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DOD reveals ‘arsenal plane’ and microdrones in budget speech

The Pentagon is developiong a repurposed “arsenal plane” that would carry large volumes of bombs and missiles into battle alongside modern combat aircraft like the Lockheed Martin F-35.

The Department of Defense (DOD) is also investing in “fast, resilient mircodrones” that can launch from fighter jets travelling at Mach 0.9 and fly through strong crosswinds.

These are just two examples of leap-ahead technology that America believes will put it ahead of its adversaries in future combat, under an initiative known as the Third Offset Strategy.

Both projects were revealed in a budget speech by defence secretary Ashton Carter, ahead of a $582.7 billion fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to be unveiled next week.

Carter says the arsenal airplane and mircodrone are being developed under the “strategic capabilities office” that was setup in 2012 for rapid development and fielding of new technologies.

“[Arsenal plane] takes one of our oldest aircraft platforms, and turns it into a flying launch pad for all sorts of different conventional payloads,” Carter says. “In practice, the arsenal plane will function as a very large airborne magazine, networked to fifth-generation aircraft that acts as forward sensor and targeting nodes – essentially combining different systems already in our inventory to create wholly new capabilities.”

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It's not known if the Pentagon will revive old B-52 bombers to create an unmanned flying bomb truck, or perhaps recall retired C-130s for a turboprop approach. Past candidates for this concept included the Boeing B-1R.

US Air Force

Carter says the swarming, autonomous mircodrones were demonstrated during an operational exercise in Alaska in 2015. The drones are printed through additive manufacturing and use commercially available components, he says.

The secretary did not say if the micro drones were explosive, like so-called loitering munitions, but they can also be hand-launched by soldiers on the battlefield.

The 2017 budget would boost research and development spending to $71.4 billion. It also includes a significant amount of funding to extend the life and combat-relevance of existing fourth-generation combat jets until the F-35 comes online.

Carter confirmed that the US air force will also postpone retirement of the Fairchild Republic A-10 Warthog.

“[It] has been devastating ISIL from the air,” he says, referencing the terrorist organisation the American military is fighting in Iraq and Syria. “The budget defers the A-10’s final retirement until 2022, replacing it with F-35s on a squadron-by-squadron basis so we’ll always have enough aircraft for today’s conflicts.”

The budget proposal will also contain more money for combat operations in the Middle East, including $1.8 billion to buy approximately 45,000 precision-guided bombs and missiles to replenish stocks.

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US Air Force

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