The next time America’s high-tech jet fighters fly into battle against a major foe, they might have some serious backup—heavy bombers, newly modified to haul potentially hundreds of missiles and fire them at the fighters’ command.
The upgraded bombers have picked up a cool new name: “arsenal planes.”
That’s right, the next global air war could involve the U.S. military newest, smallest warplanes—its “fifth-generation” stealth fighters—working in teams with the military’s Cold War-era heavy bombers, its oldest and largest warplanes.
It’s an unprecedented and seemingly unlikely combination born of budgetary and strategic desperation. But for all its counter-intuitiveness, the fighter-bomber pairing—which could bring to bear overwhelming firepower—might be just the thing that the U.S. Air Force needs to stay ahead of the rapidly-modernizing Russian and Chinese air arms.
You see, the Pentagon is short hundreds of fighter planes. And in the most likely air-war scenarios over Eastern Europe or the Western Pacific, Russian or Chinese fighters would outnumber American planes, placing the U.S. pilots with their lightly-armed aircraft at a major disadvantage.
Enter the arsenal planes. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter revealed the bomber-fighter teaming concept in a Feb. 2 speech in Washington, D.C., previewing the Pentagon’s budget proposal for 2017. The arsenal-plane concept, Carter said, “takes one of our oldest aircraft platform and turns it into a flying launchpad for all sorts of different conventional payloads.”
“In practice,” Carter continued, “the arsenal plane will function as a very large airborne magazine, networked to fifth-generation aircraft that act as forward sensor and targeting nodes, essentially combining different systems already in our inventory to create whole new capabilities.”
Carter left vague the identity of the arsenal-plane “platform,” but a Pentagon official confirmed to Aviation Week, a trade magazine, that it could be the eight-engine B-52 bomber, built in the 1960s, or the 1980s-vintage, swing-wing B-1 bomber—or both.
In the arsenal plane concept, fast stealth fighters including twin-engine F-22s and smaller, single-engine F-35s would fly into battle in their hardest-to-detect configuration, keeping their weapons tucked inside internal weapons bays in order to minimize reflectivity on radar. When they spot a target, they would dial up a munition from a much-slower bomber flying a safe distance from the aerial front line.
There’s a logic to this proposed teamwork. Loading weapons strictly internally limits how many the fighter can carry. The F-22’s standard loadout is four air-to-air missiles and two 1,000-pound bombs. The F-35 can haul just two air-to-air missiles and two 2,000-pound bombs internally. By contrast, many Russian and Chinese fighters, while not stealthy, routinely carry 10 or more missiles and bombs under their fuselages and wings.
And owing to the Pentagon’s budget-driven decision to end F-22 production in 2012 after Lockheed Martin had built just 195 copies—half what the Air Force said it needed—plus repeated delays and cost overruns on Lockheed’s F-35 development, the Pentagon doesn’t have nearly the number of dogfighters it originally counted on.
Carter’s arsenal plane is a Band-Aid on this wound. But as far as Band-Aids go, it could be a pretty effective one. Since the F-22s and F-35s would fly ahead, evading detection while spotting targets, the B-52s and B-1s wouldn’t need to be stealthy. All they would need to do is carry lots of weapons ... and launch them when the fighter pilots say so.
That scheme plays to the bombers’ strengths. A B-52 or B-1—the Air Force possesses more than 130 of the bombers—can carry no less than 35 tons of munitions, nearly 10 times the F-22 and F-35’s internal payloads.
But there’s a problem. The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, which Carter established while serving as deputy defense secretary in 2012 and which is developing the arsenal-plane concept, hasn’t said exactly how the fighters and bombers would combine their efforts.
Generally speaking, a warplane detects a target with its sensors and a router-like digital “bus” inside the plane codes the target’s location in the computer “brain” of the plane’s own munition. The pilot launches the weapon and it streaks toward the target it just memorized. The process requires a hard-wired connection.
But the arsenal plane wouldn’t have any such connection. Its communication with the stealth fighters would be strictly remote—a subtle, coded radio signal that the military calls a “datalink.” “The technology that is needed for one aircraft to feed another aircraft the type of information required for an accurate firing solution is difficult,” Brian Laslie, an Air Force historian and author of The Air Force Way of War, told The Daily Beast via email.
However, Dave Deptula—a retired Air Force general who oversaw bomber operations during the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan—praised the arsenal-plane idea in an email to The Daily Beast. “What we previously labeled as ‘bombers’ can play dramatically broader roles than they ever did in the past,” Deptula wrote. “To capture this potential, however, requires innovative thought, and shedding anachronistic concepts that aircraft can only perform singular functions and missions.”
And Deptula insisted the technical hurdles are surmountable. “Today we can incorporate sensors, processing capacity and avionics in a single aircraft at an affordable cost to an unprecedented degree.”
Laslie urged caution. “This is a little unusual and something (almost) entirely new,” he wrote about the arsenal plane. But with too few fighters carrying too few weapons—and rapidly-arming foes—the Pentagon seems willing to risk something unusual and new: slow, decidedly non-stealthy heavy bombers backing up speedy stealthy fighters a fraction their size.