Joint Future Theater Lift JFTL aircraft and Airships

THE BACKBONE OF THE US armed services’ aerial transport fleet today includes the C-130 Hercules, C-5 Galaxy, C-17 Globemaster m, CH-47 Chinook, UH-60 Black Hawk, and, if it can be saved from cancellation, the C-27J Spartan. However, the thinking behind these aircraft stretches back to the middle of the 20th century.

In the first decade of this century the US government started to think beyond today’s transports, and a variety of reports tackled the future of strategic heavy lift. From the Congressional Budget Office’s September 2005 report on strategic military transport systems to the Department of Defense’s (DoD) Mobility Capabilities Study in the same year, the broad needs of the US military in terms of global reach and in-theatre manoeuvres have been assessed in detail.


Since 2005 the one concept that has garnered a great deal of publicity has been the airship.

It’s an idea whose appeal has never gone away, and the interest in strategic heavy lift led to the DoD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) taking up the lighter-than-air mantle. Its Walrus programme, cancelled in 2006, had planned to develop a craft that could carry a payload of more than 500 tons, with a range of 12,000nm. The advantage of an airship-like aircraft is that it doesn’t need the prepared landing area required by conventional aircraft, and the Walrus was to demonstrate this with the flight of a small-scale prototype in 2009.

But landing in unprepared areas is not where the airship is today. For the US Army and Air Force the airship is becoming a persistent surveillance aircraft. The US Army’s Long-Endurance Multi-Intelligence Vehicle, with its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) payload, is expected to fly this year. Prior to its cancellation in June, the US Air Force’s Blue Devil, a TCOM Polar 1000 airship, was also expected to be tested this year, again with an ISR payload for persistent surveillance. But these projects do not mean that the idea of a cargo airship has died. The airship is still one of the concepts among a range of aircraft types now under study for heavy lift, though no demonstrators are planned for now.

The thinking behind the new aircraft is not about transporting soldiers into battle to leave them there until the armoured cavalry arrive, which is what has been done to date. Instead the idea is to take the soldiers to the battlefield in their armoured vehicles using air transport. For such a vision the DoD has funded an alphabet soup of initiatives from JFTL (Joint Future Theatre Lift) to JFVL (Joint Future Vertical Lift) to JMR (Joint Multi-Role) and JHL (Joint Heavy Lift), and the planned demonstrators are helicopters.

Joint Future Theater LiftJoint Future Theatre Lift

The USAF told Us that JFTL is expected to eventually realise a ‘next-generation theatre-lift capability’ that will enable routine logistics and payload delivery, and extraction missions, in complex, austere and unprepared landing areas. Concept images provided by the USAF include a stealthy V-tail four-engine turbofan with a swept wing, a more traditional-looking T-tail turboprop concept, a C-130-size tilt-rotor design with a V-tail, and an airship. Despite the trend towards unmanned aircraft, highlighted when the Kaman Aerospace Corporation K-Max cargo helicopter began operations for the US Marine Corps in 2011, none of the above concepts are obviously robotic.

The USAF’s Air Mobility Command (AMC) Analyses, Assessments, and Lessons Learned officer, Maj Shane Hall, told CA that for now, ‘[JFTL is in the] pre-material development decision (MDD), commonly referred to as the development planning phase.’

The development planning phase is about defining requirements and has included a joint Army and USAF technology study. Despite labelling it as a technology stud}’, the USAF has not awarded any contract ‘specifically tied to JFTL’. This is because JFTL is more of a survey of what technology could be available. The AMC explained that some of the technology work has been carried out under Joint Heavy Lift (JHL; see below) or even by ‘individual companies’ internal funds.’