The B-52 'Arsenal Plane': America's Super Bomber Is Set for a Massive Upgrade
The Pentagon’s emerging “Arsenal Plane” or “flying bomb truck” is likely to be a modified, high-tech adaptation of the iconic B-52 bomber designed to fire air-to-air weapons, release swarms of mini-drones and provide additional fire-power to 5th generation stealth fighters such as the F-35 and F-22, Pentagon officials and analysts said.
Using a B-52, which is already being modernized with new radios and an expanded internal weapons bay, would provide an existing “militarized” platform already engineered with electronic warfare ability and countermeasures designed to thwart enemy air defenses.
“You are using a jet that already has a military capability. The B-52 is a military asset, whereas all the alternatives would have to be created. It has already been weaponized and has less of a radar cross-section compared to a large Air Force cargo plane. It is not a penetrating bomber, but it does have some kind of jamming and countermeasures meant to cope with enemy air defenses. It is wired for a combat mission,” said Richard Aboulafia, Vice President of analysis at the Teal Group, a Virginia-based consultancy.
Flying as a large, non-stealthy bomber airplane, a B-52 would still present a large target to potential adversaries; however, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said part of the rationale for the “Arsenal Plane” would be to work closely with stealthy fighter jets such as an F-22 and F-35, with increased networking technology designed to increase their firepower and weapons load.
An "Arsenal Plane" networked to F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters would enable the fighter aircraft to maintain their stealth properties while still having substantial offensive bombing capability. If stealth fighters attach weapons to their external pylons, they change their radar signature and therefore become more vulnerable to enemy air defenses. If networked to a large "flying bomb truck," they could use stealth capability to defeat enemy air defenses and still have an ability to drop large amounts of bombs on targets.
(This article first appeared in Scout Warrior here.)
Such a scenario could also likely rely upon now-in-development manned-unmanned teaming wherein emerging algorithms and computer technology enable fighter jets to control the sensor payload and weapons capability of nearby drones from the cockpit of the aircraft. This would enable Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance assets to more quickly relay strategic or targeting information between fighter jets, drones and “Arsenal Planes.”
Aboulafia explained that air fighters being developed by potential adversaries, such as the Chinese J-20 and other fighters, could exist in larger numbers than a U.S. force, underscoring the current U.S. strategy to maintain a technological edge even if their conventional forces are smaller. An “Arsenal Plane” could extend range and lethality for U.S. fighters, in the event they were facing an enemy force with more sheer numbers of assets.
“There is a concern about numbers of potential enemies and range. When you are dealing with a potential adversary with thousands of jets and you’ve got limited assets with limited weapons payloads, you have got to be concerned about the numbers,” he said.
An effort to be more high-tech, if smaller in terms of sheer numbers, than rival militaries is a key part of the current Pentagon force modernization strategy.
“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 wholly new capabilities,” Carter told reporters. Aboulafia added that an idea for an “Arsenal Plane” emerged in the 1980s as a Cold War strategy designed to have large jets carry missiles able to attack Soviet targets.
Carter unveiled the “Arsenal Plane” concept during a recent 2017 budget drop discussion at the Pentagon wherein he, for the first time, revealed the existence of a “Strategic Capabilities Office” aimed at connecting and leveraging emerging weapons and technology with existing platforms. This effort is aimed at saving money, increasing the military’s high-tech lethality and bringing new assets to the force faster than the many years it would take to engineer entirely new technologies.
“I created the SCO (Strategic Capabilities Office) in 2012, when I was Deputy Secretary of defense to help us to re-imagine existing DOD and intelligence community and commercial systems by giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential enemies -- the emphasis here was on rapidity of fielding, not 10 and 15-year programs,” he said.
Carter said “Arsenal Plane” development would be funded through a $71 billion research and development 2017 budget request.
While Carter did not specify a B-52 during his public discussion of the new asset now in-development, he did say it would likely be an “older” aircraft designed to function as a “flying launchpad.”
“The last project I want to highlight is one that we're calling the “Arsenal Plane,” which takes one of our oldest aircraft platforms and turns it into a flying launchpad for all sorts of different conventional payloads,” Carter added.
The Air Force is already surging forward with a massive, fleet-wide modernization overhaul of the battle-tested, Vietnam-era B-52 bomber, an iconic airborne workhorse for the U.S. military dating back to the 1960s.
Engineers are now equipping all 76 of the Air Force B-52s with digital data-links, moving-map displays, next-generation avionics, new radios and an ability to both carry more weapons internally and integrate new, high-tech weapons as they emerge, service officials said.