US Air Force's biggest planes need to do more than carry things in the next war, air-mobility general says

  • The US military believes a war with Russia or China will require its current platforms do more.
  • For Air Mobility Command, that means cargo planes and tankers can’t just be carting fuel and supplies.
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The prospect of war with a powerful adversary means the Air Force’s cargo and tanker planes need to be able to do more than move supplies and fuel, according to Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, head of Air Mobility Command.

“Look at the competition that we’re in right now. Why wouldn’t we change the calculus by doing different things, moving away from the antiquated view that [Air Mobility Command] just brings stuff … and [stays] outside the threat ring to be a maneuver force to support inside the threat ring, because that’s really where we’re going,” Van Ovost said at Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event on March 31.

Mobility aircraft, particularly tankers, will be “forward in the fight,” Van Ovost added, making them well suited to be primary or backup “nodes” to process and relay information to other aircraft and outposts.

A KC-46.Reuters

“Our last experiment had a C-17 as the forward node to do crunching of data,” Van Ovost said. “It was on the ground, but we showed that a C-17 with a current setup of antennas could do that work, so why wouldn’t we put that on all the airplanes?”

The new KC-46 tanker, which is still struggling with other aspects of its mission, will be the first to get a new pod developed as part of the Advanced Battle Management System, the Air Force’s contribution to a broader Pentagon effort to digitally connect military forces.

“That’s a pod on the airplane” that can provide command and control, translating information between aircraft and processing data, and it could in the future be hooked up to other aircraft, such as the KC-135 tanker, Van Ovost added.

“I absolutely believe that all the platforms need to be connected to provide the resilient and interoperable pathways not just for Air Mobility but to be able to allow F-35s and F-22s to talk, to be able to talk to the Valkyrie, and to have resilient forward nodes that can process data and send out orders,” Van Ovost said.

Preparing for ‘the next fight’

A C-17 drops palletized munitions (simulated JASSMs) during Advanced Battle Management Onramp #2 testing.US Air Force

The cargo fleet will likely also be carrying weapons for strikes and self-defense, Van Ovost said.

“For us right now, we look at the [Special Operations Command] model that they’re doing with the C-130s, and we think to ourselves, ‘How can you do that with C-17s? What if you had a platform that could eject JASSMs out of the back of the airplane?'” Van Ovost said, referring to the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile.

Air Force Special Operations Command tested so-called palletized munitions in early 2021. In a separate test in September, a C-17 dropped a pallet of simulated JASSMs. The Air Force and private industry are continuing to develop the concept.

“The name of the game is to, at lower costs, provide mass on target,” Van Ovost said. “Frankly, palletized munitions, that’s quite the load if you can eject that out of the back of the airplane and get those things flying.”

A KC-46A refuels a C-17 Globemaster.US Air Force

Dropping bombs out of cargo plane, which other crews then guide to targets, would be faster than unloading weapons “on a ramp somewhere” to be reloaded onto bombers, Van Ovost said, adding that in a future experiment, Air Mobility Command will test its ability to command and control such munitions after dropping them.

Being forward also means closer to the enemy, and Air Mobility Command has been “looking at high-value aircraft self-defense in all kinds of different ways,” Van Ovost said.

The pod deployed aboard tankers and airlifters could be reconfigured to provide “defensive capabilities,” Van Ovost said. Those planes could also carry “attritable” systems — reusable but also expendable — for the same purpose.

Central to all of that is “battlespace awareness,” of which most of the mobility fleet has “zero” right now, Van Ovost said, adding that putting aircraft on the same network would give them a common picture of incoming threats.

“So now I may not need fighters immediately by our aircraft. Perhaps they can intercept it forward of the aircraft or … we can have defensive counter-air attritables that are either on the wings that could launch out and do a headshot or simply electronic warfare in those pods so … we can deflect the missile.”

A US Air Force KC-135 refuels a B-52 over the Middle East, December 30, 2020.Senior Airman Roslyn Ward

Van Ovost cited the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “Gremlins” as an example of an “attritable” that could be launched from a C-17 or C-5 against aerial threats and then be recaptured and rearmed.

Other traditional defenses are also an option. “We have hardpoints on the C-17. We have hardpoints on the KC-46 — not a hard stretch to think that we could put one or two missiles on there for self-defense,” Van Ovost said.

Talk of new roles for the airlift fleet has prompted questions about whether there are enough of those planes to do those tasks and conduct standard mobility operations, but “the next fight” likely won’t have “an iron build up” at a major bases or drawn-out attrition warfare, Van Ovost said.

“The next fight is going to be just-in-time, and I think the intensity is going to be much shorter,” Van Ovost added. “So we really have to think about how we’re going to use the airplanes in the future and what warfare is going to look like.”

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