The US Air Force has offered an artist’s impression of the Pentagon’s “arsenal plane” concept in a video presented by service secretary Deborah Lee James at an Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Florida today.
As first seen in DARPA "system of systems" promotion released last year, the video depicts an aircraft with an eight-engine Boeing B-52 bomber wing with the body of a Lockheed Martin C-130 turboprop. The secretary's outtake shows the aircraft launching a barrage of networked Raytheon Small Diameter Bomb II glide bombs at mobile enemy radar warning and air defence targets.
This aircraft mash-up is relevant, because the Pentagon has not revealed whether its arsenal plane will be a re-purposed B-52 or a smaller cargo airplane like the C-130, or perhaps faster types like the C-17 or B-1B.
The cargo-bomber airplane concept appears to be unmanned since it doesn’t have a cockpit window, but does have a side cargo bay door. It’s not known if the arsenal plane – based on an old, repurposed aircraft – will carry weapon specialists, similar to current AC-130 gunships.
“Of course, this is still a concept so there’s various artist’s renditions or videos that may attempt to show what this is like, but there has been no decision, per se, on the type of aircraft that would become this arsenal,” says James on 26 February, when asked about the image. “But I offered it up as an example of some of the creative thinking that is not only technology driven, but sometimes involves repurposing existing aircraft as concepts of operation.”
USAF chief of staff Gen Mark Welsh offered some additional insight, saying the choice of platform will depend on what types of weapons it will carry. It also depends on the size of those weapons, he says, and if the aircraft needs to get into position quickly.
“I think you can make arsenal platforms in near space, you can make arsenal platforms behind the battle lines, you could make a case for arsenal platforms in the battlespace,” says Welsh. “It just depends on what you’re trying to do, how much you can afford, and how you prioritise the effort.
“It’s just where you put it, how you access the weapons, when you need them, et cetera, and who’s actually calling for them. Is it another airborne platform, is it somebody on the ground? That’s the discussion we’re in right now. It’s going to be a fascinating discussion.”
The arsenal plane concept was revealed by US defence secretary Ashton Carter during his budget preview speech in Washington DC on February 2. It is run by the secretive Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), which specialises in modifying old weapons into new capabilities.
The concept converts “one of our oldest aircraft platform” into a flying launchpad,” he says. It would be an “airborne magazine” that is networked with modern combat jets and potentially the Northrop Grumman B-21 bomber, which is designed as a "family of systems".
The project is funded in the Pentagon’s “advanced innovative technologies” budget under a new, mostly-classified programme labelled “alternative strike”. Almost $200 million has been dedicated to the project in fiscal year 2017, and flight demonstrations would start in late 2017 or 2018 and run through 2020.
In 2004, Boeing proposed a similar arsenal plane concept known as the B-1R – which stands for “regional” bomber.
According to a source, that concept would have greatly boosted the B-1B’s weapons capacity and installed an active electronically scanned array radar (AESA) to “attack multiple targets simultaneously in a jammed environment”. The aircraft’s engines would have been upgraded from the General Electric F101 to Pratt & Whitney F119 to achieve speeds of Mach 2.