Air Force Eyes "Bomb Bay In A Box" To Rapidly Turn Airlifters Into Flying Weapon Trucks

A palletized munition system would allow the Air Force to turn its cargo aircraft into low-cost strike platforms.

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The U.S. Air Force is looking into conducting experiments involving palletized dispensers for stand-off munitions that could rapidly turn airlifters, such as the C-130 Hercules or the C-17 Globemaster III, into heavily armed weapons trucks. This could offer a relatively low-cost and low-risk path toward increasing the service's capacity to launch large scale strikes across a broad area during a major conflict. 

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) first announced it was interested in gathering information on existing palletized munition concepts or proposed for new designs in February 2020. AFRL's Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office, or SDPE, said it was looking for information on "potential availability ... [of] systems suitable to support prototype experimentation" in both "ground and flight tests."

"The ability to mass firepower in future conflicts increases the range of OPLAN execution options against peer adversaries. Delivering standoff type weapons in mass, from non-traditional delivery platforms, is one potential option to deliver mass firepower and could prove pivotal in future conflicts," SPDE's February request for information explained. "The concept of 'a bomb bay in a box,' where mobility aircraft air drop multiple, independent munitions from outside of a threat area could augment traditional delivery methods."

The contracting notice does not specify a particular type of aircraft, but does say the "concept seeks to capitalize on current airlift capability to increase delivery of massed firepower." Proposed designs also have to employ a "roll-on-roll-off deployment design (i.e. palletized options)" and use "use conventional airdrop infrastructure/techniques" indicating that munitions would exit the aircraft via a rear ramp. The Air Force's primarily airlifters at present are the C-130 and the C-17, both of which have a rear ramp and would ideal candidates to carry such a system. Any system that works on both of those aircraft would also be able to be utilized in conjunction with the larger C-5 Galaxy, if desired, as well.

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An airman loads pallets of bombs onto a C-17 for transport. AFRL's palletized munitions system envisions a way for airlifters to actually be able to employ large numbers of stand-off munitions.

AFRL says that the palletized munition system will be expendable, meaning crews will toss out them out of an airplane along with the munitions themselves with no expectation of recovering them after the mission. Anyone who proposes a system can use standardized government cargo pallets as a baseline or develop a new pallet system with the understanding that the U.S. government would eventually own that design if the project leads to an actual fielded weapon system.

Any proposed system would "minimize connections between aircraft and pallet" and "require no aircraft modifications," according to the request for information. AFRL also wants the complete system to include a mission separate pallet with the systems necessary to program munitions and enter targeting information before launch. All of this would allow for a palletized munition system that could be readily installed and uninstalled on any suitable airlifter, as necessary.

AFRL says responses to its request for information need to include a description of the munition or munitions the proposed system will work with. The contracting notice indicates that companies can also propose entirely new munitions specifically for the palletized system if they want. Whatever the chosen munitions might be, they would have to have sufficient range to allow airlifters to safely launch them from well outside the range of potential hostile air defenses, which are only improving in capability.

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A list of characteristics AFRL wants any proposed palletized munitions system to have.

It's worth noting that the basic idea of utilizing airlifters as strike platforms, as well as palletized and otherwise modular munitions dispensers, is hardly new. However, past concepts have typically involved cargo aircraft as a means, generally in permissive environments, of employing unguided munitions in more traditional level bombing roles or for dropping outsized specialized munitions

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An MC-130E Combat Talon special operations transport drops a 15,000-pound BLU-82/B Daisy Cutter bomb during an exercise. The BLU-82/B is the kind of outsized munition that airlifters have been used to employ in the past.

There have also been more extensive conversion programs to turn cargo aircraft into more specialized strike platforms, the best example of which are the Air Force's AC-130 gunships. There also roll-on/roll-off kits, such as the U.S. Marine Corps' Harvest HAWK system for its KC-130s, which allow militaries to more rapidly and only temporarily convert airlifters into similar, if less robust gunship configurations. Those systems are still generally intended for use in permissive environments, as well.

What the Air Force is exploring now is a significantly different concept that would allow airlifters to augment its long-range, stand-off strike capabilities in a high-end conflict. This makes good sense in many respects given the increasing capabilities of potential enemy integrated air defense networks, such as those that Russia and China, continue to improve and expand, which will pose a serious threat to all but the most advanced stealthy aircraft in the future. 

With that in mind, the question increasingly becomes what would be the functional difference between conducting mass long-range strikes using a large payload bomber, such as the B-52, for instance, rather than an airlifter, such as the C-17, which is significantly cheaper per flight hour to operate and can possibly carry even more weapons using a palletized system? An airlifter carrying the palletized munition system would not need to have any targeting capability of its own, either, instead using ever-improving networking capabilities to get that information from other manned and unmanned aircraft, ships, and assets on the ground closer to the target area. Space-based sensors could also potentially contribute to the targeting ecosystem in the future.

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A B-52 bomber carrying a load of precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) under its wings.

AFRL already has a separate program underway, called Golden Horde, that is focused on exploring ways to network munitions together themselves so that they can operate as autonomous swarms. The Air Force, along with the Navy and the Army, are also exploring various means of improving networking to allow for more diverse offboard targeting options, as well.

In principle, the Air Force could also use a palletized munitions system to deploy swarms of small drones, including expendable and recoverable types, from its airlifters, as well. A video that AFRL released in 2018 depicting various systems that service could be using in the 2030s included a segment showing a C-130-sized aircraft doing just this via a parachute-retarded air-launched canister-like module. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), in cooperation with the Air Force, has also been experimenting with drones that airlifter can recover in mid-air under a project called Germlins.

While AFRL's focus, right now, is on stand-off strikes, there's no reason to believe a palletized munitions system wouldn't also be able to launch non-stand-off precision-guided munitions, such as GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), either. Loaded with these weapons, airlifters could exploit their long-range and large payload capabilities to loiter over permissive battlefields for extended periods of time and conduct close air support missions, as well. This could help free Air Force bombers from requirements to perform these types of missions, which is something the service says it wants to do, in general.

How soon AFRL's "bomb bay in a box" concept might turn into a viable weapon system, if at all, remains to be seen. The Air Force been kicking around ideas for an aircraft with a large munitions payload capacity, typically referred to as an "arsenal plane," for decades now. In the aftermath of President Jimmy Carter's decision to cancel the B-1A bomber program, the U.S. military explored lower-cost options, including, notably, a proposal from Boeing for a 747 airliner-based Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft (CMCA). The CMCA concept, which you can read about more here, would have seen a 747-200C freighter adapted to carry 72 AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missiles, an idea not too far removed, in basic principle, from what AFRL is talking about now.

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Patent drawings showing the internal configuration of the proposed 747-based CMCA.

The CMCA, and a host of other arsenal plane proposals, including past ideas to use airlifters as weapon trucks, have all failed to come to fruition. In November 2019, the Air Force said it was again looking into the "arsenal plane" concept, but that it could select a bomber already in service and adapt it to the mission.

However, "the arsenal plane concept is probably better described as more of a clean-sheet approach to a platform that can affordably and rapidly fill the gap for long-range strike capabilities, and to go down more innovative paths," Air Force General Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), which oversees the service's bomber fleets, said during Defense Writers Group telephone conference earlier this month. Many took this to imply he was interested in an all-new aircraft design, but it could also point to the development of a new munitions employment concept, such as a palletized munitions system.

The U.S. defense budget, as a whole, again in a period of contraction and the Air Force looking to cut a large number of older aircraft to free up funds for other priorities. This includes plans to retire a substantial number of B-1B bombers in the next year, while also integrating new weapons, and more of them, onto the remaining aircraft. 

All told, the idea of being able to convert airlifters, at will, into low-cost stand-off strike platforms seems as attractive as ever. In addition, the costs associated with advanced, stealthy aircraft, such as the forthcoming B-21 Raider stealth bomber, that are actually capable of penetrating deep into denied areas littered with air defenses are only set to increase as time goes on. In order to be able to avoid losing any overall capacity to launch mass stand-off strikes from the air, having a lower-end companion will only become more and more essential.

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An artist's rendering of a B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

In the past, critics of using cargo aircraft as arsenal planes have pointed out that there would likely be a high demand for airlifters in their primary role during any major conflict in the future. However, the Air Force has said in recent years that it wants to expand its airlift capacity, in general, including to support expeditionary and distributed operations concepts. A palletized munition system concept could be another argument adding significant numbers of additional airlifters to the service's existing fleets.

A palletized munition system for the Air Force's airlifters definitely offers a very real path toward acquiring that capability and it will be interesting to see how AFRL proceeds with the proposals it receives.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com