After the Carter Administration's cancellation of the B-1A program due to fiscal concerns, the rise of air-launched cruise missiles and the possibility of developing a stealth bomber, Boeing put forward a low-risk, relatively cheap, cruise missile delivery vehicle alternative based on the mighty 747. It was called the Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft, or CMCA for short.
The idea was relatively simple, turn the premier long-range commercial hauler into an arsenal ship capable of carrying between 50 and 100 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). At the time the AGM-86 air-launched cruise missile was all the rage (it is still in service today) so the 747 CMCA concept was built with the 21ft winged missile in mind.
The configuration was fairly straight forward, the design was based on the 747-200C, a nose-loading cargo derivative of the ubiquitous airliner, with nine rotary launchers mounted on tracks inside of the stripped-out cabin. Each rotary launcher would hold eight missiles, and they could be slid back into a launching position at the rear right side of the aircraft via the help of an overhead handling system.
A bay door on the right side of the 747's tail cone would open and an ejector system would punch the missiles out into the air stream and send them on their way either one at a time, or in rapid succession.
In this configuration, a single 747 CMCA could launch 72 AGM-86 ALCMs on a single sortie, which is absolutely impressive considering a B-52 can carry up to 20. Satellite data links and other forms of communication could have allowed for the CMCA's missiles to be re-programmed from external sources while the aircraft was already in flight. The "hump" area behind the cockpit that is usually reserved for first class passengers on airline versions of the 747 had enough square footage that limited command and control and network relay functions could be added to the basic CMCA concept.
Seeing as the range of the AGM-86 is between 500 and 1500 miles, depending on version of missile and the weight and type of the warhead it carries, which can be up to 3,000lbs, the 747 CMCA could launch massive salvos of independently targeted cruise missiles at enemy targets while staying safely outside of the enemy's airspace and zone of control. Most importantly, it could do this in an economic fashion after traveling thousands of miles from its home base, and even the 747's already massive range could be extended with aerial refueling.
Boeing saw the 747 design as has having a decent chance of success with the USAF for the CMCA mission seeing as the service was already purchasing the E-4 "Nightwatch" airborne command posts, which were based on the same airframe.
In the end, the 747 CMCA was passed over, with the B-1 being revived by the Reagan Administration as well as the B-2 being procured semi-clandestinely under what would become the Advanced Tactical Bomber program. The B-52 fleet also received some capability upgrades as well. The iconic bomber was already considered geriatric some 35 years ago, yet it would remain as America's primary air-launched cruise missile delivery platform for another three decades, with no end in sight.
In retrospect it would seem that choosing not to develop the CMCA was a poor move. Such an aircraft, especially if it were eventually upgraded to carry smaller GPS guided munitions, would have been an extremely effective weapon system to have orbiting high over Afghanistan and Iraq.
When it comes to the loitering weapons platform mission, the CMCAs could have operated at much lower cost than the B-1 or B-52 force during both those wars. Additionally, the arsenal ship concept was really ahead of its time when the CMCA was put forward, as smart munitions, especially those guided by GPS, were some twenty years from being fielded operationally.
Additional proof as to the 747 CMCA's great potential can be seen in a similar and highly successful cruise missile carrying arsenal ship concept of recent times, albeit one that is at home far beneath the ocean's surface instead of high up above it. This being the conversion of America's oldest Ohio Class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) into nuclear guided missile submarines (SSGNs).
Turning the world's most deadly weapon of all time into BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile slinging arsenal ship was a fairly unconventional move for the US Navy, but one that has proved to be a huge success. Instead of simply retiring the first four Ohio Class ballistic missile subs, which were capable of firing 24 Trident SLBMs, the Navy reworked them to carry 154 Tomahawks and as a many as 66 US Navy SEALs and their equipment.
What was once the ultimate in Cold War era mutually assured destruction (MAD) capability became a conventional weapon of modern times. The SSGNs offering a "war in a box" to be deployed undetected off of any coastline for over a month at a time, all the while being able to strike strategic targets close to 1,000 miles inland, not to mention making an enemy's shores and ports vulnerable to Frogmen raids and surveillance missions.
The SSGN concept was proven highly effective in Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn, which would eventually lead to Qaddafi's fall from power. During the multi-national effort the USS Florida launched a whopping 93 Tomahawks, 45% of the total for the campaign, and had a success rate of 90 out of 93 targets totally destroyed.
Like the Ohio Class SSGN that has just found its stride in the modern era of smaller wars, countries with questionable intentions, and the 'pivot' towards the Pacific Theater, the 747 CMCA could offer an incredibly relevant long-range strike capability today. Being able to load a 747 with close to 100 air launched cruise missiles, that can be fired off 1,000 miles off the coast of an enemy country, namely China, would offer a very survivable and credible threat without the extremely high costs of developing or even operating a purpose-built military bomber. Nor could any military bomber from the past or on the design table for the future hold nearly as many ALCMs as Boeing 747 CMCA concept.
For every CMCA based on the 747-200C, you would need 4 B-52s to hit the same amount of targets. Seeing as the 747 is widely used for commercial operations, is equipped with fuel-efficient high-bypass turbofan engines, has ongoing product support and a solid global logistics train, the cost and reliability difference of operating it compared to four B-52s would be monumental. If a new CMCA were developed based on the larger and more efficient 747-800F, the B-52 would look even less attractive as the CMCA could carry even more missiles, farther and for less money per mile.
In the maritime strike role an aircraft like the 747 CMCA could wreak havoc on enemy flotillas operating thousands of miles out to sea. Using an external targeting source, namely the MQ-4C TritonBroad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) version of the Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, and satellites, the CMCA could ripple close to a hundred network-enabled, long-range anti-ship cruise missiles at the enemy force. In doing so it would provide so many targets that the enemy's naval air defenses would be overwhelmed.
With Lockheed's new stealthy LRASM, which will be smaller than the AGM-86, a single CMCA could potentially launch well over 100, and more like 150, of these smart anti-ship missiles on a single mission. With LRASM's low radar and infrared signature, and its ability to actively avoid detection, or even kill an offending radar emitter when working in conjunction with other LRASMs, as well as the shear quantity that the CMCA could theoretically unleash, it would be doubtful that a enemy carrier group could survive such an onslaught.
Once the enemy's metaphorical door is kicked down, and air superiority is largely gained, the CMCA can go to work providing close air support for multiple operations separated by as many as 100 miles. Acting once again as an arsenal ship, just not a cruise missile carrying one, the CMCA can have various munitions loaded into its belly, including ones that can glide over 50 miles from their launch point.
In such a configuration, the CMCA's rotary racks could contain 500lb, 1,000lb, and 2,000lb JDAMs, while another rack holds dozens of Small Diameter Bombs, and yet another could hold low yield AGM-176 Griffin missiles. Even larger glide weapons, such as the Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW), could also be carried and rapidly targeted to hit large targets dozens of miles away and a small lot of JASSM or SLAM-ER cruise missiles could be carried for contingency time-sensitive strike on regional targets.
With the addition of an off the shelf targeting pod, such as the Sniper XR, the CMCA, like its B-52 and B-1 cousins, could also deliver laser guided munitions, generate targeting coordinates for its JDAMs, and provide electro-optical surveillance for ground forces far below.
Seeing as the 747 based CMCA would not be carrying anywhere near the weight that it would with a full load of large air launched cruise missiles, extra fuel can be carried so that the CMCA can provide armed assistance from on high for potentially dozens of hours at a time, all with commercial airliner economy and reliability.
The massive internal capacity of the CMCA would allow for other missions to be done concurrently with the arsenal ship role, including command and control, communications relay, line-of-sight UAV control, or even more elaborate intelligence gathering tasks. Because the 747 can be equipped with a front-loading tilt-up nose, entire containers that could contain full mission suites could be loaded onto the CMCA in addition to weaponry for true multi-role capability. In other words, the CMCA's potential is just not one of a standoff missile launcher, but also as a close air support arsenal ship and multi-role roll-on/roll-off mission module carrier.
Although the original 747 CMCA was never built, in many ways it was a highly logical and commercially available option that was far ahead of its time, as without other types of guided munitions it was really a niche capability. Today, with so many types of smart weapons available, both that are fired at standoff and at close ranges, the CMCA could prove its value in many different missions, and when it was not hauling bombs or cruise missiles it could haul pallets of freight or the aforementioned missionized containers.
Today, even the USAF's AC-130 gunships, which traditionally bristle with direct-fire cannons, are becoming indirect-fire bombers in their own right, and the Navy's new P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft has a latent but very potent bomber and standoff attack capability as well. Yet none of these aircraft possess the volume of fire or incredible heavy weapons hauling capability of a 747 based arsenal ship.
With the way budgets are collapsing in on weapons programs, and with the USAF's questionably optimistic cost and inventory goals for their next generation stealth bomber, now known as the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), maybe Boeing would be smart to have 747 CMCA reemerge to fill in the inventory gap that may be left by another stealth bomber that is too expensive to buy in the numbers requested by the USAF (just read anything about how B-2 become known as the "two billion dollar bomber!). Although, don't expect this to happen unless Boeing (partnered with Lockheed) loses the LRS-B competition to Northrop Grumman.
Come to think of it, I know of an incredibly low hour 747 freighter that the USAF already blew billions on for a way more risky and less technological relevant or logical program than the CMSA concept, that being the Airborne Laser Program, the result of which was the still-born YAL-1.
Currently that YAL-1 is being used as an umbrella for rattle snakes at the DoD's mega boneyard, known as AMARG, located next to Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson, AZ. Maybe putting it to use as an arsenal ship testbed would be better than letting it rot out there, but like all things military these days the question is "where will the money come from?" Well it will materialize rapidly if that next generation bomber currently in development ends up costing a billion dollars per copy even before its production numbers get slashed and it enters a DoD "death spiral."
Although it is by no means stealthy, who would doubt that in this modern era where stealth technology's tactical edge is eroding, and with the challenges of area denial and anti-access warfare looming in the Pacific, that a 747 CMCA would not be an incredibly powerful and relevant weapon system to possess. When a 747-800 based CMCA packing close to 100 long-range stealthy cruise missiles flies all the way across the Pacific Ocean without the need of tanker gas, and devastates 100 strategic enemy targets in a single volley with minimal risk to its operators lives, stealth really doesn't even matter at all does it?
Wait, why again isn't the USAF knocking on Boeing's door for this thing like yesterday?
Pictures via USAF, Boeing, public domain.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com.