Air Force Unveils First Test Of Arsenal Plane Concept And New CLEAVER Munition

The Air Force is now actively pursuing a stand-off strike capability for its cargo aircraft.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) photo


The U.S. Air Force conducted a test earlier this year of a palletized munition concept to launch new stand-off precision-guided munitions from its airlifters, allowing the service to relatively quickly turn them into weapons trucks, as necessary. This has also prompted important discussions within the service about command and control issues and other operational considerations that would be involved when rapidly shifting cargo aircraft into a strike role.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) revealed the test, which took place at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah on Jan. 28, 2020 in cooperation with Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), in a press release on May 27, 2020. Air Force Major General Clinton Hinote, the Deputy Director of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) office, offered additional details about the project during an online chat that the Air Force Association's Mitchell Institute hosted on the same day. Aviation Week's Defense Editor and good friend of The War Zone Steve Trimble was kind enough to curate some of Hinote's comments and post them on Twitter. This also a concept that has been around in various forms for decades and that the Air Force had publicly announced, by way of a contracting notice in February that you can read more about in this past War Zone piece, that it was looking to explore again.

"This successful [demonstration] is evidence of our commitment to evolve innovative weapons concepts and enhance our partnership with AFSOC to meet the needs of the National Defense Strategy," Air Force Colonel Garry Haase, head of AFRL’s Munitions Directorate, said in the May 27 press release. "CLEAVER represents a different approach to launching large numbers of long-range weapons, which will bring a new dynamic to the high-end fight."

CLEAVER stands for Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range and the Air Force has described this previously unseen air-launched munition as an unpowered "long-range, high precision weapons [to] destroy moving and non-moving targets."

Two CLEAVER munitions on a single pallet exit the back of an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J Commando II special operations transport during the January test at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah., USAF

The sole picture we have of the CLEAVER munitions so far shows that it has four tail fins and streamlined design that is visually similar in some respects of the AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) glide bomb. The JSOW has pop-out wings to help them glide across extended distances, but it is not clear if CLEAVER has this feature. The new design is an in-house Air Force development from AFRL's Center for Rapid Innovation (CRI), which has now transitioned the project to the Munitions Directorate.

During the test at Dugway in January, an MC-130J Commando II special operations transport from the 27th Special Operations Wing, which is based at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, dropped two pallets, each with two CLEAVER munitions, along with a third pallet with two additional unspecified "simulated munitions." The exact method of deployment is unclear, but it appears that the pallet, also known as a Combat Expendable Platform (CEP), falls into a vertical position with the help of a parachute after leaving the aircraft and then releases the munitions via some form of remote or pre-set triggering mechanism.

An MC-130J Commando II airdrops a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) during an unrelated exercise. , USAF

AFRL decided to work with AFSOC and use the Commando II for the test given the latter command's decades of experience with dropping large munitions from the back of its MC-130 special operations transports, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece. Today, these aircraft are the only platforms certified to employ the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb, which, to date, has been used in combat only once, in Afghanistan's Nangarhar Province in 2017 against ISIS's franchise in that country. 

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An MC-130E Combat Talon special operations transport drops the last 15,000-pound-class BLU-82/B bomb, the predecessor to the GBU-43/B, in 2008. The bomb is seen here separating from its pallet and the CLEAVER munitions likely fall away in a similar fashion after launch., USAF

An MC-12W Liberty intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft from the Oklahoma Air National Guard's 137th Special Operations Wing also supported the test as a chase plane, capturing still and video imagery and making real-time observations about the drops.

There are already plans for additional demonstrations involving more CLEAVERs, as well as "powered vehicles, and full-up vehicles with optional warhead and terminal guidance," according to AFRL. Some sort of powered weapon, such as a cruise missile, would give an aircraft employing the palletized munitions concept true standoff range, something that would be very important in a major conflict against a near-peer adversary with a capable integrated air defense network. It would also drastically complicate an enemy's defense planning.

AFRL's description of the warhead and guidance systems as "optional" also points to CLEAVER being a modular design. If true, this might meant it could potentially accommodate other payloads, including non-kinetic ones, such as electronic warfare jammers

AFRL's press release also mentioned an ultimate goal to utilize a palletized munitions system to deploy a swarm of "network-enabled, semi-autonomous weapons" that "accompanies remotely piloted aircraft and fighter jets in combat missions." The Air Force has already been working for a number of years on networked munitions concepts as part of the now-canceled Gray Wolf program and the current Golden Horde effort.

A test article that Northrop Grumman developed for AFRL's Gray Wolf program., USAF

What's interesting is that this test predated, and almost certainly informed, AFRL's Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office's request for information regarding potential palletized munition concepts, or "Bomb Bay In A Box," for Air Force airlifters in February 2020. That contracting notice also made mention of future experiments, though it's not clear how this might be related to AFRL's plans for more demonstrations together with AFSOC.

"What we see is that no matter how big our bomber force is, the capacity that the Joint Force needs is always more and more," Major General Hinote said during the Mitchell Institute talk. "So this is why we think that there's a real possibility here for using cargo platforms, to be able to increase the capacity of fires."

It's also unclear how this might feed into the Air Force's long on-again-off-again relationship with similar concepts, typically referred to as "arsenal planes," which you can read about more in this past War Zone piece. Most recently, in April, General Timothy Ray, head of Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), had said he was not in favor of converting airlifters, even on a temporary basis, into strike platforms as a flexible and low-cost means of supplementing his command's bombers. Ray instead said he was in favor of a new clean-sheet design to fulfill that mission.

We now know that the January test had already raised some significant questions within the service by that point about how it might actually employ armed airlifters in combat and who would control them. As it stands now, Air Mobility Command oversees the vast majority of the Air Force's cargo-carrying fleets, with AFGSC serving the same purpose for traditional bombers and Air Combat Command being responsible for smaller combat jets, among other aircraft.

This existing command and control structure “actually works against our effectiveness," Hinote noted. "Some sort of extremely streamlined command and control is going to be necessary."

Hopefully, now, more information will begin to emerge about this very interesting CLEAVER munition and AFRL's other continuing work on palletized munition systems. After decades of still-ongoing debate within the Air Force, the service does finally appear to be moving ahead with this concept.

Update: 5/28/2020—

AFRL's SDPE office has told Breaking Defense that it conducted a total of five test flights between January and February related to the palletized munition concept, including ones in cooperation with Air Mobility Command utilizing a C-17A Globemaster III airlifter from the 412th Test Wing. Unfortunately, there are no specific details about the other four test flights.

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