'Micro' Drones, 'Arsenal' Plane, Railguns Funded in New Defense Budget

A test shot fires from the Office of Naval Research-funded Electromagnetic Railgun prototype launcher located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. (ONR video screenshot by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)
A test shot fires from the Office of Naval Research-funded Electromagnetic Railgun prototype launcher located at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. (ONR video screenshot by Jessica L. Tozer/Released)

A couple of decades ago, the Navy had an idea for an "arsenal ship" that went nowhere, but Defense Secretary Ashton Carter did the service one better Tuesday with his surprise proposal for an "arsenal plane."

Nobody knows yet what an arsenal plane would look like, or what its potential missions would be, other than that it would fashioned from an existing large aircraft platform -- maybe a B-52 bomber -- and it would be crammed with all manner of munitions. It might be manned or unmanned.

The arsenal plane concept was the most striking in a range of ideas for new weapons and military technology Carter unveiled in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington in a preview of Pentagon's proposed $583 billion fiscal 2017 budget.

Other new systems included anti-missile railgun projectiles for Navy ships and Army artillery, "swarming microdrones" for battlefield intelligence, and mini-cameras for precision-guided munitions.

The new ideas were coming out of the Pentagon's secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, which was Carter's brainchild and which, he said, "we don't often talk about."

"I created SCO in 2012 when I was deputy secretary of defense to reimagine existing DoD, intelligence community, and commercial systems by giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential opponents," he said.

The office was included in Carter's proposal to boost Pentagon research and development accounts in fiscal 2017, which begins Oct. 1, to $71.4 billion.

A potential game-changer in war "is one that we're calling the arsenal plane, which takes one of our oldest aircraft platforms, and turns it into a flying launch pad for all sorts of different conventional payloads," he said.

"In practice, the arsenal plane will function as a very large airborne magazine, networked to 5th-generation aircraft (F-35s) that act as forward sensor and targeting nodes -- essentially combining different systems already in our inventory to create wholly new capabilities," he added.

And that was it.

Carter made no further mention of the arsenal plane in his speech. The subject also didn't come up in a following question-and-answer session, but the history of the arsenal ship did not bode well for the arsenal plane.

In 1995, the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency conceived of an arsenal ship that would have a small crew and as many as 500 vertical launch tubes for missiles to provide ship-to-shore bombardment for invading troops much as battleships did in World War II. The Navy came up with a $450 million price for the arsenal ship but Congress scrapped funding for the project in 1998.

The arsenal plane was only one of the many new ideas for enhancing U.S. military capabilities on the shelf at SCO, Carter said.

Another was advanced navigation, which would involve "taking the same kinds of micro-cameras and sensors that are littered throughout our smartphones today, and putting them on our Small Diameter Bombs to augment their targeting capabilities," he said.

"Another project uses swarming, autonomous vehicles in all sorts of ways, and in multiple domains," Carter said. "For the air, they've developed microdrones that are really fast, and really resilient," he said. On the ground, "they can be thrown into the air by a soldier in the middle of the Iraqi desert."

Carter said, "And for the water, they've developed self-driving boats, which can network together to do all sorts of missions, from fleet defense to close-in surveillance -- including around an island, real or artificial, without putting our sailors at risk."

The secretary also touted "gun-based missile defense, where we're taking the same hypervelocity smart projectile developed for the electromagnetic railgun, and using it for point defense by firing it with artillery we already have in our inventory."

The hypervelocity railgun projectiles would be adapted for the five-inch deck guns of the Navy and the 155mm howitzers of the Army's M109A6 Paladin self-propelled howitzer, Carter said.

"This way, instead of spending more money on more expensive interceptors, we can turn past offense into future defense – defeating incoming missile raids at much lower cost per round, and thereby imposing higher costs on the attacker," he said.

"In fact, we tested the first shots of the hypervelocity projectile out of a Paladin a little over a month ago, and we found that it also significantly increases the range," Carter said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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