Adding a Capability to the Kill Web: Parafoil Flight Vehicles for Military Operations

By Ed Timperlake

I have argued that shaping a kill web is, in part, about understanding the evolving nature of payloads within a sensor-shooter offensive-defensive enterprise.

With the very real computer revolution moving with light speed into the 21st Century there is now a fourth design dynamic at work —the man-machine interface.

Three-dimensional sensing and being able to distribute information to other warfighters, airborne and on the ground or at sea, the relationship of the individual pilot to knowledge of the bigger air battle is truly revolutionary.

This is brand new and will provide a foundation for further developments in the payload-utility domain…..

Payload utility can be a driver for understanding the future development of combat systems.

To understand Pu with full honor to John Boyd, it can be noted that Observe/Orient (OO) is essentially target acquisition, and Decide/Act (DA) is target engagement.

Thus there is a very simple formula, better and better TA and TE =more effective employment of all payloads available to the battle commander.

It is the process of understanding the huge complexities in such a simple formula that is the challenge.

Understanding the technology and human dynamic through an analytic filter of a Payload Utility function consisting of weapons (kinetic and TRON) and the dual components of Target Acquisition (TA) and Target Effectiveness (TE) effectiveness in a fighting fleet engaged in high intensity combat in the unforgiving cauldron of battle maybe a war winner.

Either in one platform, or melded into a unified fighting Fleet to bring all different types of appropriate “weapons on” for the kill shot is a powerful concept.

America must always appreciate that no platform should fight alone if the Wynne Doctrine, named for 21st Century Secretary of Air Force, is employed: “If it is a fair fight someone failed in planning.”

A very simple filter to look at platform and weapon development within the integration of current weapon systems and platforms is asking the largest questions possible and pursuing force design and operational answers to these questions:

What does weapon or system add to fleet Pu?

How does this system help in TA?

How does this system help in TE?

What is the best weapon for the highest Pk against the target?

Is the TA, TE and Weapons (kinetic and Tron) carried together F-35 or separate?

My colleague Col. “Juice” Newton is focusing in part on a very interesting technology which can add useful payloads to a kill-web.

According to Newton, the defense department has two basic approaches to sustained flight; fixed and rotary wing aircraft

He argues as follows:

There are also lighter-than-air systems that are tethered, free-floating, or powered that have a long history with niche periods of operational utility. What has not been explored, yet has great potential are parafoil winged flight vehicles.

What we’ve seen in the DoD are unpowered parafoil wing systems better known as Aerodynamic Deceleration Systems (ADS). For decades they’ve been used for military parachutists to free-fall precisely into drop zones.

More recently, parafoils deliver a wide variety of payload weights(2k-60k lbs) via the JPADS system.

In these applications alone, a few unique and powerful qualities stand out.

Parafoils pack into very small volumes, are versatile, scalable, and fly well.

Perhaps most discerning though is that they are low-cost and lightweight. In fact, as the Dod’s aircraft have seen the steady increases in cost with most exotic materials and designs, in many potential applications a powered parafoil system could radically disrupt that trend.

Adding propulsion to the parafoil hit stride in the 90s with sport flight enthusiasts adding small motors with pusher propellers to a simple wheeled carriage. Along with the ease of operations and ability to park the “airplane” in the shed, the cost was probably the greatest driver for the Powered Parachute industry that peaked at the turn of the century with over 30 manufacturers.

As the wings improved for gliding, engines were also added to backpack propulsion for the lightest man-portable paramotors.

At the same time, NCEbuilt and demonstrated a 1-ton aircraft that could also go off-road like no other airplane before.

Classically, fixed-wing aircraft evolved to go faster and higher more efficiently. This led to lighter structures and cleaner aerodynamic designs optimized for the desired payload and mission. Consequently, if there’s a new mission, you often need a new aircraft. Powered parafoil aircraft on the other hand are easily scaled and re-winged for the desired performance and payloads within their unique flight envelop.

Parafoil wings have been demonstrated out to 100mph, but typically fly at speeds from 25-50mph. The typical altitudes of operations are below 20,000feet; however, NCEhas supported parafoil flight operations over 100,000 feet.

In general, parafoils fly across an extremely wide altitude envelope and avoid compressibility effects since they fly so slowly. Their slow flight speed also makes them ideal for station-keeping and poor for long-range higher speed transportation.

Parafoil flight performance is a function of wing lift-to-drag ratio, wing-loading, and the propulsion system. In general, wings are easily modified to accommodate flight operating altitudes, payload, and mission needs. Compared to typical aircraft characteristics powered parafoil aircraft have radically different qualities that enable long-endurance station keeping and mission versatility that challenges current mission optimized fixed-wing systems.

Because of the extremely light-weight and strong tensile parafoil wing, the dry vehicle typically has double the payload ratio of even the most optimized fixed-wing aircraft. 50% payload ratios are typical. Similarly, the fuel fraction is easily driven to levels unheard of for fixed wing aircraft. A 70% fuel fraction is possible with the 50% payload ration configuration.

Powered Parafoil systems have numerous offensive and defensive applications. They could provide worldwide gap-filler high-ground sensor or comm/nav augmentation.

At lower altitudes they could provide supply and personnel transportation. Due to their low cost and unique qualities they could also provide access to even the most stressing A2AD environments.

With a EW payload they could prove a valuable low-cost decoy system that mimic complex maneuver forces.

NCE Parafoil Flight Vehicle Info Sheet 2019