Air Force contemplating new close-air support platforms.

Author:Harper, Jon
Position:Viewpoint
 
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The A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft, also known as the Warthog, is slated to be retired in 2022. Many questions remain as to what the next-generation system will look like, but the Air Force could pursue a number of paths as it seeks to replace the U.S. military's close-air support workhorse.

In June, then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh compared the desired capabilities for the new system to the convenience and flexibility of a soda machine.

"Imagine the... flying Coke machine and just having a Coke machine overhead, and you put your quarter in and you get whatever kind of firepower you want when you want it," he said at a breakfast with reporters shortly before he retired. "In the perfect world, that's close-air support of the future."

But the Air Force isn't sure what form such a system would take.

"Is it manned, is it unmanned? Is it just more responsive [than current systems]? Is it a number of smaller things that arrive and deliver weapons? Is it one big thing that orbits?... I don't know," Welsh said.

A secretive office in the Pentagon is working on a project that could potentially fit the bill for the type of capability that he envisioned.

"We've done a lot of work with the Air Force over the last year on developing a very large prototyping program called arsenal plane, which is trying to get sensors and shooters separate [and] have large aircraft that can carry lots of weapons to feed into the battle so that planes don't have to land and resupply," said William Roper, the director of the strategic capabilities office.

The focus of the SCO is to advance or repackage existing technologies rather than starting development from scratch. That should help speed their delivery to the force, he said at a recent conference.

"We're very interested in seeing if legacy systems can play a role of the big warehouse carrying weapons into the fight, and without breaking an arm and a leg can we get these networked with forward systems" that could relay targeting information, he said.

"It could be a completely game-changing [concept of operations] if we get it right," he added.

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Although Pentagon officials are slowly pulling the curtain back on the arsenal plane concept, there is still a great deal of mystery surrounding the platform itself, including which legacy system it will be based on.

Anonymous defense officials have told reporters that the Pentagon is considering modifying B-52 or B-1 bombers to meet arsenal plane program objectives. But Roper declined to tip his hand.

It is a "risky prototyping effort," he noted. "We want to give ourselves a maximum chance to look at various options before we neck down and say, 'Here's what it is.'"

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