Boom Supersonic's Jetliner Could Join the U.S. Military

The Pentagon could have a supersonic transport aircraft, and commercial airlines are also on board, with a combined 70 orders from United Airlines and Japan Airlines.

Aviation startup Boom Supersonic is teaming up with defense behemoth Northrop Grumman to create a military version of its Overture supersonic transport. The aircraft will be available as a “special mission aircraft,” a broad category that generally includes many types of unarmed military aircraft. Overture’s combination of speed and range could result in safer intelligence gathering missions and quicker military air transport flights.

The partnership, announced July 19th, was signed at the UK's Farnborough Air Show. Boom’s announcement says the supersonic transport (SST) Overture passenger plane would be produced in a “special mission variant,” a term used by the Pentagon that generally applies to practically any aircraft that is not a trainer, fighter, or bomber. Boom says such examples could include, “quick-reaction surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control, as well as mobility and logistics missions, such as emergency medical evacuation and troop transport.”

Boom Supersonic was founded in 2014 with the purpose of developing and fielding an SST, the first since the Anglo-French Concorde. The company unveiled its XB-1 tech demonstrator in 2021, and though the plane hasn’t flown yet, is already pushing ahead to develop the next aircraft, Overture

Overture is a long, narrow, dart-shaped, four-engine passenger jet. At 200 feet long, it's nearly the length of the giant Boeing 777. The Overture is designed for supersonic flight and to carry between 65-80 passengers. It is meant to cruise at Mach 1.7 at 60,000 feet, and has an unrefueled range of 4,888 miles. The airplane already has a combined 70 orders from United Airlines and Japan Airlines.

A militarized Overture jet is an intriguing proposition. The U.S. military typically purchases civilian airliners for a host of unarmed military missions. For example, recently the Boeing 767 was used as a basis for the KC-46 Pegasus transport, and the Boeing 737 was used for the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon.

The Pentagon uses civilian airliners because they’re cheaper to develop into military planes than designing a new plane from the ground up. The research and development for the basic airframe is already paid for, and the planes are designed with range, lower operating costs, and fuel economy in mind, resulting in a cheaper and more capable aircraft to fly.

The Overture presents a similar deal for the Pentagon. The plane is already under development, so the defense headquarters won’t have to fund development itself. (The Air Force did invest up to $60 million in Boom in 2022, but that represents a minor amount of the overall research and development costs.) The Overture doesn’t have the internal volume of a wide body passenger jet, but it is two and a half times faster. It also has a range competitive with subsonic transport aircraft, allowing it to cross the Pacific Ocean in one hop, a key metric as the U.S. and its allies shift their attention to the Asia-Pacific region.

Northrop Grumman believes Overture could fulfill a number of different roles. One group of roles, the RC-135 series of reconnaissance and surveillance jets, is dominated by converted Cold War-era Boeing 707 jetliners. The fourteen types of RC-135 are designed to scoop up electronic signals, “sniff” the air for evidence of nuclear radiation, monitor missile tracking tests, and perform other intelligence gathering missions. The 50- to 60-year-old subsonic planes, while mostly dependable, would have difficulty performing missions in a shooting war.

In wartime a supersonic special missions aircraft could dart in, suck up Chinese radar emissions and then quickly depart, reducing exposure to detection and interception. It would also reduce the need for armed escort fighters. An Overture airliner could transport urgently needed personnel and supplies from Joint Base Lewis McChord in Washington to Yokota Air Base in Japan in just about four hours.

Could there someday be an armed version? Boom has reportedly promised not to militarize the technology—a promise obviously being stretched by the deal with Northrop Grumman. The aircraft is fast but lacks stealth, a key requirement to survive the modern aerial battlefield. A cruise-missile carrying version, loaded with long range stand-off weapons such as the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile and the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile, would still have to keep its distance from enemy fighters and ground-based air defenses. In that case a subsonic converted airliner like the Boeing 767 would be cheaper and just as effective.

Boom Supersonic has come under some criticism—the XB-1 was supposed to fly in 2020, then 2021, and as of July 2022 remains earthbound. For some, the talk of the Overture taking on a military role will no doubt sound premature. Yet if the platform proves adaptable enough, there are plenty of roles for supersonic special mission aircraft in the Pentagon. The idea of supersonic non-combat aircraft flying for the Pentagon could finally be here.

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