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How America's New Invisible Flying Gas Stations Could Keep Russia in Check

By discussing previously classified programs, the Pentagon is letting Russia and China know that the US will continue to hold its own in air combat.

by Ryan Faith
Feb 5 2016, 2:54pm

Un bombardier B-52H teste un missile longue-portée au dessus de l'Utah. (Photo par Roidan Carlson/USAF)

Ashton Carter, the US secretary of defense, is currently on a promo tour for the Pentagon's 2017 budget — and as he's been attempting to sell the proposed $582.7 billion in funding, he has been spilling the beans about a number of previously classified weapons and technology programs.

Two newly revealed air-combat systems are of particular note, because in some respects, they are conceptual opposites. Yet when taken together, they hint at some very interesting changes in the way the US is planning for future fights in the air.

The first program is the arsenal plane, which Carter unveiled in his Tuesday morning rollout speech. The second program revolves around an almost-but-not-completely confirmed decision to make stealthy drone air tankers that will refuel aircraft.

Related: US Defense Secretary Ash Carter Makes $600 Billion Bet on New Defense Budget

The arsenal plane is a large and old aircraft like a B-52 or B-1B bomber packed to the gills with communications gear and long-range missiles — from long-range air-to-air missiles to cruise missiles for ground targets. The aircraft flies around far outside the range of enemy air defenses and aircraft, launching missile after missile at targets hundreds or thousands of miles away.

This idea was first proposed in the 1970s as a way to put warheads on foreheads without spending a whole mess of money on expensive bombers. And the idea is kind of novel; it separates the ability to reach out and touch someone from the necessity of buying an expensive aircraft made to survive intense enemy opposition. In the case of the currently proposed arsenal plane, the strong implication is that US pilots will be flying stealthy F-35 aircraft in hostile territory, identifying targets of opportunity. Once spotters identify targets, they relay that information back to the arsenal planes a few hundred miles away.

The arsenal planes then launch some of those long-range missiles.

The other program that's been moved into the spotlight in recent days is a stealthy, aerial refueling tanker drone. Why a stealthy tanker drone instead of a stealthy kill-everything drone? The tanker is basically a stepping stone. The Navy has been spending a lot of time, money, and effort on developing long-range stealthy strike drones to hit distant, heavily defended targets. But the program, known as Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (or UCLASS), is still a fairly long way from being deployed in the field.

Related: Drones, Electromagnetic Catapults, and What the US Navy Isn't Saying About Its Newest Ship

By first focusing on refueling tanker drones — to be called called Carrier Based Aerial Refueling System (CBARS) and expected to be confirmed by Carter soon — operators and designers will get valuable hands-on experience maintaining and flying the aircraft before the Navy adds a ton of weapons, electronics, and other hardware to bring the UCLASS program the rest of the way to completion.

But the risk reduction element here is only half the story. The other half involves bringing air combat support functions like aerial refueling out of relative safety far away from hostile aircraft and missiles and into combat zones. (Combat aircraft can provide limited refueling capability to other combat aircraft in hostile airspace in a process known as "buddy tanking," but it's less than ideal.) Doing that will allow stealthy aircraft like F-35s to spend more time milling about in enemy airspace before they have to go home. The stealthy tankers are also expected to function as highly secure communications relays, sending targeting data from all those stealthy aircraft doing reconnaissance back to things like arsenal planes.

So the arsenal plane moves combat activities (like shooting at people) out of harm's way into relative safety, while the stealthy tanker drone takes non-combat support activities (like refueling aircraft) and migrates those far into hostile airspace.

They're radically different programs, but they complement each other.

Watch VICE founder Shane Smith interview Ashton Carter.

Warfare boils down to concentrating and dispersing forces. If you can effectively bring a lot of offensive forces together quickly and concentrate them, you can blow through whatever defense the opponent throws up. On defense, however, it's dispersion that's key. Spreading out means bad guys coming to break your stuff have a harder time finding that stuff, and it leaves fewer things at risk if the bad guys do manage to track you down.

The two Pentagon programs concentrates offense (all those arsenal planes can let loose with their missiles on a small set of hapless defenses) and disperses for defense (aircraft are now all over, not just concentrated near targets in combat zones). 

Related: US Defense Secretary Announces Navy Can Blow Up Anything It Wants, Any Time It Wants

This is all a natural consequence of two technologies that have dominated air warfare for a couple decades now: stealth and long-range precision strike. The old way of hitting a target required dozens and dozens of aircraft with many different roles to carry out a complex plan to get bombs on targets. Stealth, however, allows aircraft to fly deep into hostile airspace, creep around, and put the hurt on someone. The catch is that stealth is a great, big, expensive pain in the ass.

Long-range precision strike allows you to hit targets far, far away, so you don't need to put dozens and dozens of planes over the target to drop just a few bombs. But those kind of long-range precision munitions are expensive — and running all the reconnaissance and bomb-damage assessment to see what needs to be hit and what needs to be hit twice can also be a big pain in the ass.

Any country that can do both stealth and long-range precision strike can hit far-away bad guys, often before they even know they're in trouble. That's great if you can do unto others, but it's a lot less cool when they can do it unto you, because that means previously safe spaces, far away from the fight, are no longer secure.

A look at what Russia has in development would seem to indicate they're trying their best to be able to do both stealth and long-range precision strike, so the Pentagon is well aware that its decades-long dominance in air combat and monopoly over stealth and long-range strike is no longer something that can be taken for granted. That's at least in part why Carter is discussing all these programs in public — to let Russia (and China) know that the US hasn't spent so long mired in Iraq and Afghanistan that they've forgotten how to fight a high-tech opponent.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via DVIDS