The US Air Force’s top fighter and bomber commands are actively pushing for the introduction of so-called arsenal planes as they seek to “fling” long-range weapons into future warzones guarded by sophisticated enemy air defence systems — as a compliment to front-line stealth fighters.
Speaking at the Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida on 25 January, Air Force Global Strike Command leader Gen Robin Rand said four warfighting commands have requested arsenal plane-like capabilities due to the propagation of new counter-air systems.
“Long-range strike and standoff capability is very, very important,” he says. “We’re going to look at all options.”
US Air Force
The concept would take one of the US military's oldest warplanes and turn it into a flying bomb truck that would receive targeting data from penetrating surveillance aircraft and stealth fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Rand says it would orbit outside the range of enemy missile fire and circle there until needed. “The threat gets a vote and we’re going to have to do that sooner rather than later,” he says.
Gen Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle of Air Combat Command says in future wars, US forces will need to break into an area using a combination of close-in stealth attack and barrages of long-range missile fire, launched from arsenal planes.
In the future, the time from launch to destruction would be hastened if hypersonic missiles are successfully introduced. “How quickly can I find, fix, target and engage?" he asks.
Boeing QF-16 unmanned target drone
US Air Force/Boeing
Carlisle expressed further interest in manned-unmanned teaming between fighter jets and autonomous slave aircraft that would fly alongside a networked parent fighter or bomber. That’s known internally at the "loyal wingman" or "wolfpack" concept.
“It's the autonomous ability to bring stuff with you in another format; an unmanned autonomous platform that doesn’t need sensors or command and control,” he says. “It just needs to be able to connect to whoever its parent is, be that an F-22 or Long-Range Strike Bomber."
The Pentagon has not nominated a platform for its arsenal plane, but out-of-service B-52Hs or B-1Bs might fit the bill. The 54-year-old B-52H can carry 31.5t (70,000lbs) of mixed ordnance while the 28-year-old B-1B can carry 34t (75,000lbs). Unneeded Boeing C-17 and Lockheed Martin C-130 cargo airplanes might also be considered.