The idea of an airplane that weighs as much as seven fully loaded Boeing 747s, and that doubles the distance it can travel by scooting over the ocean surface like a waterbug, may seem far-fetched. But the engineers at Phantom Works, the secretive Boeing think tank, have begun designing this enormous machine because the Pentagon has a major problem that has defeated many less harebrained efforts over the past 40 years. That problem? Mobility. The U.S. Army is a powerful force, but it is too large and has too much heavy equipment to move at a pace suitable for a fast-expanding conflict. For hauling the Army's equipment, ships are slow and airplanes are small-one division may have more than 300 70-ton Abrams tanks. Even the huge C-5 Galaxy cargo airplane can carry only two Abramses, and the entire Air Force has 126 C-5's.
Defense transformation is eventually supposed to result in a smaller, nimbler Army. But the Pentagon's goal is to move that force faster than it can today, putting a full brigade-3,000 people and 8,000 tons of equipment-on the ground anywhere in the world within 96 hours. John Skorupa, a retired Air Force colonel who now heads the strategic development office of Boeing's Advanced Airlift and Tankers division, dealt with this challenge in his previous job as commander of Air Mobility Command's Battle Lab. "It was clear to us that we never had enough airlift. When we looked at global reach lay-down"-airlifters' jargon for putting forces on the ground-"the airbridge took an enormous number of sorties to move a force of any significance."
In early 2000, Skorupa, by then at Boeing, took the matter to Blaine Rawdon, a veteran Phantom Works designer who began focusing on the problem with engineer Zachary Hoisington. They knew that the Army was considering airships and airship-airplane hybrids designed to carry multimillion- pound payloads. Rawdon broadened Skorupa's question and looked at a wide range of solutions to the Army's problem, from a new generation of faster small commercial ships to airships to a large, conventional jet airplane, like a quadruple-size C-5. The value of speed always caused airplanes to come out ahead of airships and even the fastest marine vessels, but expanding aircraft to multimillion-pound payloads is not easy and would likely cost more than even the Pentagon can afford.
But ekranoplans, a specific type of WIG with short wings and jet boost for takeoff, seemed to offer some potential-as well as dramatically lower costs, if the concept could be made feasible. WIG aircraft had attracted an enormous amount of U.S. interest after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and in 1993 the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency looked into what the Russians had done. Boeing's studies confirmed DARPA's conclusion, as well as that of several Russians, that only a very large ekranoplan made sense, but also that the Soviet vehicle that came close had several inherent problems, mostly relating to its enormous weight. The 500-ton prototype, KM, completed in 1966, had 10 jet engines, two in the tail and eight attached to the forward wing. The 10 engines gulped fuel, and the aircraft had to reach 210 mph before it lifted off the water. The reinforced hull-necessary to withstand the pounding of the waves-significantly increased weight and reduced payload. But despite these weaknesses, the Russian achievements were impressive, according to former DIA analyst Stephan Hooker, who was one of the people in the Green Room on that day in 1967. The plane had less drag than an airplane of the same size, and the Russians had solved many stability and control issues.