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Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft
Image of Boeing 777: Image is Creative Commons.

Today, the United States and its allies face a Chinese adversary growing in military and economic power. As China continues to produce ships, missiles, and other weapons systems at rates unseen in the West since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force are dealing with a critical weakness; the looming retirement of a large percentage of their most capable conventional missile-launching strike platforms.

Just as we need them most, the U.S. military is being forced to retire large-capacity strike platforms. The U.S. Air Force recently completed the retirement of 17 B-1B bombers, equipped with three rotary launchers, each capable of carrying eight Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missiles. The U.S. Navy is facing a looming crisis with the approaching retirement of 22 Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers (CG-47s) with 122 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells, 28 Block 1 and 2 Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers (DDG-51s) with 96 cells, and four Ohio-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines (SSGN-726s) with 154 cells each. While the impact of the loss of these platforms is being mitigated to some extent by new construction of smaller and less capable Block 3 Arleigh Burke-class DDGs, Constitution-class guided-missile frigates (FFG-62s), and stretched Virginia-class nuclear-powered fast attack submarines (SSN-774s), it is nonetheless numerically profound in the near term. For the Navy, these retiring platforms represent approximately half of the VLS cells in the current fleet inventory.

A concept from the past offers a unique, cost-effective opportunity to help mitigate these losses. In the late 1970s, after President Carter canceled the B-1A bomber, Boeing offered a cruise missile-launching 747-200C known as the Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft – CMCA. The 747 CMCA had a freighter-like configuration and was equipped with nine internal rotary launchers. Each launcher carried eight AGM-86 Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (ALCMs) for a total of 72 ALCMs per aircraft. Loaded through the hinged nose door, the rotary launchers circled around an internal racetrack, ejecting missiles out of a new mission-specific door in the rear starboard side of the cargo deck before moving out of the way and making room for a new rotary launcher. While not selected for production, the innovative concept showed an early way forward for a cost-effective “arsenal aircraft.” Unlike dedicated bombers, the 747 CMCA could blend in with commercial air traffic and leverage the 747’s robust international commercial logistics network for lower-cost operations while also bringing a robust secondary cargo-carrying capability.

However, in today’s world, the 747-200 has largely been removed from service worldwide. Additionally, there is much more of a need to launch smaller and more numerous tactical weapons from a shorter (180 inch-long) conventional weapon rotary launcher like the Multi-Purpose Rotary Launcher (MPRL) than there is to launch larger nuclear-tipped missiles from the much longer (265 inch-long) Common Strategic Rotary Launcher used in the earlier 747-200 CMCA. Thus, a more relevant aircraft/launcher combination is needed.

Conveniently, a large number of wide-body commercial aircraft are starting to hit the used aircraft market, especially 777-300s, 747-400Fs, and even a few relatively new 747-8Fs, all at a fraction of their original cost. All are modern compared to U.S. bomber designs and would need minimal modifications beyond those required to turn the aircraft into a specialized freighter and equipping it with modern military communications gear. All have a fuselage diameter that allows for an internal racetrack for rotary launchers and can accommodate two launchers side by side.

The two-engine long-fuselage 777-300ER is the leading candidate for a robust and cost-effective modern CMCA for low-threat standoff-range missile launching. Much like the current work being done by Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI) to convert 777-300ERs to their Special Freighter configuration, a 777-300ER converted to the CMCA configuration with an MPRL-compatible side cargo door would allow for a line of 10 rotary launchers, two wide, minus a one-MPRL gap space, for a sum total of 19 launchers per aircraft. Each launcher would be equipped with 8 JASSM-sized cruise missiles, for a total of 152 missiles per aircraft – nearly the loadout of an Ohio-class SSGN. The 777 variant could carry more weapons than the old 747-200 CMCA variants and operate at lower cost than the 747s due to their use of two engines rather than four.

The more operationally-costly 747 variants aren’t without merit. The 747-8F could carry 17 MPRLs, and the older shorter-fuselage 747-400F could be equipped to carry 15 MPRLs. The 747-400 has another trick up its sleeve: the 5th engine hardpoint on the port side wing. Originally included on the 747-400 to ferry large-diameter engines that wouldn’t fit inside the fuselage, the hardpoint has since found other uses, such as the mounting point on Virgin Galactic’s “Cosmic Girl” for the LauncherOne space launch vehicle. If this additional strengthening and equipment rearrangement was replicated on the starboard wing, it’s possible a B-52-style Heavy Stores Adapter Beam could be added to externally-carry additional tactical weapons or possibly larger hypersonic weapons, albeit with a tighter physical envelope due to the low-mount airliner wing.

The 777 CMCA aircraft could be operated by the Air National Guard, sharing many of the same airports as their airliner-based tanker cousins, operating the aircraft at lower cost than active units, and leveraging the nation’s supply of commercial 777 pilots. Assuming non-descript livery, these three types of aircraft could operate from 10,000 foot military and civilian runways and mix in with civilian air traffic without attracting significant attention, complicating adversarial targeting. When not loaded with launchers, the aircraft could potentially serve as a dual-role freighter aircraft offering a useful surge capability in the event of a humanitarian crisis. Two squadrons of 10 777 CMCA aircraft would exceed the lost naval and bomber launcher capabilities at a slight fraction of the up-front or operational cost of new Navy combatants or Air Force bombers. One could be based on the West Coast or Hawaii for operations in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, while the other could be based in Europe or Central Asia for use against a range of regional targets.

At a time when budgets are tightening, and the military is losing sea and air-based strike assets in bulk, the 777-300ER-based modernized CMCA, operated by the Air National Guard, presents an excellent opportunity to cost-effectively bolster or enhance U.S. long-range strike capabilities well before shipyards and new-build aircraft manufacturers could respond with new platforms.

Mr. Reimers is a military capabilities and weapons analyst for the Department of Defense.

Written By

David Reimers is a military capabilities and weapons analyst for the Department of Defense.