Weaponized Airlifters Are Becoming Reality

 - May 31, 2020, 5:14 AM
The only picture to have been released to date of the palletized munitions trials shows a CEP pallet loaded with two simulated Cleaver weapons being rolled from the ramp of an MC-130J over the Dugway Proving Ground. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

For some time, the U.S. Air Force has been studying the use of cargo aircraft as platforms for the air-launching of large numbers of network-enabled, semi-autonomous standoff missiles. These so-called “arsenal planes” could complement traditional bombers and fighter-bombers in delivering a much heavier punch in a large-scale attack.

This “bomb bay in a box” concept is now being tested, the Air Force revealed in a May 27 press release. The release provided some details about a trial that was undertaken back on January 28 at the Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. During this test, simulated palletized munitions were dropped from a Lockheed Martin MC-130J Commando II from the 27th Special Operations Wing of the Air Force Special Operations Command, flying from Hill Air Force Base (AFB). A Beechcraft MC-12W Liberty aircraft from the 137th SOW/Oklahoma ANG operated from Salt Lake City as a camera-ship to record the trials.

During the test, the MC-130J dropped five loads in three airdrops. The form- and weight-representative munitions were mounted on Combat Expendable Platform (CEP) pallets that were rolled out of the rear ramp, including one pallet rigged with two simulated munitions. Drops were conducted across a range of altitudes. All CEPs separated cleanly from the aircraft, and the simulated munitions separated from the CEP. It is not exactly clear how the process works, but it appears to involve the munitions launching downwards from the CEP as the pallet hangs under a chute. 

Four of the six stores tested were of the Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicle with Extended Range (Cleaver) munition. Additional vehicles will be launched during Phase II tests, including more Cleaver gliders and powered vehicles. These tests will lead to trials of vehicles with terminal guidance systems and warheads. 

The Air Force subsequently revealed that the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) that is heading the project undertook five test flights during January and February, including at least one trial at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona that employed a Boeing C-17A of the Edwards AFB-based 412th Test Wing.

Cleaver began as a project in the AFRL’s Center for Rapid Innovation, which designed and built a prototype, but is now being led by the Laboratory’s Munitions Directorate at Eglin AFB in Florida. It is a long-range, high-precision weapon with the ability to hit moving and stationary targets. It is possible, though not confirmed, that it has pop-out wings to increase its range.

Following the tests, the AFRL’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office issued a Capability Request for Information on February 27 concerning “the concept of a ‘bomb bay in a box,’ where mobility aircraft air-drop multiple independent munitions from outside of a threat area to augment traditional delivery methods.” The request sought information on both existing and potential palletized munitions concepts that did not require any modifications to current airlifters. The deadline for submissions was initially set for April 14 but was subsequently extended until May 2.