Narrowing the Global Strike Gap with
an Airborne Aircraft Carrier

Col George D. Kramlinger, USAF

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 US Air Force bombers played key roles in Operations Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. Throughout Allied Force, B-2s flying 30-hour round-trip missions from the continental United States (CONUS) struck high-value Yugoslav targets at night through airspace considered too hostile for nonstealthy aircraft. Fortunately, North Atlantic Treaty Organization airfields in nearby Italy enabled the proven tactic of packaging short-range defense suppression, fighter, and jamming aircraft to improve bomber survivability.1 Two B-2 sorties originating from the CONUS during each of the first two nights of Enduring Freedom quickly created a permissive environment above Afghanistan by eliminating the Taliban’s meager strategic air defenses.2 As a result, B-1 and B-52 bombers conveniently based at the British-owned atoll of Diego Garcia cycled freely over all of Afghanistan, pounding al-Qaeda positions around-the-clock.3 During the 10 months preceding Iraqi Freedom, multirole fighters patrolling the southern and northern no-fly zones systematically dismantled much of the Iraqi Integrated Air Defense System (IADS).4 Consequently, the operation began with B-1s and B-52s based in Diego Garcia enjoying the freedom of action to loiter over most of Iraq with large payloads to rapidly engage emerging battlefield targets.5 However, a permissive environment for nonstealthy bombers or -favorable basing options for bombers and short-range support assets may not exist in the next conflict.

Nations that prohibit overflight or that deny basing rights, as well as adversaries who hold key airfields at risk or coerce allies with missiles armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), can prohibit access to regionally deployed land-based airpower. Naval attack fighters operating from the sea and conventional long-range bombers cannot survive penetration of a sophisticated IADS that denies access to all but the stealthiest platforms. Standoff air- and sea-launched cruise missiles are becoming increasingly vulnerable to advanced air defenses and have only limited capability against mobile, hardened, and deeply buried targets (HDBT) that create access denial. Long range, survivability, and penetrating weapons make the B-2 stealth bomber a highly capable global-strike platform.6 Unfortunately, the 16 combat-coded B-2s in our inventory are insufficient to conduct an unescorted enabling operation in places where access denial precludes the use of regionally based airpower.7 F/A-22 and F-117 stealth fighters should protect and augment the limited B-2 fleet by engaging mobile and hardened high-value targets, but they lack global range because of the single pilot’s limited endurance. In the very near future, Iran, North Korea, and China will likely possess the combination of weapons, missiles, and air defenses to negate access to theater-based airpower. Consequently, the Air Force may have to use CONUS-to-CONUS missions to gain access to denied airspace. Hampered by a limited B-2 inventory and an inability to operate stealth fighters over global range, the United States will face a global-strike gap if it confronts a vast and well-defended adversary in an access-challenged theater halfway around the world.

The Airborne Aircraft
Carrier Solution

To close such a gap, the Air Force should develop a fleet of airborne aircraft carriers (AAC) to allow stealthy fighters and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) to protect, augment, and support the B-2 fleet. The AAC concept uses a Boeing 747-400 mother ship to transport and employ both a single stealth fighter in the piggyback configuration and a single UCAV carried under the fuselage. Air-to-air refueling will provide global range, enabling each AAC to remain airborne for days at a time. A retractable, protective shroud will cover the nose and cockpit of the stealth aircraft so its pilot can move freely between the AAC and fighter. Mechanisms to launch and recover the airborne stealth fighter and UCAV will facilitate multiple sorties by the parasite aircraft. Between missions both the fighter and UCAV will refuel and rearm while docked with the mother ship. After two or three coordinated strikes over the course of 12–24 hours, the mother ships will return the fighters and UCAVs to the CONUS for maintenance and regeneration as another group of AACs replaces them. The AAC concept will neither serve as a substitute for nor attempt to generate the sorties of a naval aircraft carrier. Instead, a fleet of AACs will enable the marshalling of high-payoff “silver-bullet” strike packages at the strategic and operational levels of war early in a campaign as a means of overcoming access denial and setting conditions for the deployment and employment of theater-based conventional forces.

Interim Solutions

To bridge the global-strike gap until the next-generation long-range strike platform becomes available, the Air Force is focusing on proven technology to develop an interim capability that is responsive, persistent, survivable in a nonpermissive environment, and capable of delivering a variety of weapons, including those designed to counter HDBTs.8 The service hopes to field this interim capability by 2015, when a number of potential adversaries will possess the means to deny -access. Industry has responded with a variety of proposals, including an upgraded B-1, an FB-22, an arsenal aircraft that carries cruise missiles, a variety of UCAV options, and an increased B-2 weapons load. The AAC option, however, is noticeably absent.

The B-1 played a significant role in Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom by loitering over the battlefield with large payloads to engage emerging targets. Late in Iraqi Freedom, a B-1 orbiting above western Iraq made a 12-minute tasking-to-target dash that nearly killed a fleeing Saddam Hussein.9 However, we can directly attribute the bomber’s effectiveness to the permissive environments over Afghanistan and Iraq. Although the B-1 provides a critical capability to the nation, new engines, upgraded electronic countermeasures (ECM), the addition of air-to-air missiles, and an increased top speed will not appreciably enhance survivability when penetrating an -access-denial IADS.

The proposed FB-22 will retain the speed, stealth, and fused sensor array of the F/A-22; incorporate a larger wing to hold more fuel; and carry 30 small-diameter bombs (SDB).10 However, according to one air-and-space analyst, rewinging an aircraft is one of the most expensive of modifications and offers no guarantees.11 Some experts suggest that the FB-22’s supersonic speed will enhance capability against fleeting targets; others maintain that the medium bomber will not have the endurance necessary to loiter until an elusive mobile target reveals itself.12 Critics contend this aircraft will stress an already strained tanker fleet. When fitted with a glide kit, the 250-pound SDB has a predicted standoff range of 60 miles, making the weapon highly effective against soft components of an access-denial IADS; however, it lacks the penetration to destroy an HDBT.13 Though a welcome addition to the inventory, issues of cost, feasibility, and combat potential make investment in the FB-22 a risky proposition, given efforts to field other systems already over budget and behind schedule.

The Air Force might also close the global-strike gap by developing an arsenal aircraft with a high capacity for cruise missiles. Air- and sea-launched cruise missiles are critical for attacking soft targets in an access-denial environment but lack the responsiveness, capability, and affordability to close the gap completely. Gen Michael Moseley, the Air Force vice-chief of staff, suggests that these missiles, which can take hours to reach a target, may not offer the best solution to strike relocatable targets.14 A single AGM-86D conventional air-launched cruise missile (CALCM) with a 1,000-pound warhead costs $1.8 million but can hold only a portion of the hardened target set at risk.15 Conversely, a B-2 carries 16 2,000-pound penetrating Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) costing less than $25,000 each.16 Furthermore, traditional cruise missiles are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the Russian S-300/400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system used to create an access-denial IADS. The stealthy AGM-158 joint service standoff attack missile costs $330,000, offers a quick response with an advertised 200-mile range, and has some capability against hardened and mobile targets.17 However, the S-400 (SA-20) SAM system is assessed to have an engagement range of 250 miles, forcing large, unprotected, nonstealthy aircraft such as a cruise-missile arsenal platform to operate no closer than 250–300 miles from the threat.18 Consequently, the proposed arsenal aircraft may prove too vulnerable and expensive, given the limitations of standoff weapons, the B-52’s ability to carry 16 CALCMs, the B-1’s payload of 24 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles, and the growing number of Navy platforms employing cruise missiles.19

Given the success of the Predator unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) armed with the Hellfire missile, the Air Force is accelerating efforts to develop a UCAV that can perform a penetrating-strike sortie in a high-threat environment. The Boeing X-45A technology-demonstrator UCAV, which began flight-testing in 2002, has successfully released a prototype SDB and has flown tactical profiles with a second X-45A UCAV (fig. 1).20 We expect the fighter-sized X-45C to fly in 2007 with a radius of 1,200 miles, a cruise speed of .80 Mach, a 40,000-foot operating altitude, and a 4,500-pound payload.21 Boeing is now proposing an X-45D with the range, payload, and size of a bomber.22 Without a cockpit and associated pilot, the UCAV is stealthier than its manned counterpart and better suited to loiter in hostile airspace, waiting to attack elusive, mobile targets. However, the bomber-sized vehicle will require fighter sweep, threat suppression, and jamming support to protect this very expensive investment. The fighter-sized UCAV will need a prohibitive commitment of tankers to operate over global range.

Figure 1. The X-45A technology-demonstrator UCAV releases an inert 250-pound SDB. (2d Lt Brooke Davis, “X-45A Completes First-Ever Inert Guided Weapons Release,” Public ­Affairs Office, Edwards AFB, CA, 26 April 2004,

Figure 1. The X-45A technology-demonstrator UCAV releases an inert 250-pound SDB. (2d Lt Brooke Davis, “X-45A Completes First-Ever Inert Guided Weapons Release,” Public -Affairs Office, Edwards AFB, CA, 26 April 2004,

Larger loads of smaller munitions will enable each B-2 to strike more targets per sortie but will not address the need to strike an ever-growing number of HDBTs in the early stages of an access-denial scenario. The standard B-2 weapons load consists of 16 penetrating 2,000-pound GBU-32 JDAMs. Modifications currently under way will allow each B-2 to carry 80 500-pound GBU-38 JDAMs.23 Proponents claim that by 2007 the B-2 could carry 324 of the 250-pound SDBs. However, over 10,000 underground military facilities exist in 70 countries worldwide, over 1,400 of which are used for strategic command and control (C2), WMDs, and ballistic-missile basing—-targets critical in the opening stages of any -future access-denial scenario.24 Even with improved accuracy and better explosives in smaller weapons, Newton’s second law—force equals mass times acceleration—still applies, requiring large and accurate conventional weapons to defeat HDBTs. Fortunately, the B-2 can carry eight of the massive 5,000-pound GBU-37 bunker-buster bombs, and we have begun development of a 30,000-pound massive ordnance penetrator.25 Adversaries will continue to dig more and tunnel deeper, thus preventing larger loads of smaller munitions from narrowing the global-strike gap.

Other Considerations

Stealth aircraft counter radar threats by deflecting and absorbing radar energy. Deflection is primarily a function of structural shape, and absorption depends upon skin coating. Fortunately, stealth aircraft can still survive in most high-threat areas with minimum external support, as evidenced by two lone F-117s delivering the opening blow against an underground bunker in heavily defended Baghdad during Iraqi Freedom.26 On the other hand, the downing of an F-117 in hostile airspace during Allied Force demonstrates that stealth aircraft are not invincible. Deployment of mobile Russian S-300/400 radar-guided strategic SAM systems (SA-10, -12, and -20), also known as “double digit SAMs,” effectively produces an impenetrable wall for nonstealthy aircraft and will likely evolve to threaten current stealth platforms.27 With fuselage shape fixed, current stealth aircraft can make improvements only in skin coating against the ever-improving S-300/400 system. Consequently, ECM and the destruction of mobile air-defense components will become increasingly important enablers for the current family of stealth aircraft against an access-denial IADS.

In simple terms, the most effective ECM occurs when an escort jammer positions itself between the threat radar and strike aircraft. Unfortunately, Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler electronic-attack aircraft are too slow and vulnerable to provide escort jamming for B-2s in an access-denial environment.28 The F/A-18G, the proposed replacement for the Navy EA-6B, offers increased speed but suffers the same vulnerability as any other conventional aircraft against an access-denial IADS. Furthermore, increasingly quiet submarines, stealthy mines, and antiship cruise missiles may push Navy carrier aviation from the littoral region to a range requiring a disproportionate commitment of land-based tankers. Plans are under way to replace B-52 wingtip tanks with jamming pods that will allow the venerable bomber to provide persistent standoff jamming after CALCM launch.29 However, such jamming is becoming less effective as an access-denial IADS forces the platform to operate at ever-greater range. The Air Force is formulating plans to use the stealthy X-45C UCAV as a potential jamming platform, and the Marine Corps is considering a derivative of the stealthy F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace the EA-6B. However, experts are uncertain if we can internally mount jamming equipment, normally carried in external pods, to preserve stealth qualities and if automation can replace the three EA-6B ECM officers.30 If successful, the unmanned X-45C is an ideal candidate for the dangerous penetrating escort mission, but employment of the fighter-sized UCAV from global range presents problems, given the excessive air-to-air-refueling requirements.

Finding mobile targets in an access-denial environment requires persistent, close-in, and stealthy intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Iraq used camouflage, concealment, and deception along with mobility to effectively hide Scud-missile launchers in its western deserts despite a huge commitment of strike aircraft and standoff ISR platforms.31 During Allied Force, the Serbs constantly moved their mobile SAM systems, preventing ISR platforms from providing actionable targeting information. As a result, large sections of Serbian airspace remained unsafe for nonstealthy aircraft.32 During Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, the RQ-1A Predator and high-flying RQ-4A Global Hawk UAVs demonstrated the enormous value of persistent, close-in ISR at finding, fixing, and tracking emerging and fleeting targets. However, neither of these UAVs is stealthy, and we have lost many of the low-flying Predators over hostile territory.33 Double-digit SAM threats will push large, conventional ISR platforms such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint (signals intelligence) and the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System to less effective ranges. Medium and low Earth orbit satellites lack the dwell time over a particular area for persistent ISR. Furthermore, space-based radars may not have sufficient fidelity to track mobile targets.34 One of the X-45C program objectives calls for producing two hours of loiter time with a 4,500-pound payload 1,000 miles from the launch base.35 Fuel saved by launching from an AAC near enemy territory will increase endurance and enable the stealthy X-45C UCAV to conduct persistent ISR in a high-threat environment. However, we currently have no practical method of employing fighter-sized UCAVs over global range.

To enhance effectiveness and survivability in a high-threat environment, B-2 bombers must become part of a coordinated strike package that includes fighter support, SAM suppression, and escort jamming. Daylight bombing by B-17s over Germany became effective only after P-51 fighters equipped with external drop tanks accompanied the bombers to the deepest targets and back. The Air Force lost 15 of 729 B-52 sorties to SAMs over North Vietnam in December 1972 during Linebacker II—and would have lost many more if not for jamming support and fighters flying SAM-suppression missions.36 During Allied Force, F-15Cs cleared the skies of Serbian MiGs, F-16CJs suppressed deadly SAMs, and EA-6Bs provided standoff jamming as part of a coordinated package to improve effectiveness and survivability of the stealthy B-2 and F-117.37 With only 16 combat-coded B-2s, the Air Force can ill afford to lose even a single stealth bomber to an enemy fighter or SAM. The AAC concept provides fighter sweep, SAM suppression, and escort jamming from global range when access denial prevents the execution of these missions from regional bases.

Figure 2. Curtis F9C-2 Sparrowhawk with the USS Macon. (“Curtiss F9C ‘Sparrowhawk’ Fighters—Part II: F9C-2s in Operation with Airships,” Naval Historical Center, Photographic Section, photos/ac-usn22/f-types/f9c-d.htm.)

Figure 2. Curtis F9C-2 Sparrowhawk with the USS Macon. (“Curtiss F9C ‘Sparrowhawk’ Fighters—Part II: F9C-2s in Operation with Airships,” Naval Historical Center, Photographic Section,

The AAC concept will be successful only if the UCAV employed from the mother ship is optimized to perform both the ISR and electronic-attack missions. UCAV developmental energy should not be wasted attempting to replicate the high-fidelity weapon--delivery capability of the F/A-22 or F-117. Instead, design of the X-45C production variant should focus on persistent ISR and close-in escort jamming in a high-threat environment—missions no platform can currently perform. UCAV design must enable rearming, refueling, and maintenance functions from the top of the vehicle since the upper surface will dock with the lower side of the AAC. The AAC UCAV should carry only a small weapons load—two SDBs to engage time-critical or mobile targets—and should dedicate the majority of payload capacity for ISR systems, jamming equipment, and additional fuel for increased persistence. Stealthy UCAVs jamming S-300/400 radars and finding mobile SAM launchers will become as big an enabler for the B-2 as the P-51 was for the B-17 in World War II.

History and Feasibility of an
Airborne Aircraft Carrier

The idea of an aircraft carrier in the sky with parasite aircraft is not new. In the early 1930s, the Navy airships Akron and Macon were designed with an internal 60- by 75-foot hangar deck that included an overhead trolley system to store four Sparrowhawk scout planes, launching and recovering them with a retractable trapeze and winch assembly (fig. 2). Also in the 1930s, Russia experimented with parasite fighters carried by a Tupolev TB-3 bomber to provide defensive escort, offensive air-to-air sweep, and long-range offensive strikes. The most ambitious experiment used a large bomber with fighters carried above and below each wing and one under the fuselage on a trapeze.38

 Figure 3. XF-85 Goblin and B-29 mother ship. The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin program sought to provide the B-36 Peacemaker with a fighter for self-defense that the bomber could carry entirely within its bomb bay. An EB-29B replaced the B-36, which was not available for flight-testing. Because of turbulence, only three of seven flights resulted in successful captures. (“Parasite Fighter Programs: Monstro and the XF-85 Goblins,” Goleta Air and Space Museum, http:// Air Force Flight Test Center History Office via Brian Lockett. Reprinted by permission.)

Figure 3. XF-85 Goblin and B-29 mother ship. The McDonnell XF-85 Goblin program sought to provide the B-36 Peacemaker with a fighter for self-defense that the bomber could carry entirely within its bomb bay. An EB-29B replaced the B-36, which was not available for flight-testing. Because of turbulence, only three of seven flights resulted in successful captures. (“Parasite Fighter Programs: Monstro and the XF-85 Goblins,” Goleta Air and Space Museum, http:// Air Force Flight Test Center History Office via Brian Lockett. Reprinted by permission.)

In the late 1940s, the desire to incorporate the World War II lessons of fighter escort with the intercontinental bomber led to the development of the XF-85 Goblin parasite aircraft, designed to fit into the bomb bay of a B-36 using a trapeze assembly for launch and recovery. However, the XF-85 proved unstable in flight-testing with a B-29 mother ship (fig. 3). Subsequently, the Air Force experimented with B-36s carrying F-84s on a trapeze assembly and with towing the fighters using a wingtip-attachment mechanism. Needing more intelligence during the early part of the Cold War, the service shifted its emphasis on the parasite from fighter escort to reconnaissance; for a very short period of time, the Air Force operated a GRB-36 squadron that carried RF-84 fighters using the bomb-bay trapeze assembly (fig. 4). Technical limitations and advancements in air-to-air refueling ended the service’s experimentation with parasite-fighter projects. However, these B-36 experiments demonstrated the feasibility of using a trapeze assembly as a launch-and-recovery mechanism for the AAC UCAV, projected to be tailless and only four feet thick.

 Figure 4. Fighter conveyor. In the early years of the Cold War, the US Air Force needed a reconnaissance aircraft that could reach targets deep in the Soviet Union with the speed and maneuverability to evade Soviet air defenses. The fighter conveyor (FICON) project provided a solution by using the intercontinental RB-36 to carry a jet-powered RF-84 parasite reconnaissance fighter. However, the program was abruptly cancelled in January 1956 when several pilots damaged their airplanes attempting to engage the trapeze. (“Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF: Project FICON,” Goleta Air and Space Museum, ficon.htm. Dave Menard via Brian Lockett. Reprinted by permission.)

Figure 4. Fighter conveyor. In the early years of the Cold War, the US Air Force needed a reconnaissance aircraft that could reach targets deep in the Soviet Union with the speed and maneuverability to evade Soviet air defenses. The fighter conveyor (FICON) project provided a solution by using the intercontinental RB-36 to carry a jet-powered RF-84 parasite reconnaissance fighter. However, the program was abruptly cancelled in January 1956 when several pilots damaged their airplanes attempting to engage the trapeze. (“Flying Aircraft Carriers of the USAF: Project FICON,” Goleta Air and Space Museum, ficon.htm. Dave Menard via Brian Lockett. Reprinted by permission.)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has used mother ships and parasites for over 40 years. In-flight release of rocket planes and lifting bodies from under the wing of a B-52 furthered space exploration and development of the space shuttle. Two Boeing 747-100 shuttle carrier aircraft (SCA) now routinely ferry the DC-9–sized space-shuttle orbiter from Edwards AFB, California, to the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, in the piggyback configuration. Modifications to the 747 include three shuttle-attachment struts with associated interior structural strengthening and two additional vertical stabilizers to enhance directional control (fig. 5). In 1977 space shuttle Enterprise made five free-flight tests from the first SCA with separation occurring at altitudes from 19,000 to 26,000 feet (fig. 6). The orbiter is 122 feet long and 57 feet high, with a wingspan of 78 feet; it weighs approximately 175,000 pounds when carried by the SCA.39 In comparison, a combat-loaded stealth fighter is one-third the weight and less than half the size of the shuttle.40 The size of current stealth fighters precludes carriage under the wing or fuselage of a mother ship, but these aircraft are certainly small enough for a comfortable fit in the piggyback configuration.

Figure 5. Shuttle carrier aircraft. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Dryden Aircraft Photo Collection,

Figure 6. Enterprise free-flight testing after separation from 747. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Dryden Aircraft Photo Collection,

Figure 5. Shuttle carrier aircraft. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Dryden Aircraft Photo Collection,

Figure 6. Enterprise free-flight testing after separation from 747. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Dryden Aircraft Photo Collection, Photo/ALT/HTML/ECN77-8608.html.)

The commercially available 747-400ER (extended-range) freighter seems the best candidate for the AAC mother ship. This 231-foot-long aircraft carries 250,000 pounds for 5,000 miles, unrefueled; cruises at .85 Mach; and costs approximately $200 million.41 By comparison, the 174-foot-long Boeing C-17 carries 160,000 pounds for 2,400 miles, unrefueled; cruises at .77 Mach; and costs $237 million.42 The 747-400ER has a significant range advantage, given the weight of a 55,000-pound stealth fighter; 36,000-pound X-45C; and associated support equipment. Air-to-air refueling capability will give the 747-400 AAC the range and endurance necessary to conduct global-strike operations in an access-denial environment. The increased length and standard vertical-stabilizer configuration of the 747-400ER, compared to those of the C-17, will better facilitate a docking station for a 65-foot-long stealth fighter in the piggyback configuration. The sturdy cargo deck and cavernous space of the 747-400 freighter will provide for munitions storage, crew space, and structural modifications necessary to accommodate the recovery mechanisms.

The AAC concept entails many technological challenges, especially the development of a mechanism to recover the stealth fighter to the backbone of the mother ship in flight. A scissors-lift platform anchored to the cargo deck, extending through the upper fuselage, and then rising from the backbone above the vertical tail may provide a viable recovery scheme. With this system, the stealth fighter flies an instrument-aided approach to touchdown on the raised platform with landing gear extended. At touchdown, the platform securely captures the landing gear and then lowers the fighter to the mother ship’s backbone. Like the shuttle orbiter, the stealth fighter will launch from the backbone position. Consequently, the scissors lift will not have to raise a fully loaded aircraft, thus minimizing the weight and complexity of the lift mechanism. The 747 mother ship may require a redesigned split vertical tail similar to that of the SCA. If practical, the distance between vertical tails may allow the fighter to fly an -instrument-aided approach directly to the backbone and negate the need for a scissors-lift mechanism. The AAC will include a retractable shroud that covers the nose and cockpit area of the fighter and a trapdoor leading from the backbone to the interior of the shroud to facilitate cockpit access. A series of trapdoors on the AAC backbone will enable access to the fighter’s underside for refueling, rearming, and minor maintenance. A lift system will move munitions from the interior cargo deck of the mother ship through a trapdoor to the weapons bays of the docked fighter. Refueling between missions will generally occur in the docked position. However, the addition of a standard Air Force air-to-air refueling boom and probe-and-drogue system will offer tremendous mission flexibility. To increase battlespace awareness, the AAC will include an ISR sensor suite netted with the other AACs, supporting ISR platforms and the combined air and space operations center.43 These are just some of the AAC design considerations, and this article in no way intends to offer a complete blueprint. However, past experience suggests that the AAC concept is feasible and that innovation can overcome the technological challenges.

Airborne Aircraft Carrier
Concept of Operations

A fleet of 60 747-400 mother ships will enable continuous cycling of groups of 12–16 AACs per 24 hours to support global-strike operations in an access-denial environment. The mix of stealth fighters depends upon mission constraints but will likely consist of half F/A-22s and half F-117s. The stealth-fighter pilots ride in the mother ships until they approach the launch points in order to maintain a rest cycle, receive final tasking from the combined air and space operations center, and complete final mission briefings via a secure communication link with each other. The fighters will launch from their ACC just outside adversary fighter range to form a coordinated strike package with two CONUS-based B-2 bombers, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, Airborne Warning and Control System Aircraft, standoff ISR platforms, and Navy carrier-based assets (threat and tanker availability permitting).44 A portion of the UCAVs will launch in advance of the strike package to gather signals intelligence, triangulate threat locations, track mobile targets, and arrive in position to provide close-in escort jamming. F/A-22s will ensure air superiority and destroy mobile, high-value targets around-the-clock, thus denying the enemy daytime sanctuary created by the B-2 and F-117 limitation to operate only at night. F-117s will increase hard-target kill capability against key C2, WMD, and IADS components.45 Successful development of the F/A-117 configuration (blue paint scheme permitting daytime operations) will allow daylight attacks against additional hardened and underground facilities, further denying sanctuary.46

After completing the first coordinated strike of the night, the stealth fighters and some UCAVs will return to their mother ships to refuel and rearm. Other UCAVs will remain on station gathering intelligence in preparation for the next strike. Four to six hours after completing the first strike, the stealthy fighters and UCAVs will launch to form the second strike package of the night with a new two-ship of B-2 bombers arriving from outside the theater. Arrival and departure of individual AACs may be staggered to enhance operational effectiveness while each AAC will air-to-air refuel every eight to 12 hours to maintain station time. With this battle rhythm, 12–16 AACs will be present at any one time and launch two to three strike packages every 12–24 hours before each mother ship returns to the CONUS for repairs and regeneration, replaced one-for-one by another AAC.

Although designed to operate at the high end of the conflict spectrum, AAC capability is scalable for smaller contingencies, raids, and situations involving a single attack on a fleeting, high-value target. With air-to-air refueling, a single AAC can maintain airborne alert for an extended period of time (without the crew-fatigue limitations of the B-2), waiting for the right set of conditions to conduct a low-signature strike on a time-sensitive target. Furthermore, groups of AACs could enforce a no-fly zone as part of a sustained, coercive air-presence strategy when access denial prevents regional basing.

Beyond the First Generation

A parasite-aircraft/mother-ship combination offers a less expensive and more effective method of looking at future bomber development. The future manned bomber could use the AAC and piggyback concept whereby the smaller bomber is optimized for threat penetration, survivability, and weapons delivery (especially against mobile and hardened targets), thus driving down development cost and aircraft price, while the mother ship is built for long range and payload capacity. The US aircraft industry could then optimize itself to take advantage of new technology such that it builds a small number (50–60) of relatively low-cost, up-to-date stealthy parasite bombers and UCAVs with a fairly short development cycle.47 A stealthy, blended-wing C-5B replacement could be designed with AAC duty in mind, thus increasing the synergy between the airlift and global-strike forces. Consequently, the AAC concept offers a promising capability to reduce medium-term strategic risk, facilitate long-term transformation, and potentially revolutionize the way the Air Force procures bomber systems.


In view of ever-expanding global interests, the growing importance of the geographically vast Asia-Pacific region, diminished reaction time, and the proliferation of antiaccess capabilities, the United States faces a global-strike gap. Defense of US vital interests cannot wait for procurement of the next long-range strike platform or development of a hypersonic, suborbital global-strike vehicle. Consequently, the United States must narrow the global-strike gap as a hedge against uncertainty and turmoil in the near- and midterm security environment. The AAC concept enables F/A-22s, F-117s, and fighter-sized UCAVs to destroy critical mobile and hardened targets while protecting the limited B-2 fleet with fighter sweep, SAM suppression, and escort jamming over global range in an access-denial environment. A fleet of 60 AACs will reduce the near-term global-strike gap with a balance among cost, capability, flexibility, and strategic risk. Eventually, global-strike missions using AACs and B-2s will gain air superiority, neutralize WMDs, and paralyze an adversary as a means to facilitate the introduction of less stealthy combat aircraft into the theater. Airborne aircraft carriers offer a cost-effective and practical method to close the global-strike gap in an access-denial environment.


1. Rebecca Grant, The B-2 Goes to War (Arlington, VA: IRIS Press, 2001), 40–42. Most North Atlantic Treaty Organization bases have blast-resistant hardened aircraft shelters designed to protect fighter-sized aircraft in a nuclear, chemical, or biological environment—a capability that may not exist at expeditionary bases in many parts of the world.

2. During Allied Force and Enduring Freedom, the B-2 flew missions from Whiteman AFB, MO, because no other location provided the climate-controlled hangars necessary to cure the tapes, calks, and coatings associated with maintenance of the radar-absorbent skin. During Iraqi Freedom, the B-2s departed Whiteman, struck targets in Afghanistan, and then landed at Diego Garcia after a 40-plus-hour flight. After swapping crews with engines running, the B-2s departed Diego Garcia and arrived back at Whiteman some 30 hours later. With this shuttle-bombing-like arrangement, each combat sortie was airborne over 70 hours. In preparation for Iraqi Freedom, the Air Force erected portable, climate-controlled maintenance hangars at Diego Garcia and Royal Air Force Fairford, England, thus significantly decreasing transit time and increasing combat utilization. However, basing rights at these two locations require formal approval from the British government—something that may not always be guaranteed. Rebecca Grant, “An Air War Like No Other,” Air Force Magazine Online 85, no. 11 (November 2002),

3. John A. Tirpak, “Long Arm of the Air Force,” Air Force Magazine Online 85, no. 10 (October 2002), http://

4. Tommy Franks with Malcolm McConnell, American Soldier (New York: HarperCollins Books, 2004), 388; and Suzann Chapman, “The War before the War,” Air Force Magazine Online 87, no. 2 (February 2004), http://www.

5. Adam J. Hebert, “The Long Reach of the Heavy Bombers,” Air Force Magazine Online 86, no. 11 (November 2003), bombers.asp.

6. The B-2 is the only Air Force bomber capable of carrying the 5,000-pound GBU-37 “bunker buster,” guided by the global positioning system (GPS). See “Smart Weapons: GPS Guided Bombs,”, http:// smart.htm.

7. Only 16 of the 21 B-2 bombers in the Air Force inventory are combat coded. Using a 70-hour CONUS-to-CONUS round-trip sortie duration as occurred during Enduring Force as a worst-case scenario and assuming an 85 percent mission-capable rate, one could reasonably expect that 12–13 B-2A bombers could be available for day-to-day tasking. Sortie duration and the number of available stealth bombers will result in a cycle of only four aircraft in the target area during each 24-hour period, with four bombers en route and four returning to the CONUS or already on the ground undergoing regeneration. See Hebert, “Long Reach.”

8. Amy Butler, “Sambur: ‘Proven’ Technology Needed for Interim Air Force Strike Capability,” Defense Daily, 3 May 2004, 4.

9. Hebert, “Long Reach.”

10. David A. Fulghum, “Taking a Chance,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 31 May 2004, 28.

11. David Hirschman, “Lockheed Awaits Word on Bomber,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6 February 2004.

12. “U.S. Air Force’s FB-22 Concept Draws Scrutiny in Hill Report,” Aerospace Daily and Defense Report, 2 June 2004.

13. Robert Wall and Douglas Barrie, “Making an Impact,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 17 May 2004, 44.

14. Michael Sirak, “USAF Focuses on Future Long-Range Strike Plans,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 28 January 2004.

15. “Boeing Selects Lockheed Martin to Provide CALCM Hard-Target Warhead,” Boeing Company news release, 2 December 1999, releases/1999/news_release_991202o.htm.

16. “Joint Direct Attack Munitions GBU-31/32,” fact sheet, Air Force Link, -factsheet.asp?fsID=108.

17. Robert Wall, “Changing Perceptions,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 15 September 2003, 32.

18. “S-300PMU3/S-400 SA-20 Triumf,”, s-400.htm; and “Study Finds Current, Planned Long-Range Strike Capability Lacking,” Inside the Air Force, 10 October 2003, 1.

19. In a move to give the US Navy added capability in projecting long-range firepower, the Defense Transformation Board recommends converting four nuclear ballistic submarines to cruise-missile carriers. See Frank Wolfe, “Panel Advises Navy JSF Acceleration; SSBN Conversion; B-2A Modernization,” Defense Daily International 2, no. 23 (15 June 2001), document?_m=75be873eca268c008ebc734206978772&_docnum=40&wchp=dGLbVlz-lSlzV&_md5=2009ddc2df 89c08cc415a021dce90c3f.

20. Robert Wall, “Lock Step; Boeing Demonstrates UCAVs Operating in Formation,” Aviation Week and Space Technology 161, no. 6 (9 August 2004): 33; and Robert Wall and David Fulghum, “Stage Setting,” Aviation Week and Space Technology 160, no. 17 (26 April 2004): 32.

21. “Boeing Receives First Engines for X-45C Unmanned Combat Aircraft,” Boeing Company news release, 18 November 2004, releases/2004/q4/nr_041118t.html.

22. Fulghum, “Taking a Chance,” 28.

23. John A. Tirpak, “Bomber Questions,” Air Force Magazine 84, no. 12 (December 2001): 42.

24. “Nuclear Posture Review Report,”, 8 January 2002, -library/policy/dod/npr.htm.

25. Michael Sirak, “Massive Bomb to MOP Up Deeply Buried Targets,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, 21 July 2004.

26. Franks, American Soldier, 453–61.

27. The S-300 system, recently sold to Iran, is currently active in Russia, most former Soviet republics, Bulgaria, China, and India. See John A. Tirpak, “The Double-Digit SAMs,” Air Force Magazine Online 84, no. 6 (June 2001),

28. In a move to reduce cost and increase jointness, the Air Force retired the EF-111 fleet in the late 1990s and now relies on Navy and Marine Corps EA-6B fleets for jamming and electronic combat.

29. John A. Tirpak, “The New Way of Electron War,” Air Force Magazine Online 87, no. 12 (December 2004),

30. Robert Wall, “EA-35 Assessment,” Aviation Week and Space Technology 162, no. 1 (3 January 2005): 54.

31. For details on the commitment of significant resources to search for Scud missiles with little result, see Rick Atkinson, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993), 144–48.

32. Benjamin S. Lambeth, NATO’s Air War for Kosovo: A Strategic and Operational Assessment (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001), 230, MR/MR1365/.

33. Richard J. Newman, “The Little Predator That Could,” Air Force Magazine Online 85, no. 3 (March 2002), -predator_print.html.

34. Robert Wall and David A. Fulghum, “Under Scrutiny—USAF Reconnaissance, UCAV Plans Undergo Senior-Level Appraisal,” Aviation Week and Space Technology, 20 September 2004, 26.

35. If the combined weight of the desired ISR and electronic-attack payload is less than 4,500 pounds, the savings in weight and volume can be used for additional fuel to increase battlespace persistence. Robert Wall, “Head to Head,” Aviation Week and Space Technology 160, no. 8 (23 February 2004): 37.

36. Walter J. Boyne, “Linebacker II,” Air Force Magazine Online 80, no. 11 (November 1997), magazine/nov1997/1197lineback.asp.

37. Grant, B-2 Goes to War, 40–42.

38. Michael Taylor, The World’s Strangest Aircraft (Hertfordshire, United Kingdom: Regency House Publishing, Ltd., 2001), 42–45.

39. Ibid.

40. Stealth fighters weigh approximately 55,000 pounds, are 65 feet long and 16 feet high, and have a wingspan of 44 feet. See “F-117A Nighthawk,” http://www. html. See also “F-22 Raptor,” Air Force Fact Sheets, http://usmilitary.about. com/od/afweapons/l/blf22.htm.

41. “Technical Characteristics—Boeing 747-400 Freighter,” Boeing Company, commercial/747family/pf/pf_400f_prod.html.

42. “Specifications—C-17 Globemaster III Tactical Transport Aircraft, USA,”, http://

43. An Air Force transformation goal is to create a “smart” tanker that expands the air-refueling mission to one of communications platform and supports efforts to make every platform in the battlespace part of a larger information/sensor network. Since tankers are always close to the battlespace or flying intercontinental routes as part of an air bridge, they can form the airborne nodes of this battlespace-communications network with passive sensors and Link 16–like connectivity. The same concept can be applied to an ISR suite for the AAC. Ideally, the AAC can be fitted with a smaller version of the air-to-air surveillance radar envisioned for the E-10 multisensor C2 aircraft, thus providing a netted air picture for C2 and high value airborne asset (HVAA) protection. Amy Butler, “Tanker Smarts,” Aviation Week and Space Technology 162, no. 8 (21 February 2005): 39–40.

44. Given a fleet of 60 747-400 AACs and an 80 percent mission-capable rate, 48 AACs would be mission ready at any one time. Like the B-2A CONUS-to-CONUS missions, one-third of the mission-ready aircraft would be on station, one-third returning from the previous tasking cycle, and the other one-third en route, resulting in 16 AACs on station every 24 hours.

45. To maximize capability against HDBTs, each B-2A sortie will carry eight 5,000-pound-class weapons for a total of 32 weapons per night. Eight F-117s, each carrying two 2,000-pound-class penetrating weapons, will fly two sorties per night from the AAC for a total of 32 penetrating weapons. If the F/A-117A conversion is successful, an additional daytime sortie by each F/A-117 will add another 16 penetrating weapons.

46. Laura Pellegrino, “A Nighthawk in Raptor’s Clothing,” Air Combat Command News Service, 8 December 2003,

47. Designed and built by the famous Lockheed “Skunk Works,” the F-117A evolved from concept to technology demonstrator in two and one-half years, with the first flight of a production aircraft occurring four years later. A total of 64 airframes were built. Paul F. Crickmore and Alison J. Crickmore, Nighthawk F-117 Stealth Fighter (Ann Arbor, MI: Lowe and B. Hould Publishers, 2002), 182–89.

Col George D. Kramlinger (USAFA; MAAS, School of Advanced Airpower Studies; MA, Naval War College) is the commander, 612th Air Operations Group, Headquarters Twelfth Air Force, Davis-Monthan AFB, Arizona. As director of the combined air operations center (CAOC) at US Southern Air Forces, he is responsible for the planning and execution of air and space operations in the Southern Command area of responsibility. He has served in a variety of flying, staff, and leadership positions, including CAOC planner and F-117A pilot flying combat missions over Yugoslavia during Operation Allied Force. Most recently, he served as the deputy director of operations for NATO’s CAOC 6, Eskisehir, Turkey. Colonel Kramlinger is a graduate of Squadron Officer School, Air Command and Staff College (with distinction), Naval War College (with distinction), and the USAF Fighter Weapons Instructor Course.

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