There’s increasing chatter about a secret, potentially costly, Defense Department weapons program with an interesting moniker: the “Arsenal Plane.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter mentioned the project earlier this month while describing the work of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), a clandestine workshop established within the Pentagon in 2012 to develop the next generation of bleeding-edge weapons, ostensibly to counter China and Russia.
The new warplane effort “takes one of our oldest aircraft platform and turns it into a flying launch pad for all sorts of different conventional payloads,” Carter said during a Feb. 2 speech previewing the department’s then-pending fiscal 2017 budget request.
“In practice, 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 holy new capabilities,” he said, referring to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
The Pentagon chief mentioned the project again on Thursday when he testified before the House Appropriations Defense subpanel and ticked off a handful of technologies SCO is working on, including the Air Force’s budget-busting Long Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) program and “swarming 3-D printed micro-drones.”
But what’s known about the Arsenal Plane beyond that? Defense leaders aren’t giving up any specifics.
The concept is being developed “in partnership with DARPA. We will be supporting, and the idea is to look for additional ways to arm a particular aircraft so that it might be able to do different types of missions. More munitions and different types of munitions,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said during a Feb. 12 Air Force Association event.
But when asked what kind of legacy aircraft might be retrofitted to essentially turn it into an airborne aircraft carrier, James punted: “I think all of this is still being discussed. It's still a program in development. Those decisions haven’t been reached yet.”
The concept was originally introduced in the 1980s, when the military considered turning one of its existing bombers, or a commercial plane like the Boeing 747, into a launcher capable of carrying anywhere from 50 to 70 missiles. The idea was scrapped due to the envisioned platform’s lack of connectivity and precision weapons and the large platform’s inherent vulnerability to enemy attack aircraft.
However, the idea is getting a second-look in the wake of China’s aggressive behavior in the Asia-Pacific region, especially in the South China Sea where Beijing is reclaiming land in the disputed Spratly Islands and turning them into manmade outposts for some of it most advanced military hardware.
The Arsenal Plane is also “a response to the limits of the F-35,” according to Richard Aboulafia, Vice President of Analysis at the Teal Group. For all its traits, the plane “doesn’t hold a whole lot of ordnance.”
Indeed, an F-35 maxes out at around 18,000 pounds of ordnance, and that when munitions are loaded on the plane’s wings – a move that would compromise its stealth technology (and therefore the whole point of the aircraft itself).
That limited amount of weaponry could prove deadly in a dogfight.
“Obviously, in Asia, you’ve got the problem with Chinese numbers,” Aboulafia said, referring to China’s years-long push to modernize and expand all aspects of its military.
Ideally, the new aircraft would be loaded for bear with precision guided missiles so that a squadron of F-35s that might encounter a number of hostile jets could rely on the larger plane for assistance, or cue in targeting information to help it fight or bug out.
Aboulafia said the concept is “worth investigating” because one of China’s highest military priorities has been to develop long range, heavy combat fighters -- along the lines of its J-20 jet -- that are stealthy and capable of taking out tankers or AWACS, an airborne early warning aircraft, which packs little to no firepower.
He said modern technology has largely solved the connectivity and precision issue from the ‘80s, but the size and vulnerability problem remains.
“These things … become missile magnets in a time of war,” he said.
The Pentagon may be moving forward, regardless. Inside Defense, a trade publication, speculates that the department’s 2017 budget request for $198 million in funding for advanced component development for an "Alternative Strike" program is actually for the Arsenal Plane.
The spending request is under the SCO umbrella and states the “project will demonstrate the feasibility and utility of launching existing/modified weapons from existing launch platforms,” the publication notes.
Provided the Air Force’s LRSB effort -- expected to start replacing the service’s aging B-52 and B-1 bomber fleets in the 2020s – comes online according to plan, the Pentagon would have no shortage of platforms it could retrofit into a flying fortress instead of shipping off to the boneyard.
The new effort will no doubt be swarmed with questions about affordability, especially after a think-tank report released earlier this month warned of a coming “bow wave” in bills to the Air Force budget in the 2020s as the service looks to modernize.
But Aboulafia noted those costs are driven mostly by the F-35, the LRSB and the service’s new tanker programs.
“What might make this more affordable is an off-the-shelf platform … its cash footprint might be smaller,” he predicted.