For all the strengths boasted by America’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and F-22 Raptors, these stealthy fifth generation platforms still suffer from one significant drawback during combat operations: their relatively low magazine capacity. In order to maintain their stealthy profile, these fighters have to carry their ordnance internally, limiting the firepower they can bring into the fight to four missiles, in the case of the F-35 (currently), and eight missiles (for air intercept missions) in the F-22. As compared to un-stealthy but capable fourth generation platforms that can carry their weapons externally (like the F-15EX with 15 air-to-ground hard points), this limitation really reduces the overall effectiveness of fifth generations platforms in the fight.
Currently, F-35 pilots are already training to use their jet’s advanced data streamlining abilities to serve as a sort of “quarterback in the sky,” keeping track of the battlespace and relaying essential information to heavily armed fourth generation fighters in the area. The F-35s themselves tend to reserve their limited weapons payloads for high-threat targets, like advanced fourth generation fighters that could pose a risk to the F-35’s wingmen in the area. Now, the Air Force is looking to take this target-relaying capability and turn it up to 11, adding “arsenal planes” to the mix that would serve as a flying magazine of sorts, launching long-range missiles on behalf of F-35s and F-22s that will be flying closer to the action.
The “arsenal plane” concept “takes one of our oldest aircraft platform[s] and turns it into a flying launchpad for all sorts of different conventional payloads,” then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in 2016. “In practice, the arsenal plane will function as a very large airborne magazine, [and] network to fifth-generation aircraft that act as forward sensor and targeting nodes.”
The forward fighting F-35s or F-22s would use their advanced sensors to identify targets, then relay that target information to a large platform flying at standoff distance and armed with a large number of “network-enabled, semi-autonomous weapons.” An F-35 pilot would lock onto an enemy aircraft or ground target, then relay the fire command to the arsenal plane that would launch the weapon, giving the F-35 an effective huge increase of weapons at its disposal. Of course, as simple as the plan sounds, it’s going to be a bit more complicated to put into practice. Choosing which aircraft to use as a fifth-generation arsenal plane is an essential step in the process, as just about any platform will require extensive modifications to support, in particular, air-to-air engagements.
Technically speaking, any heavy payload bomber could step in and serve as a ground-engagement arsenal plane, deploying smart weapons from its existing bay doors; but serving as an arsenal plane for air-to-air engagements would require a large number of external missile hardpoints. While aircraft like the B-52 Stratofortress or the supersonic capable B-1B Lancer would be able to carry plenty of weight, their lack of existing pylons would create the need for pricey modifications.
Payload capacity isn’t the only issue that would require consideration: real world logistics will also come into play as the Air Force chooses a platform to serve as its missile-magazine. The B-1B Lancer may fly like a fighter, but it’s also increasingly expensive to maintain, which will lead to its expected retirement in the late 2020s. The B-52H may still serve as the backbone of America’s nuclear triad, but the hulking structure may not be effective in contested airspace. The C-17 Globemaster has the payload capacity to do the job, but is so essential to troop movements, in the early stages of a conflict, that it’s unlikely that Uncle Sam would want to redirect some of them to strike missions. But any of these aircraft (or others) could feasibly do the job.
The challenge, therefore, that the Air Force now faces is choosing an effective platform while keeping lifespan and modification budgeting in mind.