The Air Force’s Goal: Turn Cargo Planes into Makeshift Bombers

  • The Air Force is proposing turning unarmed military cargo jets into temporary bombers.
  • Cargo jets, with their large internal volume, could launch missiles from safe distances, far away from enemy forces.
  • The Air Force has already successfully tested dropping simulated munitions from the back of airplanes.

The U.S. Air Force is looking at arming otherwise unarmed cargo planes, pressing them into service as makeshift bombers. The service believes future wars with adversaries like Russia or China will require plenty of aerial firepower and transport planes, loaded with pallets of cruise missiles, could provide an inexpensive solution.

The unarmed aircraft typically shuttle troops and equipment, but in a pinch, would be equipped with “smart pallets” carrying long-range cruise missiles and other munitions.

The pallets would be capable of feeding position, navigation, and targeting data to their onboard missiles. Once dropped from the rear of the aircraft, the pallets would quickly release their missile cargoes, sending them downrange to their targets. The larger the aircraft, the more missiles it could carry.

The missile truck concept pairs aircraft with large cargo boxes, of which the U.S. military has hundreds, with advanced missiles like the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM). The latest version of JASSM, JASSM-XR, will have a range of 1,000 nautical miles—far enough for slow, lumbering, non-stealthy transports like the C-17 to launch dozens of missiles at enemy targets while staying out of missile and interceptor range.

Once a mission is over, the aircraft could be loaded with more smart pallets or go back to its traditional cargo carrier role.

The Air Force has been converting cargo planes into armed warbirds since the Vietnam War, when it added banks of Gatling guns to C-47 and C-130 transports. These gunships proved effective in providing close air support firepower and hunting Viet Cong forces traveling along the Ho Chi Minh trail.