Carry more cruise missiles or drones: the US Air Force wants an arsenal plane

C-130 transporter, possible candidate for the role of an arsenal aircraft

The US Air Force is once again returning to the concept of an “arsenal aircraft”. It is again proposed to work out the appearance of a promising missile carrier aircraft capable of carrying an oversized ammunition load. So far, we are talking only about research work and the creation of flying laboratories. With their help, the Air Force will determine the real value of the original concept and its potential to strengthen combat aviation.

Bold plans

Information about the new R&D in the interests of the Air Force was published on June 25. The Air Force and the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Opportunities have posted a request for information inviting potential contractors to cooperate.

The customer wishes to receive preliminary designs of a platform aircraft capable of carrying a large number of cruise missiles or unmanned aerial vehicles. Such an arsenal aircraft would have to operate at a safe distance from enemy air defense systems and launch its own combat load: for reconnaissance, striking, etc.

Scheme of a CMCA aircraft offered in the past

The arsenal aircraft can be developed from scratch or carried out on the basis of an existing aircraft. This aspect is not yet of fundamental importance. At the same time, preference is given to simpler projects that can reach the experimental and test stage in the shortest possible time.

Strategic importance

The main task of the new project is to build up the strike capabilities of strategic aviation. This kind of troops has dozens of aircraft of several types at their disposal, and new ones are expected to appear in the near future. The fleet of specialized percussion machines can be supplemented with fundamentally new ones.

The Air Force notes that the presence of non-standard platforms for the delivery of weapons expands the operational capabilities of strategic aviation when operating against a technically advanced enemy. Thus, the combined use of missile bombers and arsenal aircraft will ensure an increase in the number of missiles in a strike and will affect its effectiveness.

The success or failure of a new R&D can affect the further development of the US Air Force’s strategic aviation. In the future, after obtaining the necessary data on the research project, plans for the existing ones may be revised. The arsenal aircraft will be compared with the promising low-signature long-range bomber B-21 Raider. Having a number of characteristic advantages, the latter is distinguished by its high price and complexity of operation. A hypothetical flying “arsenal” will be able to surpass it in a number of important characteristics. In this case, the specialized B-21 can be supplemented with an “arsenal”.

Dumping the pallet with CLEAVER products from the MC-130J aircraft

Not the first of its kind

It should be noted that this is not the first attempt by the US Air Force to create an arsenal aircraft capable of supplementing or replacing strategic bombers. In the past, projects of this kind have been developed, and some studies have even reached practical events. However, in all cases, the “arsenals” could not surpass the specialized bombers and therefore did not get into the troops.

The most famous project of this kind is the CMCA (Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft) from the eighties. This “arsenal” was made on the basis of the transport Boeing 747-200C. In the cargo compartment, it was proposed to install revolving launchers and rail tracks for moving them. With the help of the guides, the launcher was supposed to approach the hatch in the tail of the fuselage, drop the missiles outward and give way to another drum. Depending on the type of weapons, the number of launchers, etc. The CMCA could carry 50 to 90-100 missiles.

The CMCA was seen as a potential replacement for the old B-52 Stratofortress and stood out from it with both a more modern platform and increased ammunition. However, the new project had some technical, operational, combat and other shortcomings, due to which it did not even reach the stage of testing the flying laboratory.

A few months before the current request for information was posted in January, the Air Force Special Operations Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory conducted a curious experiment. From the MC-130J Commando II aircraft, pallets with various loads were dropped in the air, incl. with mock-ups of modern cruise missiles. In practice, it was possible to confirm the fundamental possibility of dropping weapons from a military transport aircraft.

Heavy transport aircraft C-17 unloads containers on the run

Together with other products, four mock-ups of CLEAVER (Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range) aircraft were dropped from the MC-130J. This is a promising long-range cruise missile, on the basis of which a multipurpose UAV can also be created. The January experiments look curious in the light of the new research and development work: their results show the possibility of creating an arsenal aircraft.

Advantages and disadvantages

An arsenal aircraft is significantly different from a conventional missile carrier. Some of these differences can be considered an advantage, while others lead to limitations, incl. the most serious. The balance of strengths and weaknesses of such a concept can limit the actual value of the finished aircraft to the Air Force.

The main advantages of the flying “arsenal” lie in the possibility of using a well-mastered air platform from the class of military transport aircraft. An increase in ammunition is also possible, for which both the significant dimensions of the cargo compartment and the high carrying capacity of the aircraft are used. For example, the widespread C-130 transporter, depending on the modification, can carry up to 19 tons of cargo in a large cabin. The larger C-17 Globemaster III carries over 77 tonnes and is capable of handling 18 standard pallets.

Flight performance and operational characteristics depend on the type of base platform. In particular, when using existing platforms, the “arsenal” can have a long flight range and combat radius, but supersonic flight speed with all its advantages is unattainable.

Carry more cruise missiles or drones: the US Air Force wants an arsenal plane

Landing of cargo from the C-17. Similarly, cruise missiles can be dropped.

Due to the mass of restrictions, the arsenal aircraft cannot penetrate air defense using the same methods as a strategic bomber. In this regard, the new R&D for the US Air Force provides for the use of long-range cruise missiles. “Arsenal” will have to launch missiles outside the zone of destruction of enemy air defense. This will increase survivability, but reduce the range of weapons available for use.

It is also possible that certain difficulties arise at the stage of converting a transport aircraft into a missile carrier, during construction or operation. In addition, it is not yet completely clear whether an arsenal aircraft made with modern technologies can become a full-fledged addition for bombers (not to mention a replacement).

Near future

In general, the concept of an arsenal aircraft has the right to life and can even be brought to development work. However, the further fate of the initiated research for the Air Force and the Office of Strategic Opportunities remains unclear. The idea of ​​a flying “arsenal” in theory is capable of receiving support with the subsequent implementation and delivery of finished equipment to the troops. It will expand the strike capabilities of the Air Force, but a full transition to arsenal aircraft is in any case impossible.

In general, within the next few decades, US strategic aviation will face major changes, and some of them may be unexpected. So, in accordance with the approved plans, part of the existing equipment will be written off due to moral and physical obsolescence, and completely new samples will come to replace it. The main hope of the Air Force is the promising B-21. Recently launched research work may or may not lead to the creation of a fundamentally new missile carrier. But regardless of the results of this research, it is clear that the US Air Force intends to look for any ways to increase the strike force of strategic aviation, including those that go beyond the traditional approaches.

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