The US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency announced on 18 May that it is kicking off a new project to develop advanced strategic and tactical airlift capability. The goal of the program is to utilize recent advances in technology to design an affordable seaplane which marries the advantages of strategic airlift and sealift without suffering from their major weaknesses.
By being able to take off from and land in water, the Liberty Lifter will not be reliant on port infrastructure or runways which are indispensable to traditional strategic sea and air logistics platforms. The plane will hopefully be fast like modern airlift, lack the vulnerabilities of traditional sealift, and be able to directly contribute to support maritime operations. Carrying large loads, it is easy to see how the new platform would fit into current concepts regarding operations in the Pacific; especially with US Marine Corps thinking now seeing US Marines being widely dispersed along tiny Pacific islands in a confrontation with China.
According to Alexander Walan, a program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office:
“This first phase of the Liberty Lifter program will define the unique seaplane’s range, payloads, and other parameters. […] Innovative advances envisioned by this new DARPA program will showcase an X-plane demonstrator that offers warfighters new capabilities during extended maritime operations.”
The Liberty Lifter would follow the tradition of Soviet Ekranoplans which utilized the “wing-in-ground effect” to travel quickly at very low altitudes. Unlike these vehicles, however, the Liberty Lifter would also be capable of flight at medium altitudes and would therefore not suffer from poor maneuverability and would be capable of operating in poor weather and rough seas.
Overall, DARPA outlines three major challenges that the new vehicle will need to meet:
- The ability to perform extended maritime operations, even in turbulent sea states, which would see the Liberty Lifter spending weeks at sea without access to special facilities or land-based maintenance.
- Optimization for “full-scale affordable production”.
- The inclusion of “Complex Flight and Sea Surface Controls”.
The full DARPA announcement is available here.