Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has been busy highlighting key pieces of the Pentagon’s upcoming budget that will be published on February 9th. One of the primary items identified in it is the development of an aerial arsenal ship.
The arsenal ship concept is something we talk about regularly here on Foxtrot Alpha, both those that fly and float. Today, the closest thing to an arsenal ship of any kind are the Navy’s converted Ohio Class ballisitic missile submarines and the Navy’s Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers.
The flying arsenal ship concept has been around for a very long time, and in numerous forms, and it is great to finally see it being put into its own weapon system category within the USAF.
The truth is that the flying arsenal ship concept already exists to a certain extent, although not in a holistic, seamlessly integrated package. B-1B and B-52H bombers have been providing precision close air support and stand-by strike since shortly after 9/11. Originally this capability was made possible by the advent of the GPS guided munition, namely the Joint Direct Attack Munition which gave these bombers rapid targeting and attack capabilities even when the target is shrouded by cloud cover or smoke.
The B-52s were fixtures orbiting high over the mountains of Afghanistan in the opening stages of that conflict, and the heavy hitting B-1B was often on standby over Iraq ready to obliterate any time sensitive targets via combining its high-speed and massive weapons carriage capabilities.
In the later half of the 2000s, these aircraft were equipped with the far-seeing SNIPER and LITENING targeting pods, the same pods flying on America’s most capable multi-role fighters. This allowed the bombers to laser-designate targets independently from high-altitude for maximum precision and the ability to hit moving targets. It could also use its pod to provide surveillance and attack targets of opportunity along with developing its own GPS coordinates for GPS guided weapons. This seemingly simple combining of technologies was a game changer for the big bombers.
This capability was added in a somewhat jury-rigged manner to both bombers. Laptops and joysticks controlled the targeting pod systems, and beyond that were pretty much the same bombers they were many decades before. Still, even with these bolt-on enhancements the bombers have gone on to do incredible things over the battlefield. Their ability to loiter for many hours at a time while carrying a relatively huge and diverse bomb load set them apart from their fighter stablemates.
Now it seems like the Pentagon is ready to integrate the arsenal ship concept with these proven capabilities in a much more comprehensive way to either the B-1 or B-52 fleet, or possibly both. An aircraft platform has not specifically been named, but it seems clear that this will be an upgrade of an existing aircraft to save money.
The B-52 is already getting smart internal bomb racks that will allow it to carry precision guided munitions internally along with other upgrades. The B-1 is getting an avionics upgrade which will include a glass cockpit and advanced communications.
It is likely the arsenal ship initiative will push these upgrades even further. The ability to work with multiple third party video feeds at a time, high-volume Link 16 data-link connectivity, and the possible addition of an AESA radar and the integration of technologies that will simplify and hasten the aircraft’s ability to provide precision close air support via a much more intimate interface between forward air controllers on the ground and the aircraft itself are just a few possible facets of this new system.
Systems that break down the communication barriers between aircrews and forward air controllers on the ground have been recently been tested by the USMC with great success. Such a system would be ideal for the arsenal ship concept. Think of it as a big flying warehouse full of many different weapons that can be parked above a combat area, with controllers on the ground and back at command and control facilities being able to request these weapons at will. Bombs and missiles on demand if you will.
In the strike role, this aircraft will likely be able to carry a large load of standoff weaponry and receive real-time targeting information from third party assets seamlessly, with the aircraft punching out weapons on demand. For instance, an enemy ship pops up on a forward deployed drone’s radar, the arsenal ship gets sent a message and firing instructions to fire as Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LARASM) at it from hundreds of miles away, with the missile being fired just moments after the message is received. The data-linked enabled missile will continue to use the drone’s sensor picture for mid-course updates while on the way to its target. The arsenal ship never has to detect the target with its own sensors in order to kill it.
Another example, a SAM site pops up 250 miles away from the arsenal ship’s location. The SAM site is initially detected and then its location is triangulated by a RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft. The arsenal ship gets commanded to fire a standoff missile at it even though it remains far outside the SAM site’s range.
The arsenal ship, with its large size and the ability for relatively easy upgrades, will likely also work as a Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN). This system, which is presently flown on E-11 Ravens, EQ-4 Global Hawks and NASA WB-57 Canberras, create an “active net” over the battlefield for tactical aircraft, ground and sea forces and advanced munitions to utilize alike.
BACN is not glamorous but it is one of the biggest force multipliers around. Not only will the arsenal ship use such a device to fuse all the different data-links into one big picture for its own situational awareness, but this same capability will allow its weapons to use all the various data linked information to prosecute targets as well. Not to mention, if it is fitted with rebroadcasting abilities, every other allied asset with a data-link, and not necessarily the same type of data-link, can see this same common picture of the battlefield.
For instance, A-10s flying low over mountainous terrain spot a convoy of trucks stopped alongside the road. 20 targets in total, They kill ten of these vehicles before running out of weapons and ammunition. They take coordinates with their targeting pods of the other vehicles and data-link them to the arsenal ship. They can do this while flying at low-level even in high terrain because the arsenal ship, loitering at high-altitude is still within line of sight. This would not be possible without such a central communications node orbiting on high.
The arsenal ship’s BACN data-fusion center takes the A-10's Situational Awareness Data Link (SADL) waveform, reinterprets it into language that Link 16 compatible data-links can display. It then rebroadcasts that information, along with all the other information it is getting from various other platforms, back to the same assets in their own language. Now they all see the same thing and can communicate even though they may have totally different data-links.
Once the arsenal ship receives the information from the A-10, it assigns 10 winged small-diameter bombs that can fly dozens of miles away to hit their targets. Within a few minutes of launch the ten small diameter bombs arrive on their targets with devastating results. Meanwhile, Apache attack helicopter in the area have seen the activity on their own data-link courtesy of the arsenal ship’s data-fusion and rebroadcasting abilities and heads to the area to clean up any stragglers.
Because the arsenal ship is likely parked high above where the fighting is happening, having it carry a BACN like system allows it to benefit everyone on their same side within hundreds of miles of it, and all the way down to the ground. Its a universal translator for the battlefield, and it gives everyone the same gods-eye picture of it in real time.
At first look, it would seem that an arsenal ship is all about air-to-ground capabilities, but really it is not. With a little imagination, one can see where such an aircraft could be extremely useful for our F-15C/D and F-22 fighter forces, not to mention the F-35 when it comes on line. Our fighters have the ability to detect and track aircraft at far greater ranges than they can actually engage them. Combining stealthy and non-stealthy fighter aircraft in a creative way can help with this, and so will the new AIM-120D AMRAAM which features expanded range, but still these improvements don’t come close to solving the problem.
Then there is the issue of not having enough missiles on each jet in the first place. The F-22 is limited to six AIM-120s, the F-35 will carry just four internally. This does not mean six kills or even four kills. Sometimes missile shots are used as defensive tactics and two can be fired at one target to enhance the probability of a kill. Today, F-22 pilots want more missiles, and surely F-35 pilots will be even more frustrated with their even more limited load-outs.
Boeing has begun to pitch a partial solution to this problem by greatly enhancing the F-15's missile carriage capability, potentially increasing it from eight to 16. But still, these are just more of the same missiles that already lack the range to take full advantage of the most modern aircraft’s sensors. Also, the F-15s will likely work farther back from the edges of combat than their F-22 counterparts, so even if an F-22 operating far out in front of an F-15C can see a target, the F-15C likely won’t be able to hit it from its position with an AIM-120 AMRAAM.
There is also work being done to create smaller air-to-air missiles that have medium to short range and are optimized for the confined internal bays of an F-22 or F-35. These missiles will have medium-range, although likely far less than an AIM-120D. They can accomplish this by getting rid of the warhead entirely, relying on literally hitting the enemy aircraft instead of a proximity explosion. These may allow a stealth fighter to more than double the missiles it carries, but it does the opposite of solving the long-range engagement problem.
There is also a major networking issue between legacy fighters and F-22s that the USAF is just now trying to solve with the TALON HATE pod that the F-15C will carry into combat. It will allow F-22's data-link information to be seen by F-15Cs along with some other ancillary functions. The pod itself is a huge canoe-shaped object attached to an F-15C/D. The Eagle is still a capable weapon system but it that cannot persist for many hours without needing to be refueled. This means that it has to leave the front lines to get fuel in order to stay in the fight, taking its much-needed TALON HATE pod with it.
By integrating an arsenal ship into America’s air-to-air combat doctrine, larger missiles with huge ranges, and many more missiles than what fighters can currently carry into battle, along with persistent data-fusion can be attained. Just a single B-1 arsenal ship could drastically increase the situational awareness and especially the magazine of a counter-air combat package.
Such an aircraft could operate to the rear of the front lines, with dense fighter screening ahead of it for protection, the same fighter force that it is supporting. By using its huge weapons bays, ultra long-range air-to-air missiles can be carried, with max ranges measured in the hundreds of miles. This way, when stealthy fighters run out of ammo they can still be used as scouts, targeting enemy aircraft well over a hundred miles from their position, and data-linking that information to the arsenal ship which will act like an artillery battery, lobbing missiles at the enemy while still in protected airspace. Such a strategy would put enemy aircraft at far greater risk over far greater distances than they are today and would make the very most of our limited assets, such as the F-22.
By adapting existing missiles, like the Navy’s new SM-6 which has both anti-aircraft and anti-ballistic missile capability, arsenal ships could also be used as forward deployed anti=ballistic missile launch platforms. The SM-6 has a range of around 150 miles now, but if it started its journey at 35,000 feet and close to the speed of sound its range would likely be drastically extended. Additionally, adapting missiles already in production would save loads of money and time in comparison to developing new long-range anti-air weaponry.
An arsenal ship could also sling air-launched decoys, which are becoming ever smarter, from standoff ranges towards enemy radar and SAM sites in support of fighter operations. This is especially relevant as potential enemies acquire radar systems that are capable of detecting stealth aircraft under certain circumstances. Stealth, combined with the capabilities that air-launched decoys that are also capable of jamming provides would give even the most well defended enemy a serious defensive challenge.
In the end, the arsenal ship is a concept that has been long overdue and it is fantastic to see the Pentagon move forward on making it a reality. Once again, we don’t know which existing aircraft will be tapped for this mission, but it is likely to be the B-1 as it does not have the B-52's nuclear mission. Additionally, a lower-end arsenal ship of sorts is emerging via new variants of the AC-130 gunship. As such, duplicating this capability and limiting it to a turboprop platform by using the C-130 makes little sense.
Many of these same capabilities will also probably appear on the upcoming Long Range Strike-Bomber, although it will likely focus more on being a network node and arsenal ship that can operate deep into contested airspace. In such a role it will also likely facilitate F-22 and F-35 operations, but it may also work as a mother ship for unmanned combat air vehicle operations.
With all this in mind, it makes sense that the USAF should bring some of these capabilities to the battlefield before the LRS-B comes on line in the next decade (hopefully). This will not only provide a nice high-low capability mix, but it could also lower some the LRS-B’s development risk.
Above all else, the arsenal ship concept underlines how a small number of properly placed and creatively developed assets can really enhance the capabilities of the total force to a large degree. Hopefully the USAF will see all that this concept can be, and develop it to a logical extent. In the mean time, it is likely one of America’s bombers is going to get new life breathed into it once again.
Photos via USAF, B-52 refueling via Northrop Grumman