Mysterious delta aircraft at Area 51: what is it?

Former British technical advisor Jim Smith considers what it may be

Speculative shapes based on Google satellite imagery discussed below

A recent article by Tyler Rogoway of the drive.com reported the possible discovery of a mysterious delta aircraft shape in satellite imagery of Area 51, the remote base in Nevada used by the US to flight test secret prototype aircraft, and to evaluate foreign materiel. The imagery is somewhat hard to interpret, as the aircraft outline is confused by shadows, and by what appears to be a framework erected over it – perhaps intended to support a pergola or tent-like structure intended to provide concealment.

The principal USAF programme which might generate a prototype of this general appearance is the Global Air Dominance program, which has appeared to be directed at producing a very low signature air superiority system. This programme, from the Drive article, is now identified as Next Generation Air Dominance, Global Air Dominance perhaps being too provocative a title.

I have previously written a little about the Global Air Dominance system (GAD) for @Hush_Kit at the following link, which examined future aerospace technologies:

This contained some speculation about the Global Air Dominance System:

“Our system-of-systems approach has, as one of its objectives, reducing the risk to human operators. It does this by essentially postulating three forms of vehicle – un-crewed, autonomous, survivable, and persistent platforms, like our intelligence, sensor and command and control platform; un-crewed, autonomous and ‘attritable’ platforms that the operators are prepared to lose if necessary when attacking strongly defended targets; and crewed, survivable platforms, used only where a human in-the-loop and on-the-spot is critical.

We can examine what is reported about current projects and programs and see this thinking in action. Alongside crewed aircraft concepts and programs such as the B-21, Global Air Dominance System and F-35, we can see the Unmanned Wingman, the XQ-58A Valkyrie un-crewed strike platform, Neuron, Taranis, as un-crewed and potentially ‘attritable’ platforms. We have the US Navy experimenting with autonomous air-to-air refuelling using the X-47B and no doubt un-crewed electronic warfare, jammer, and decoy projects already in hand. We have at least early attempts in high-flying, difficult to detect autonomous sensor and communication systems like the RQ-170 Sentinel and speculation about the RQ-180. Autonomous manoeuvring air combat is perhaps a little further away, although some might argue that Surface-to-Air Missiles and Cruise Missiles are simply ‘fully-attritable’ un-crewed autonomous air combat and strike systems.

The detailed roles and implementation of the US Global Air Dominance System (GADS) remains an area for speculation. This is expected to be a manned, stealthy platform, with long endurance, and is likely to feature sensors, command and control and battle management systems. Given the developments in autonomous adjuncts, it is possible that the weapons capability of the GADS may be limited, although there have been recent suggestions that it may employ directed energy weapons.”

More specific speculation about progress towards a demonstrator for this system is contained in:

This suggested that a near delta configuration was likely, with no, or minimal fins, to minimise signature while providing a platform with the ability to loiter in contested airspace; to deliver command and control capability, possibly over unmanned systems; and to deliver a variety of air-to-air and strike weapons.

Where does the newly-sighted aircraft at Area 51 fit in?

Clearly this is a question which cannot be answered accurately from outside the program, and could not be answered publicly by anyone inside the program. I will start with an assumption that the aircraft imaged was a demonstrator for part of the GAD system.

If this is the case, a number of interesting questions arise, the most obvious being what is being demonstrated? Here there are a range of possible answers, and, indeed a menu of options, somewhat depending on whether this is a technology, an operations, or a systems integration demonstrator.

A technology demonstrator could, for example, be examining novel control systems, and their impact on manoeuvrability, on signature, on stability and control, or on performance. An operations demonstrator could be used to examine the operational functionality of a mixed manned and unmanned system, or, perhaps, the robustness of an operating concept to cyber or electronic warfare threats. A systems integration demonstrator could be looking at how and where decision making should lie in a complex system, the communications, command and control and intelligence requirements, and so on.

The potential complexity of possible GAD systems is such that issues of this nature could be quite prevalent, and that early demonstration to gain confidence in the system architecture is likely to be essential.

There is a significant problem with this approach, and that is that validating the system architecture before demonstrating elements of the system has not been a strong point of the US, where it appears much easier to fund the demonstration of separate system elements, rather than the arguably more difficult task of making sure the demonstrated elements will work as a system.

From the outside, it seems far from clear just what the role of manned elements of the GAD system will be. Possible roles include a stealthy and networked air superiority capability; a similarly stealthy and networked persistent strike capability; or a command and control node authorising and controlling autonomous and semi-autonomous intelligence, communications, strike and air combat systems. It is also not clear whether the vehicle seen in the imagery is manned, remotely operated, or autonomous.

Configuration aspects

The air vehicle shown in the images has a double-delta planform, with highly swept inner wing leading edge, and a less swept outer wing, which may carry some upward canted fins at the wing tip. The drive.com article draws similarities between this planform and that of Concorde, which used a blended ogival platform.

Development of a multidisciplinary design optimization framework for an efficient  supersonic air vehicle | Semantic Scholar

The planform also resembles the ‘Arrow-wing’ double-delta planform examined by NASA in the US as part of American efforts to produce a supersonic civil transport aircraft. Unsurprisingly, there are also similarities with planforms examined by Northrop as part of an Efficient Supersonic Air Vehicle programme.

Aerodynamic Modeling Techniques for Efficient Supersonic Air Vehicle  Multidisciplinary Design Optimization

All of this suggests a strong interest in supersonic capabilities for a GAD aircraft, and if this is the case, a design Mach number of about 2.2 would appear sensible, both from a materials perspective and from the geometry of the design.

However, one might argue that the key characteristics required by the future manned element of a GAD system would be undetectability and persistence, and one might question how useful a supersonic capability would be in this context.

Multidisciplinary Analysis and Design Optimization of an Efficient  Supersonic Air Vehicle | Semantic Scholar

Again, this is difficult to address from outside the programme, and goes to the heart of whether the aircraft in the images is intended to be a stealthy platform with modest performance, whether it is intended primarily as a stealthy strike platform, or whether it is a stealthy, supersonic, fighter.

At this point, one must be open-minded. To attain Air Dominance, one needs to defeat defensive air threats, and deter or defeat offensive threats. It seems unlikely that this could be done with a subsonic aircraft relying on undetectability and capable AAM to achieve air superiority. But, to retain air superiority, persistence is required, and it seems unlikely that this can be achieved in the suggested Flanker-sized platform, unless significant numbers were available.

B-21 Raider - Northrop Grumman

Perhaps this is a supersonic demonstrator validating control systems for an extremely stealthy replacement for the F-22, or even the SR-71. Perhaps it’s a mini B-21, providing a (possibly autonomous) stealthy strike capability. Perhaps it is demonstrating a manned command and control system. At this point, it is difficult to do more than speculate.

I leave the last words to Queen:

Is this the real life?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide,
No escape from reality
Open your eyes,
Look up to the skies and see …

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