- The U.S. Air Force wants to exploit development of air taxis to field a new vehicle.
- The Air Force’s taxi would ferry airmen and equipment short distances without the need of helicopters or larger vehicles.
- The vehicle fits in neatly with the service’s new strategy of dispersing fighters and other craft to regional airports, away from missile-attracting airbases.
The U.S. Air Force is looking to purchase a fleet of air taxis to provide short-range transport for a variety of missions. The service wants to leverage existing research and development in the commercial sector to produce an unmanned, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft capable of shuttling airmen and material across the battlefield. The air taxi concept would likely support the service’s concept of dispersing air power across wide areas to protect them from attack.
According to Aviation Week, the Air Force officially kicked off the search for such a vehicle this week. The project, known as Agility Prime, seeks to purchase a “handful plus” of flying taxis by 2023 for testing purposes. If the project works as planned, the service could deploy the taxis worldwide, especially in support of its new operating concept, Agile Combat Employment.
“Now’s the perfect time to make ‘Jetsons’ cars real,” said Will Roper, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, in a briefing with reporters.
Agility Prime will draw on existing efforts in the commercial field to develop “flying taxis”—autonomous, multi-rotor unmanned vehicles capable of ferrying people short distances.
Companies in the U.S., Europe, and Asia are all racing to develop such craft, which they believe will eventually complement ridesharing services in urban areas.
Meanwhile, the Air Force is rethinking its plans to fight a future war. The proliferation of precision-guided long range missiles, such as China’s DH-10 cruise missile and Russia’s Iskander-M short-range ballistic missile system, means that in a war, the Air Force’s sprawling air bases will come under devastating—and highly accurate—missile attack. The solution: push out small packets of air power to nearby civilian air bases and airfields.
As unlikely as it sounds, the Air Force doesn't have the helicopters to ferry troops, fuel, spare parts, and weapons from the big air base to many smaller ones. Helicopters need airfields, too. An air taxi could shuttle airmen to and from remote air bases, or their equivalent in spare parts and weapons, from a parking lot or similar space.
The Air Force has also discussed using air taxis to pick up downed airmen, though given their relatively short range, that seems unlikely in wartime.
The Air Force wants a flying taxi capable of ferrying five to eight airmen at a time, at speeds faster than a hundred miles at a range of a hundred miles or more.
Will the Air Force get its flying taxis? If the technology succeeds in the commercial world, it’s quite likely. They'll almost certainly be cheaper and easier to operate than helicopters, giving the Air Force a strong argument to make in an age when Pentagon dollars are likely to become increasingly scarce.
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