Killer Mini-Drones, Radar-Jamming Cargo Planes and Secret Bomber Deployments
Some intriguing details in Pentagon’s latest air-power projection
Every spring the Pentagon proposes a budget and, over following months, Congress hashes what it actually wants to pay for. A flurry of paperwork accompanies the negotiations, including the military’s annual projection of its aerial arsenal for the next 10 years.
This year’s air-power projection includes a few surprises.
For starters, the Air Force has vague plans to buy new radar-jamming planes, according to the document. “This year’s aviation plan reflects some EC-130 Compass Call recapitalization investment outside the FYDP.”
“FYDP” stands for Future Years Defense Program—the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan.
The Compass Call is a heavily-modified C-130H cargo plane fitted with powerful transmitters for scrambling and infiltrating enemy communications and radars. The Air Force has 14 EC-130s at a base in Arizona. They’ve been among the busiest aircraft in the whole Defense Department, deploying nearly constantly to ply their specialized trade in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The flying branch has been upgrading some, but not all, of the Compass Calls with improved “electronic attack” gear that can shut down, confuse or even hijack enemy systems. In its current budget proposal, the Air Force asked to retire half the EC-130s by 2016, citing the four-engine prop-driven planes’ relative vulnerability to modern air defenses.
But the aforementioned “recapitalization investment” sometime after 2019 could add back jammer planes—presumably newer and better ones. Lately the Air Force has been replacing many of its C-130H models with faster, more modern C-130Js. If that trend holds, the new Compass Calls could also be J-models.
Tiny killer drones
For aerial scouting missions through the 2020s, the Marine Corps will use RQ-21 catapult-launched drones—potentially up to 500 of them. The camera-equipped RQ-21 is a development of the basic Scan Eagle Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that the Marines, Navy and Air Force have flown for years.
What’s surprising is that the RQ-21 will also have a “limited strike capability,” according to the air-power projection. The predecessor Scan Eagle is unarmed.
The document doesn’t specify exactly how the Marines will weaponize the twin-boom RQ-21s. The Corps recently added Viper Strike guided bombs to its older Hunter drones. Marine KC-130J tankers sometimes also carry Viper Strikes to hit lightly-defended targets.
But the 40-pound Viper Strike is surely much too heavy for the 135-pound RQ-21. In a 2013 planning document, the Pentagon stated its intention to begin arming more of its drones with smaller and smaller munitions. The RQ-21 could be first in line for these new weapons.
Nothing to see here
The Air Force is working on a new stealth bomber to begin replacing its current force of 158 B-1s, B-2s and B-52s. The Long-Range Strike Bomber is actually just one part of a “family of systems” that could also include a radar-evading spy drone that spots targets for the manned bomber.
The flying branch has cloaked LRS-B development in near-total secrecy, declining to specify its performance specs, the deadline for choosing a main contractor and the exact schedule for rolling out the new warplanes in the “mid-2020s,” according to the new air-power projection.
Just one firm detail is public—cost. The Air Force wants up to 100 new bombers for just $550 million apiece.
But the planning document offers some hints as to the precise deployment time-frame. The plan anticipates a steady inventory of 158 B-1s, B-2s and B-52 until 2022, when three of the older bombers will retire. Another three leave service in 2023—and five in 2024.
The implication is new LRS-Bs will replace the retiring planes. In other words, the Pentagon could acquire the new bombers at an initial rate of three to five per year.