Last week the Air Force announced it had successfully test-dropped a new type of munition called CLEAVER from one of its special operations MC-130J Commando II aircraft. In one sense this is just the latest in a long history of releasing weapons from transport planes, but in another it is a milestone towards a very different type of air strike.
Test launch of two CLEAVER munitions from an MC-130 aircraft
US Air Force
The Commando II is a heavily modified version of the four-engined C-130 Hercules transport, which proved itself a surprisingly effective bomber during the Vietnam War. The new role came out of Project Commando Vault, a U.S. Army effort to create landing sites for helicopters in dense jungle using explosives. No existing bomb was powerful enough, and this led to the development of the mammoth BLU-82, a 15,000-pound monster delivered by parachute. Too big for bombers, the BLU-82 was dropped by C-130s. Rather than the standard TNT, the BLU-82 was loaded with a high-energy gelled slurry explosive of ammonium nitrate and powdered aluminum. The blast created a landing area which would otherwise take weeks to clear.
BLU-82 test detonation Utah in 2008
US Air Force
Popular myth says that BLU-82s were just rolled out of the back by the loadmasters, the it was really more complex. The bomb was secured to a wooden pallet with webbing and rigged with ‘knives’ which automatically separated the bomb from the pallet as it slid down the loading ramp.
The BLU-82 was so successful, and the blast so awe-inspiring, their use was extended to psychological warfare – it created a mushroom cloud visible for miles – and combat. One bomb dropped near Xuan Loc reportedly killed more than 250 enemy troops.
The BLU-82 was brought back for the 1991 Gulf War, being dropped from MC-130 aircraft mainly for psychological effect. It was later replaced by the even bigger 21,600-pound GBU-43B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb (MOAB, a.k.a. “Mother Of All Bombs”) used in Afghanistan. While MOAB has GPS guidance, experience in Vietnam showed that the C-130s could drop bombs to within 200 feet of the target.
The test of the new CLEAVER munition is not just about dropping heavy ordnance on lightly-defended targets. The name is short for Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range (CLEAVERs), and while the launch technique is similar, down to the same wooden pallets sliding down ramps, as the name indicates this is a different sort of beast. As an ‘Air Vehicle’ with ‘Extended Range,’ CLEAVER is more akin to a cruise missile than a bomb. The Air Force has stated that not only will it have gliding wings, like those that give the JDAM ER glide bomb a range of over 45 miles, it will also be powered. Range is anyone’s guess.
The idea then is that transport aircraft standing off well outside the range of air defenses will be able to launch large numbers of cruise missiles to hit enemy targets. Again, not a new concept. Back in the 1970s there were arguments about canceling the troubled B-1 bomber or developing alternatives based on cruise missiles. The argument went that new cruise missiles with a range of a thousand miles or more meant that the launch aircraft could be a cargo carrier. Why settle for a B-52 with just 20 missiles when you could get something bigger – jumbo-sized, in fact?
Boeing BA pushed out a proposal for Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft (CMCA), a modified 747 airliner with the cabin stripped out and replaced with rotary launchers, each loaded with eight cruise missiles. Missiles would be ejected from a bay door in the rear of the aircraft and each launcher would be slid back in turn by an overhead handling system as the previous one emptied. One CMCA could carry 72 cruise missiles, more than three times the payload of the B-52, and the 747’s impressive range made global reach a possibility. And the acquisition and operating costs would be a fraction of a full-on bomber.
Of course, the CMCA was never built, and the B-1 Lancer went ahead despite its perceived high cost – followed by the even more expensive B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which, depending on how you calculate it, cost around $2 billion a plane.
Now the Air Force has revived the idea of an Arsenal Plane – again, one that would stand off at long range lobbing missiles rather than attempting to slip through anti-aircraft defenses. This might be based on a B-1 or B-52, reflecting their reduced ability to take on modern surface-to-air missiles – or it might be a C-17 transport.
Such a plane might be seen as a direct competitor to the Air Force’s showpiece B-21 Raider, a next-generation stealth aircraft. Production is cost optimistically pegged at $550m (2010 dollars) per aircraft, which has raised considerable skepticism.
However, things have moved on considerably since the 1970s, and a closer look at CLEAVER reveals that it is not simply a war of getting a warhead to a target. In their press release, the Air Force describe the latest test as a step towards “multi-engine platform carrying large quantities of network-enabled, semi-autonomous weapons.” (My emphasis)
This concept, also explored in the Air Forces Gray Wolf and Golden Horde programs, which may be linked to CLEAVER, has groups of weapons acting together. Rather than flying a pre-designated mission, they are able to react in real time, sharing information and changing plans. The group, “sometimes called a swarm” will help each other locate targets, assign weapons to specific targets and possibly assess and evade or destroy defenses. These are not just smart bombs, but bombs which work together to be smarter.
Interestingly, this same concept of “network-enabled semi-autonomous weapons” is used to describe the munitions launched by the Arsenal plane.
The key term may be ‘large numbers.’ Unlike current Tomahawk cruise missiles which cost about $1.4 million apiece and can only be used a few at a time, CLEAVER is envisaged as something that would arrive en masse and swamp defenses. The networked, semi-autonomous weapons could attack a large number of targets, and, thanks to their ability to co-ordinate, could destroy more of them than any present system – with minimal involvement by humans.
Delivering that sort of mass attack looks like more of a job for a Boeing C-17 Globemaster, cargo capacity 170,000 pounds, than a B-21, likely to be significantly smaller than the B-2 Spirit with its 40,000-pound payload.
CLEAVER represents a step-change in air weapons, and new developments in laser defenses mean that big transport planes may be able to protect themselves from missiles. Shiny new bombers like the B-21 may prove much less important than those ‘large numbers’ of cheap CLEAVERs stacked on their wooden pallets, pushed out the back of anonymous transports.