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

For more stories, subscribe to Uncommon Defense or visit our Twitter page.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Did Iran Convert a Dumb Rocket Into a Guided Aeroballistic Missile?

Did Iran convert an old ground-launched artillery rocket into a new air-launched ballistic missile?

A YouTube video, allegedly taken by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), shows an Iranian Su-22 – a Russian-made fighter-bomber — launching what appears to be a long, slender missile (the launch begins at about the 30-second mark in the video). Pro-Iranian media claims the weapon is an air-launched version of the Fajr-4, a big, long-range, truck-mounted artillery rocket.

A Russian defense news site compared photos of the missile in the Iranian video to the Fajr 4 – and they indeed look similar.

What exactly is a Fajr-4? It’s a 333-mm rocket that’s part of the Fajr family of truck-mounted multiple rocket launchers, comprising unguided rockets in 240-mm and 333-mm calibers and with ranges of up to 30 miles. Some are based on Russian, Chinese and North Korean designs, with Hezbollah using the Fajr 3 against Israel in the 2006 Lebanon War.

In a 2007 report on the Iranian military by the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Fajr-4 – also known as the Shahin-1 – is described as a “a trailer-launched 333-mm caliber unguided, high-explosive artillery rocket. Two rockets are normally mounted on each trailer, and they have a solid propelled-rocket motor, a maximum range of 75 kilometers [46 miles], and a 175-kilogram [386-pound] conventional or chemical warhead. The Shahin evidently can be equipped with three types of warheads: a 180-kilogram high-explosive warhead, a warhead using high-explosive submunitions, and a warhead that uses chemical weapons.”

This isn’t the first time that Iran has turned a ground-based rocket into an aerial weapon. The Oghab, a 230-mm artillery rocket, may have been modified for launch from Iranian F-14 and F-4 fighters. But there are a few interesting twists to the Fajr-4 story. The Iranian video shows the rocket being dropped from an Su-22, and then the rocket falling through the air – and then a big explosion on the ground. But there is no footage of the rocket motor igniting. This could mean a static airdrop test, which in turn suggests the weapon is far from being operational.

More interesting is the description of the air-launched Fajr-4 as a guided weapon, though the ground-launched version is unguided. An air-to-surface missile would certainly have a guidance system: trying to destroy targets with giant unguided rockets would require the launch aircraft to fly dangerously close to the target.

However, Iran has developed a kit that turns unguided surface-to-surface rockets into guided weapons. The U.S. Joint Attack Direct Munition (JDAM) takes the same approaching by affixing a GPS guidance kit to iron bombs to turn them into smart weapons.

Whatever we know about the Fajr-4, we know it’s not an air-launched ballistic missile like Russia’s Kinzhal, a nuclear-tipped hypersonic (faster than Mach 5) missile that may be too fast for Western air defenses to stop. Fajr-4 seems more like an old Katyusha-type rocket launched from an airplane.

Iran does have a history of announcing weapons with more bark than bite, such as a stealth fighter that apparently is neither stealthy nor much of a fighter.

Indeed, some Western experts aren’t impressed with the new Iranian weapon. Anthony Cordesman, who coauthored the Center for Strategic and International Studies report, noted that the name “Fajr” covers both missiles and artillery rockets.

“We constantly see new announcements with new and sometimes duplicative names,” Cordesman told Uncommon Defense. “Sometimes they are real and sometimes they simply are a way of hyping Iranian military power.”

— Michael Peck

For more stories, subscribe to Uncommon Defense or visit our Twitter page.

Image credit: Wikipedia

Could Iran’s New Spy Satellite Trigger An Israel-Iran War?

credit: Tasnim News

The undeclared war between Iran and Israel has reached new heights.

Or more specifically, a height of 270 miles, which is the altitude of Iran’s first spy satellite. It’s more than a nice vantage point for Iran to keep an eye on its arch-enemy Israel. Lacking advanced reconnaissance aircraft and drones to penetrate Israeli air defenses, a satellite may be the only way for Tehran to gather real-time intelligence on Israel.

Which raises the question: will Israel be tempted to destroy Iran’s eye in the sky?

While Iran’s space agency has previously placed communications and civilian imaging satellites into orbit, the Noor spy satellite launched on April 22 from the Shahroud missile range in northeast Iran is an explicitly military project run by the hardline IRGC. The satellite’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) path takes it over North Africa and the central Mediterranean (you can see the current orbital track here), which puts Israel within a space camera’s field of vision.

For a beleaguered Iranian regime caught between U.S. economic sanctions and the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, Noor was a reminder to domestic and international foes that the regime has muscle. More ominously, the satellite was lofted atop a three-stage Qased (“messenger”) rocket that reportedly combines both solid and liquid fuel propulsion, which suggests that Iran has the potential to develop solid-fueled, nuclear-tipped ICBMs to replace cumbersome liquid-fueled ballistic missiles.

Just as the beep-beep-beeping of Sputnik in 1957 announced the Soviet Union was a technological power, Noor is a signal that Iran is a player to be reckoned with. “Today we watch the Earth from the sky, and this is proof that a global power is in the making,” proclaimed  Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander Major General Hossein Salami.

To be fair, Noor is technologically unimpressive compared to other satellites. As a precursor to a nuclear-armed ballistic missile, the Qased rocket has such limited capacity that it can only deliver a satellite into low orbit rather than a higher vantage point for surveilling the Earth, Israeli newspaper Haaretz noted. More important, it’s too small to carry a nuclear warhead.

Yet Iran’s space shot deserved better than to be dismissed by U.S. officials as a useless “tumbling webcam in space.” Recall that the early American satellite launches of the 1950s exploded on the launch pad, but NASA still managed to land humans on the Moon a decade later.

For Iranian strategists, the celestial snoop is heaven-sent. Iran has a formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles aimed at enemies such as Israel, while its proxy Hezbollah has 150,000 rockets in Lebanon, including GPS-guided weapons and newly developed kits that convert unguided rockets into smart munitions. What Iran and Hezbollah lack is real-time intelligence for targeting those missiles, but a satellite passing over Israel every couple of hours could provide updated imagery of Israeli troop movements, airbases and critical infrastructure.

Yet unfortunately for Tehran, Israel has an even more advanced space program that has already placed spy satellites in orbit, developed interceptors that can shoot down ballistic missiles and even conducted a near-successful attempt to land an unmanned probe on the Moon. So far, only the U.S., Russia, China and India have demonstrated anti-satellite weapons. But if a nation can launch a satellite, it can also figure out how to shoot one down. Indeed, in 2009, Israeli officials raised the possibility that the Arrow 3 – an interceptor that can shoot down ballistic missiles streaking through outer space – could be turned into an anti-satellite weapon.

Should a major clash erupt between Israel and Iran or Israel and Hezbollah – or even if there are ominous signs that a war might be coming – Israel might be tempted to neutralize Iranian satellites. However, destroying a nation’s satellite is an act of war. Indeed, in 2018, the Trump administration indicated that an attack on American satellites could be grounds for nuclear retaliation.

Iran has endured Mossad assassinations on Iranian soil, airstrikes on its forces in Syria and possibly even Israeli F-35 stealth fighters flying over its territory. But destroying a satellite like Noor might be an escalation from which Tehran couldn’t back down.

— Michael Peck

For more stories, subscribe to Uncommon Defense or visit my Twitter page.