Meet the X-36: U.S. Air Force and Navy renderings of the 6th-generation aircraft released by industry within the last several years show aircraft designs with a “tailless” fuselage without vertical or horizontal fins or tails. This design strategy may indicate substantial technological breakthroughs supporting fighter jets in the future.
Enter the X-36
What if these kinds of breakthrough designs, which may enable advanced maneuvering, improved flight control technology, vastly upgraded speed, and stealth built into the Next Generation Air Dominance 6th-generation program, could actually be traced to an experimental research plane effort nearly 30 years ago?
This does appear entirely realistic, as little was ever known about what happened with the highly successful, low-cost research vehicle from the 1990s called the X-36.
The X-36 aircraft flew with a virtual cockpit, which was controlled by a human pilot from a ground-control station looking through a video camera mounted on the aircraft.
What the Experts Think
“In a series of flight tests, the low-cost X-36 research vehicle demonstrated the feasibility of using new flight control technologies in place of vertical and horizontal tails to improve the maneuverability and survivability of future fighter aircraft. During flight, the X-36 used new split ailerons and a thrust-vectoring nozzle for directional control,” information on the aircraft from the Federation of American Scientists explained.
“X-36, the vehicle has no vertical or horizontal tails and uses new split ailerons to provide yaw (left and right) and pitch (up and down) directional control. This innovative design promises to reduce weight, drag and radar signature and increase range, maneuverability and survivability of future fighter aircraft.”
In aerodynamic terms, ailerons enable right-left control (yaw) while also ensuring “roll” control, the FAS essay states. Vertical structures on the fuselage have proven critical to managing “airflow” impacting lift, “vectoring,” maneuverability and other air-combat dynamics.
The flat designs of the 6th-generation aircraft, should the existing unseen but now airborne “demonstrator” 6th-gen prototype have that configuration, indicate that perhaps some of the long-sought-after breakthroughs may have origins with the X-36 when it comes to vectoring and flying without vertical tails or fins.
Sure enough, the tailless X-36 does look like it achieves stealthy qualities. The absence of vertical structures off of which an enemy’s electromagnetic “ping” can bounce and deliver a return rendering or image, does create a much lower radar signature. The body of the X-36 is quite interesting, as it has a dual-wing configuration and flat, horizontal fuselage.
The aircraft completed at least 31 successful test flights after taking its first flight in 1997 and was reportedly praised for its handling ability and promise as a foundation for a future fighter jet.
In roughly 2017, the X-36 essentially disappeared and there were no subsequent reports on its development.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.