see the Hercules programme given the go-ahead before any Liberty Lifters see lift-off.