C-130 transporter, a possible candidate for the role of an arsenal aircraft
The US Air Force is once again returning to the concept of an “arsenal aircraft”. Once again, it is proposed to work out the appearance of a promising missile carrier aircraft capable of carrying ammunition of increased dimensions. So far we are only talking about research 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.
Information about the new research in the interests of the Air Force was published on June 25. The Air Force and the Pentagon's Strategic Opportunity Directorate have posted a request for information inviting potential contractors to collaborate.
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 will have to operate at a safe distance from enemy air defense systems and launch its combat load: for reconnaissance, striking, etc.
The layout of the CMCA aircraft offered in the past
Arsenal aircraft can be developed from scratch or run on the basis of an existing machine. This aspect is not yet of fundamental importance. At the same time, preference is given to simpler projects, which can reach the experimental and test stages in the shortest possible time.
The main objective of the new project is to build up the strike capabilities of strategic aviation. At the disposal of this kind of troops there are dozens of several types of aircraft and in the near future new ones are expected. 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 acting against a technically advanced enemy. Thus, the combined use of missile-carrying bombers and arsenal aircraft will ensure an increase in the number of missiles in strike and will affect its effectiveness.
The success or failure of a new research project may affect the further development of strategic aviation of the US Air Force. In the future, after obtaining the necessary data for a research project, plans for existing ones may be revised. The arsenal aircraft will be compared with the promising stealth long-range bomber B-21 Raider. Having a number of characteristic advantages, the latter is notable for 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 will be able to complement the "arsenal".
Dump the pallet with CLEAVER products from the MC-130J
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 capable of complementing or replacing strategic bombers. In the past, projects of this kind were developed, and some studies even reached practical events. However, in all cases, the “arsenals” could not be surpassed by 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 their movement. Using guides, the launcher had to approach the hatch in the rear of the fuselage, drop the rockets out and give way to another drum. Depending on the type of weapons, the number of launchers, etc. CMCA could carry from 50 to 90-100 missiles.
The CMCA was seen as a potential replacement for the old B-52 Stratofortress and compares favorably with both a more modern platform and increased ammunition. However, the new project had some drawbacks of a technical, operational, combat and other nature, because of which it did not even reach the stage of testing a flying laboratory.
A few months before the current request for information was posted, in January, the Air Force Special Operations Command and Air Force Research Laboratory conducted an interesting experiment. From the MC-130J Commando II aircraft, pallets with different weights were dropped in the air, including with mockups of modern cruise missiles. In practice, it was possible to confirm the fundamental possibility of dropping weapons from a military transport aircraft.
The heavy transport aircraft C-17 unloads containers on the run
Together with other products with the MC-130J, four layouts of CLEAVER (Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range) aircraft were dropped. This is a promising long-range cruise missile, on the basis of which a multi-purpose UAV can also be created. The January experiments look curious in the light of the new R&D: their results show the possibility of creating an arsenal of aircraft.
Advantages and disadvantages
Arsenal is significantly different from a conventional missile carrier. Some of these differences can be considered an advantage, while others lead to limitations, including the most serious. The ratio of strengths and weaknesses of such a concept may limit the actual value of the finished aircraft for the Air Force.
The main advantages of the flying "arsenal" are the possibility of using a well-developed air platform from the class of military transport aircraft. Ammunition growth is also possible, for which both significant dimensions of the cargo compartment and high aircraft carrying capacity are used. For example, the widespread C-130 transporter, depending on the modification, can carry up to 19 tons of cargo in a large cab. The larger C-17 Globemaster III carries more than 77 tons and is capable of carrying 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 large flight range and combat radius, but supersonic flight speed with all its advantages is unattainable.
Landing with C-17. Similarly, cruise missiles can be dropped
Due to the mass of restrictions, an arsenal cannot break through an air defense using the same methods as a strategic bomber. In this regard, the new research 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 rocket carrier during construction or operation. In addition, it is still not clear whether the arsenal, made on modern technologies, can become a full-fledged addition for bombers (not to mention replacement).
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 able to receive 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 complete transition to arsenal aircraft is in any case impossible.
Overall, 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 for moral and physical obsolescence, and completely new models will replace it. The main hope of the Air Force is the promising B-21. Recently launched research work may lead to the creation of a fundamentally new missile carrier, or may not. 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.