Air Force C-17 Launched A Pallet Of Mock Cruise Missiles During Recent Arsenal Plane Test

A U.S. Air Force C-17A Globemaster III transport aircraft simulated the launch of multiple AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile cruise missiles via a palletized system during a recent major demonstration exercise. This is the latest in a series of experiments to evaluate the possibility of using cargo aircraft as so-called “arsenal planes” to provide additional strike capacity, especially during a high-end conflict.

The Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office within the Air Force Research Laboratory announced on September 30, 2020, that it had conducted the test as part of the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) Onramp #2 event, which had wrapped up earlier that month. The 412th Test Wing led the palletized munition test flight, in cooperation with Air Mobility Command, which provided the C-17A from one of its units at McChord Air Force Base in Washington State.

It’s not clear where the simulated launch actually took place, but the ABMS Onramp #2 included demonstrations at the ranges surrounding Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, at the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, and in the Gulf of Mexico. A  combined operations center and intelligence fusion cell at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland helped coordinate the various activities. 

A C-17A Globemaster III assigned to the 62nd Airlift Wing based at McChord Air Force Base, similar to the one used in the recent arsenal plane experiment., USAF

The overall goal of the event was to explore how the various communications and data sharing networks and related systems under development as part of the ABMS program could help link together various sensors and weapon systems. Cruise missile defense was a major focus area, with the event including a first-of-its-kind demonstration of a U.S. Army howitzer shooting down a target drone acting as a surrogate cruise missile using a Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP) after receiving targeting information from off-board sources.

Increased network connectivity is also extremely important for the arsenal plane concept, as cargo aircraft do not generally have means of identifying targets at stand-off ranges and then gathering the necessary information to engage them all on their own. Other platforms would almost certainly be responsible for feeding that information to airlifters operating in this role. 

Transports, such as the C-17, would then use their large load carrying capacity, combined with palletized launch systems, to offer means of rapidly engaging a large number of targets across a broad area. Being able to quickly convert airlifters to and from an arsenal plane configuration would also give the Air Force a very flexible and relatively low-cost means of generating large amounts of extra strike capacity, especially compared to procuring additional heavy bombers.

“A Palletized Munitions capability could enable various airlift aircraft to employ a range of weapons en masse via a self-contained, roll-on/roll-off palletized system, and may offer an alternative way for the Air Force to bring more mass to the fight,” Dr. Dean Evans, the Palletized Munitions Experimentation Program Manager at SDPE, said in a statement after the test during the ABMS Onramp event. “The successful demo represents a key step in SDPE’s Palletized Munitions Experimentation Campaign, which will determine if the Palletized Munitions concept is feasible and provides a competitive advantage for the warfighter.”

The stealthy AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) family of land-attack cruise missiles would be especially capable and combat-proven weapons to combine with the arsenal plane concept. The standard A model has a range of around 230 miles, while the extended range B variant can hit targets out to around 575 miles or more. The Air Force is in the process of acquiring an extreme-range D version now, as well, that will have a range in excess of 1,000 miles. Integrating these weapons into the service’s palletized munitions systems could also serve as a stepping stone to adding the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), a derivative of the JASSM, to the mix, further expanding the capabilities of future arsenal planes. 

Air Force personnel load inert AGM-158 JASSMs onto a B-52 bomber., USAF

It first emerged in April that AFRL was exploring palletized munitions concepts, or what it referred to as a “bomb bay in a box.” The following month, the Air Force revealed that it had conducted at least five test flights of prototype and surrogate systems since January. At least one of these tests involved the release of a previously unseen multi-purpose expendable air vehicle dubbed the Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range (CLEAVER).

Initially described a long-range stand-off precision-guided munition, it is possible that CLEAVER could be used to carry other payloads to carry out other missions, such as acting as a decoy using an electronic warfare package

A pair of CLEAVER munitions on a palletized launch system fall from the back of an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J Command II special operations transport-tanker aircraft during another arsenal plane test earlier in 2020., USAF

The Air Force is separately working on a program, known as Golden Horde, to increase the networking capabilities of its munitions, themselves, with the goal of enabling them to operate as autonomous swarms. There is another initiative, called Gray Wolf, that has been exploring technology that could be used in the development of low-cost cruise missiles. Both of these efforts would be very applicable to the arsenal plane concept, as well.

A test article developed under the Gray Wolf program, which was focused on exploring technologies applicable to low-cost cruise missiles., USAF

C-17s and other airlifters acting as arsenal planes could also provide additional close air support or other strike capabilities in lower-risk environments using precision-guided bombs or other shorter-range weapons. The range of these aircraft would enable them to loiter for extended periods over portions of the battlefield, as well. The Air Force had already revealed that C-17 had flown just this kind of mission during the ABMS Onramp event, as well, dropping loads of palletized Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) GPS-guided bombs.

“This concept, once fully mature, is for the munitions to behave just as if they were dropped from a bomber aircraft,” Air Force General Jacqueline Van Ovost, the head of Air Mobility Command, said during the Air Force Association’s main annual convention, held virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in September. “They separate from the airplane, they ignite their motors, fly to pre-designated waypoints using different flight altitudes, and then they strike their targets.”

“Our ability to flex to use this airplane [the C-17] in multiple ways is what really brings this richness to operations. While we’re flying regular cargo deployments and distributions, there are still lots of legs where we’re flying airplanes where you have the capacity to do so,” she continued. “We haven’t really looked at the full concept to see how many it would take, and this is not taking the place of any of the Global Strike capabilities. This is just the capability we want to have, should we need it, and if we pull it into an [operations] plan, that’s great.”

This is certainly not the first time that the Air Force has explored the arsenal plane concept or looked into using airlifters as impromptu bombers, as you can read about more in this past War Zone piece. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is capable already of employing the huge GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb using its MC-130H Combat Talon II and MC-130J Commando II special operations transport-tankers.  

However, this is a highly specialized weapon that has been, to date, employed only once, in Afghanistan in 2017.  AFSOC’s AC-130 gunships are now guided weapons trucks in their own right, as well. “It’s a little different from what special operations is doing,” General Van Ovost had said last month of the present arsenal plane and palletized munitions efforts.

All told, the Air Force looks to be moving quickly to explore these concepts anew and it will be very interesting to see how these projects continue to evolve in the near term. If they are pursued to an operational capability, they could drastically increase the USAF’s ability to carry large numbers of heavy weapons into the fight over long ranges, which is absurdly relevant considering the challenges faced with a potential fight against a peer-state, especially in the vast Pacific theater. 

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.