Flying Bomb Trucks: Will “Arsenal Planes” Make Bombers Obsolete?

Suggesting fighter and bomber pilots are truck drivers isn’t very nice. But military aircraft are essentially delivery trucks. They fire cannon, drop bombs, take photographs or haul cargo. But ultimately, their utility is a function of the payload they carry.

So if a lumbering transport aircraft can haul missiles as well as a sophisticated bomber, then isn’t it more economical to use the cargo plane?

That’s the idea behind the U.S. Air Force’s embrace of the “arsenal plane” concept in which older multi-engine aircraft, such as C-17 and C-130 cargo planes, are transformed into launch platforms for salvoes of missiles and drones. The idea is that arsenal planes will support manned aircraft by suppressing enemy air defenses.

The Air Force has just publicly announced a test of the concept. In January 2020, an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J Commando II —  a special operations transport and tanker – airdropped a wooden pallet carrying simulated cruise missiles that would have been launched in flight.

“This successful Phase I operational demonstration represents a milestone in executing a palletized munitions airdrop, which refers to the delivery of a large volume of air-launched weapons at any given time,” said the Air Force announcement. “In this case, munitions stacked upon wooden pallets, or Combat Expendable Platforms, deployed via a roller system. AFSOC used an MC-130J Commando II since its cargo area supported the release of multiple, relatively large munitions.”

“AFSOC aircrew released five CEPs rigged with six simulated munitions, the same mass as the actual weapons, including four Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range [CLEAVER] across a spectrum of low and high altitude airdrops. These long-range, high precision weapons destroy moving and non-moving targets.”

CLEAVER, under development by the Air Force Research Laboratory, seems to be some sort of unpowered glide bomb along the lines of the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM).

But what’s interesting here isn’t the technology, which is using familiar (and the whole point of exploiting older systems to save money). It’s the concept that’s intriguing in its long-term implications.

The idea of turning transports into bombers isn’t new. Several nations did so during World War II, including the Soviet Union, which turned American Lend-Lease C-47s into bomb carriers. But the most famous example is the C-130, which the U.S. Air Force has transformed into a fearsome cannon-armed gunship since the Vietnam War. More recently, Pentagon research agency DARPA has tested the C-130 as a mothership for X-61A combat drones.

As a bomb or missile carrier, transport planes have two impressive attributes: range and cargo capacity. The tradeoff for them is lack of speed, maneuverability, armament and defensive systems. But with standoff missiles and drones, arsenal planes should be able to remain at a safe distance from enemy fighters and missiles.

Can arsenal planes replace high-performance combat aircraft like fighters and bombers? Perhaps not. There will be cases where strike aircraft have to penetrate hostile air defenses to get close enough to the target to observe or destroy it. And a clumsy four-engine cargo plane is going to need fighter and electronic warfare escorts as protection against enemy fighters and long-range anti-aircraft missiles that will try to pick off the arsenal planes.

Nonetheless, the advent of drones, smart bombs, advanced sensors and hypersonic missiles point toward a conclusion: the payload is more important than the platform. And if any platform can haul missiles and drones, then a C-130 that can haul 20 tons of cargo is going to have the edge over an F-35 that can haul 10 tons.

— Michael Peck

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Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense