Reducing Aircraft Procurement Cost
I just read an article about the Air Force and how they were complaining that the F-22 and C-17 Globemasters were so expensive. Critics say we can't afford these planes, especially the Raptor, and shouldn't buy any more. I disagree. The U.S. Army doesn't devote a great deal of time or money to air defense systems because it relies on the Air Force to obtain and maintain air superiority over Threat forces. If the Raptor procurement program is cancelled, the U.S. Army will have to start development projects to make up for the capability gap forced on the USAF. This means any money saved by canceling new Raptor purchases just gets reassigned to the U.S. Army, which means:
- There is no savings in the defense budget as a whole, and
- Danger to American soldiers and pilots is increased due to reduced capabilities
So it occurred to me that scaling up production to fill a variety of roles might help reduce the costs. Isn't that how Henry Ford made his money? By driving down costs and taking advantage of economies of scale? With that in mind, here's what I've come up with: Additional roles to be filled by either the F-22 or the C-17. That way we'll need to produce more of the airframes, and that will help drive down costs.
- F-22 Strike Raptor
- Filling the void left by the retirement of the F-15E Strike Eagle, the Strike Raptor will feature additional external hardpoints for carrying additional ground-attack weapons. (223 F-15E's in service, no replacement planned, but probably be the F-35 Lightning II.)
- RF-22 Recon Raptor
- Fills the tactical reconnaissance role not filled by the Predator UAV and its derivatives. Similar to the U-2 Dragon Lady, but uses speed in addition to altitude. Imaging pods are stored in weapons bays instead of missiles.
- EF-22 Spark Raptor
- Fills the same role as the now retired EF-111 Raven and EF-18 Growler and EA-6 Prowler in the Navy. Also serves as a tactical UAV controller, with the pilot controlling 2 to 4 UAV's on ground attack and air support missions. Can also serve in the anti-radiation role, detecting SAM radar centers and either firing on them or passing the location information to other members of the strike force.
- TF-22 Fledgling Raptor
- Two seat training aircraft.
The C-17 problem is a little easier to manage. Since the C-17 is designed to carry huge amounts of cargo (170,900 lbs. according to Wikipedia), and has a big cargo bay, it's pretty clear that the C-17 airframe is perfectly suited to some additional missions.
- AC-17 Thunderstorm
- Install all electronics from AC-130U (radar, warning systems, etc). If possible use electronic systems from F-22 and F-35 development as well (computers, radars, etc). Install four 30mm Bushmaster cannon and two 105mm M102 howitzers, OR two 25mm 5-barrel GAU-12 miniguns along with two 40mm Bofors guns and two 105mm M102 howitzers to give the Thunderstorm twice the armament of the AC-130.
- KC-17 Global Tanker
- Obviously provides midair refueling capability to Air Force, Navy, and Allied aircraft. Replaces the KC-10 Extender and KC-135 Stratotanker as needed.
- EC-17 Global Observer (AWACS/Command)
- Replaces E-3 Sentry, E-8 Joint STARS, EC-130E ABCCC, EC-130E Commando Solo, EC-130J Commando Solo II and EC-130H Compass Call aircraft. In addition, the EC-17 can function as a command post for UAV's, F-22's and F-35's engaging ground and airborne targets. The UAV controller role in particular is interesting because it would allow the EC-17 to engage the enemy from great distances without needing fighter support.
- These Globemasters will be modified to carry the Airborne Laser system currently in development. These craft will provide theater commanders with defense from ICBMs, either based in theater or launched from distant systems.
- BC-17 - Added August 14, 2008
- This variant is based on a 1996 paper by Bryan J. Benson titled "Transport-Bombers: A Conceptual Shift in Precision Guided Munitions Delivery" which explores the idea of using transport aircraft as bombers in detail.
- This isn't a dedicated bomber like a B-52. The best way to think of it is as an "flying MLRS", carrying large numbers of AGM-65 Maverick, AGM-114 Hellfire, AGM-86 ALCM, AGM-129 ALCM, Joint Air to Ground Missiles, AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapons and Tomahawk cruise missiles to support ground forces. To make this change possible, the BC-17 could be equipped with a variant of the Common Strategic Rotary Launcher (CSRL) system used in the B-52H bomber. This would require that the BC-17 be redesigned so that it had traditional bomb bay doors in the belly of the airframe.
- The second option is for the BC-17 to carry a lot of AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. Given that the BC-17 is such a large target and easy pickings for enemy fighters, the BC-17 would launch the AMRAAMs at distant aircraft from behind friendly lines. The remotely launched AMRAAMs would be guided into the enemy aircraft via command links from F-22 Raptor and F-35 fighters, P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, or command and control aircraft like the EC-17 (above), E-3 Sentry, and E-2 Hawkeye. This would allow the BC-17 to fill the role proposed by Boeing's B-1R "regional support" concept.
- There's a new version of the AIM-120 AMRAAM in development called the NCADE (Network Centric Airborne Defense Element) which would be good for this mission. This November 20, 2008 Defense Industry Daily article describes the possibility in more detail. Basically the NCADE is an air launched anti-ballistic missile that the Air Force can launch from any AIM-120 capable fighter as part of the Missile Defense Agency's plan for ICBM defense. However, the DID article goes into several other scenarios, one of which is the "flying MLRS" I mentioned earlier.
- Another BC-17 mission could be the launch of large numbers of ADM-160 MALD decoy missiles to saturate enemy air defenses. Deploying tens or scores of these decoy missiles prior to conflict could allow planners to isolate various air defense systems, allowing B-1 and B-2 bombers to destroy them in the initial attack. During the conflict itself, a BC-17 deploying the decoy missiles could easily simulate an airstrike by itself, diverting defenses away from actual airstrikes. Alternatively, the BC-17 with MALD's could deploy the missiles in the same airspace as the striking aircraft, providing more targets than enemy air defense can handle.
- Should Raytheon be able to develop the MALI cruise missile interceptor, derived from the ADM-160 MALD, the BC-17 could deploy them as part of the Missile Defense Agency's plan for national missile defense.
- Update: August 10, 2011
- I just found out that several engineers at Boeing had the same idea. This "Transformable Airplane" patent from 2006 shows the same idea. This idea is applied to a Blended Wing Body plan, but it could be re-used in a conventional airliner frame.
Multimission Bays in Cargo Aircraft
And what would be really cool is if the Air Force took the idea of the bomb bay one step further and created mission-specific modules that would fit into the C-17 cargo bay with minimal effort. Depending on the situation, the appropriate module is installed and the C-17 takes off into the wild blue yonder, ready to refuel, support ground troops, control fighters/UAVs, detect enemy aircraft, or destroy ballistic missiles.
This is similar to the idea the Navy uses in their Submarine of the Future document, where instead of having dedicated VLS tubes and torpedo tubes, the submarine has a generalized weapon bay that can hold any combination of missiles and torpedoes. (Same concept behind my Containerized Weapons Proposal for the U.S. Navy.)
Reduced engine types
While we're at it, how about replacing the engines on the C-5 Galaxy, C-17, B-1B Lancer, B-52 Stratofortress, and B-2 Spirit with the Raptor's F119 engine or the Lightning's F135 engine? Pratt & Whitney is so excited about them because they have 40% fewer parts compared to existing fighter engines, and with only one engine type across several airframes maintenance and procurement costs should decrease. Training costs for maintenance workers would drop too, since they only have to learn one engine instead of five.
Another benefit to this is the fact that the thrust vectoring features (probably disabled in the B-2), could allow the refitted planes to take off from shorter runways.
"Unstealthy" B-2 Spirit bombers
I wonder if there's any advantage to creating a B-2 Spirit bomber that doesn't have the stealth technology applied to it. Maybe put AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles in the launch bay on a rotary launcher and use F-22 Raptors to designate air-to-air targets. The B-2 bomber, even without RAM coating, is still a low-profile aircraft. Having one nearby to provide fire support would make fighter wings even more dangerous. Such a plane might also replace the B-1B Lancers in service today with airframes that are younger and less likely to need repairs. Plus the economy of scale thing kicks in again.
There's also the fact that the B-2 has a range of approximately 6400 miles without refueling. Add to that the fact that it can carry 50,000 pounds of cargo, and it sounds like a perfect long-range courier aircraft for high-priority, small volume cargo. Medicine and diplomatic documents are the two that spring immediately to mind, but I'm sure there are others.
Maybe NASA would like to use a modified B-2 for research into flying wings or the long-term effects of flight on the human body. Or perhaps Northrup-Grumman and Boeing could join forces to create a new commercial airframe based on the flying wing design. Boeing would benefit by having a more fuel efficient airframe derived from the flying wing, and Northrup-Grumman would be able to take advantage of Boeing's experience with aircraft networking systems and composite airframes. Assuming that the new design is economical, Boeing could market it to their traditional commercial customers, while Northrup-Grumman could market it to the U.S. military.
"Re-Stealthed" B-2 Spirit bombers
Sort of the inverse of the previous idea, one of the key criticisms of the B-2 Spirit is its need for a climate controlled hangar to preserve the radar absorbent materials that cover the airframe. The new materials pioneered in the F-22 Raptor program allow the Raptor's maintenance to take place on the flight line or in standard hangars. With this in mind, it might be a good idea to investigate the feasibility of rebuilding the exiting B-2 airframes out of the more robust materials. This would require some technology transfer between Lockheed-Martin and Northrop-Grumman but I'm sure that could be accommodated.
Thermal Signature Reduction
The Stirling Engine Signature Reduction System probably wouldn't work too well, but the Waste Heat Engine might be useful. Convert the heat from the hot jet exhaust into mechanical energy that is later used to turn a generator on the plane. This means that the exhaust would be cooler, and the plane has more electricity available.
747s in DOD Service
Currently many of the special purpose aircraft used by the Air Force and Navy are based on the Boeing 707 airframe. These aircraft have served the nation well, but they're getting pretty old, and should probably be replaced. By using 747 class airframes, the U.S. military could replace its current fleet of C-135 Stratolifters, KC-135 Stratotankers, RC-135, P-3 Orions, and E-3 Sentry aircraft with a single common airframe that is used around the world. This would have several benefits to the U.S., including reduced maintenance costs and a large network of existing airports that could use the 747s. Beyond these specialized roles, the there are the "standard" duties of the 747 airframes: Transporting cargo and people. Both of these are tasks that fit directly into the duties of the U.S. Transportation Command.
The Department of Defense looked at using 747's as supplements to the C-17 in 1994 and 1995. Congress decided not to fund the program in favor of acquiring more C-17s. Later, an Australian Airpower study listed several benefits to using the KC-33A (the military designation of the 747) to provide cargo, transport, and mid-air refueling capabilities to the Australian Defence Force. For some reason this project didn't pass the initial stage either. But I think it's a pretty good idea, and I've come up with my own twist.
In addition to the roles listed above, the 747's size allows for some additional modifications. The biggest one would be the repositioning of a cargo door on the right side of the aircraft, just aft of the nose and in front of the right inboard engine. This hatch would open and deploy a modified rotary launcher capable of firing AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. This modification allows the 747 to take direct action in case fighters are not available. Another possibility is for a forward deployed F-22 Raptor to call for "fire support" from the 747 via the Raptor's datalink capability. (If an artillery analogy would help, think of the Raptor as the forward observer, and the missile equipped 747 as the MLRS battery.)
Transport Aircraft Defense Systems
Transport aircraft are big, slow, easy targets. Destroying a C-17 or C-5 is a good way to stall any American military effort. In addition to the standard defense systems carried by cargo aircraft (chaff, flares, etc.) which operate in a passive mode, I think there's another possibility: Active defense.
The Navy has pioneered the perfect system for this application: The Phalanx CIWS, which puts a series of 20mm shells in the path of an incoming missile. Using the success of the Phalanx as a proof of concept, it should be possible to put a CIWS on a cargo aircraft.
There is a precedent for this. When it was introduced, the B-52 Stratofortress carried tail mounted .50 caliber machine guns to defend itself against fighters. These were removed in later B-52 variants as they had no utility against fighters. Since most missile attacks on transport aircraft are going to focus on the engines, and therefore an attack from the rear, putting a CIWS system in the tail to defend against such attacks makes sense.
In my opinion, using a round based on the Rheinmetall Defense AHEAD round would be a good solution. This round is designed to separate into 152 tungsten projectiles, destroying anything in its path. There are several existing rounds in various sizes that could be used as the basis for this project. In addition to the AHEAD round listed above, the Navy has developed the MK182 KE-ET 5" round (NDIA briefing, GS.o), while the Army has created the XM1040 105mm and XM1028 120mm canister tank cartridges.
Combining these canister rounds with their tungsten projectiles with a low caliber, high rate of fire automatic cannon, could provide the anti-missile defenses needed by cargo planes. The addition of smart targeting and automatic engagement systems, like those on the British Army's WAH-64 Apache, could easily destroy incoming warheads before the air crew even knew that a problem existed.
The biggest drawback to this idea that I can see is the weight and bulk of the system. A 20mm cannon is going to take up a big chunk of space. Another possible solution for this would be to base the system on the active protection systems used today on armored vehicles. The existing TROPHY system is basically a big shotgun, but the U.S. Army's Quick Kill system might do the job nicely.