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Air Force Turns Cargo Planes into Weaponized War Aircraft

High-speed, precise Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles will fire from C-17 cargo planes

High-speed, precise Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles will fire from C-17 cargo planes on a supply transport mission, swarms of explosive mini-drones will dispatch from C-130s to blanket areas with surveillance or even overwhelm enemy targets with multiple attack nodes and Palletized air dropped glide bomb weapons will be dropped from large C-5 Galaxy aircraft.

The Air Force is redefining the boundaries of traditional combat by further weaponizing its fleet of cargo planes with bombs, guns, missiles and an ability to launch attack drones, expanding the mission scope of utility and cargo planes typically restricted to logistical missions such as troop transport and supply delivery.

“We are employing traditional weapons systems in non-traditional ways in terms of what we can turn mobility planes into. Why wouldn’t we think out of the box and move away from antiquated concepts to become more of a maneuver force,” Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, Commander, Air Mobility Command, told The Mitchell Institute in an interesting video interview.

When faced with the question that weaponizing cargo planes could make them more likely to be subjected to enemy attacks, Van Ovost said “they are already targets. Enemies will go after the tankers and the airlifters because they are the supply line.”

Building upon the well known DARPA Gremlins program in which C-130s have been able to launch and recover drones from the air, Van Ovost explained that indeed Cargo planes could take on these kinds of missions which would include a dual advantage of survivable stand-off launch distance for manned cargo planes as well as stand in attack drones able to close in upon heavily defended areas for attack.

“We could get attritables that could be catapulted from and returned two a C-17 flying outside the kinetic threat range. Instead of a ground launch, how about an air launch?” Van Ovost said.

Something like this could make a lot of sense if, as Van Ovost explained, a large, less-stealthy and more vulnerable C-17 could operate “outside the kinetic range,” yet launch targeted air attacks from stand-off distances by launching and operating drones as a airborne command and control node in the sky.

The Air Force has already for quite some time been experimenting with dropping palletized bombs out of C-130s, yet Van Ovost Van Ovost mentioned what sounded like an enterprising and as of yet unprecedented idea. Why not attack ground targets with air-to-ground missiles from a Cargo plane.

“We look at the SOCOM (Special Operations) model and ask ourselves how you could do that with C-17s? … and eject JASSMs out of the back. Instead of just dropping them off, we could drop them into the sky and somebody lights them off and sends them to target,” Van Ovost said.

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As platforms that deliver food, water, ammunition, forces and weapons into high-risk forward warfare locations, U.S. Air Force tankers and cargo planes are certainly built to operate in war. Propeller-driven C-130s, for example, are built to airdrop vital supplies in hostile, austere environments where standard engine-propelled aircraft might not be able to operate. They have flares and other countermeasures to thwart ground-to-air missile attacks and regularly land in well-defended forward runway areas with a secure perimeter….but what about transitioning them more fully into armed warplanes capable of dropping bombs, controlling attack drones or even firing missiles in flight?

A smart idea, says Air Mobility Command Command. Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, who says that transport and utility aircraft need to continuously be adapted to operate in a massive, great-power, technologically advanced war. All planes, it could be argued, need to ensure they are armed warplanes built with sensors, EW weapons, countermeasures and offensive weapons. In an interesting discussion with The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Van Ovost explained that Air Mobility Command continues to explore new innovative tactical methods through which cargo and utility aircraft can support a joint, multi-domain fight.

“We have to change the way we think about what we do. We are shifting our focus to the high-end fight. It is not enough to just bring mobility capacity but we also want to bring more to the joint force. We want to be ready and relevant for the future. We need time and capacity to experiment and think outside of the box,” Van Ovost said.

For instance, Van Ovost talked about arming cargo planes with air-to-ground weapons, launching attack drones or dropping bombs from C-130s or even using a C-17 aircraft as a forward command and control “node to do crunching of data.”

“We showed that a C-17 with a set of antennas could do that work. We have the size, weight and power. A pod on an airplane will do C2 to process data and make that available,” she explained.

This thinking expands beyond a C-17, according to Van Ovost, who said even KC-46 tankers could perform critical airborne command and control operations functioning as a key data-organizing and sharing “node” in the sky able to instantly connect with F-35s, F-22s and Valkyrie drones. She developed this thinking even further, suggesting that KC-46 tankers could integrate with a network and itself “become the network forward.” It could be a forward node for beyond-line-of-sight connectivity with ground control stations and other vital assets such as airborne 5th and 6th-generation aircraft and drones.

“F-35s can also feed raw threat data into a KC 46 which processes that information and sends it to a place where Airmen can begin to develop countermeasures,” Van Ovost said.

Van Ovost envisions a future Air Mobility Command as a multi-functional, multi-domain and weaponized warfare entity that is “more connected and more interoperable to provide that resiliency, present credible capacity and execute at pace and scale necessary to win the future fight.”

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.