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Robot air fleet can launch mid-air from cargo plane's ramp

Hundreds of jet decoys can fly from Hercules 'birdcages'

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US manufacturers have carried out a flight test that might change the way air battles are fought. In future, rather than sexy jet fighters or massive bombers, the aircraft which crush an enemy dictator's air defences could be ordinary cargo haulers – each of which could launch a hundreds-strong armada of small robot planes into the fray.

The test, announced last week, saw a C-130 Hercules launch two small droid jetplanes each "about the length of two golf bags laid end-to-end" from its cargo ramp while flying above the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. US arms'n'aerospace mammoth Raytheon, maker of the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD) roboplane, says that the launcher kit used in the test would allow a single Hercules to launch huge numbers of MALDs.

The "birdcage-like" launcher assembly used in the test is loaded into the Hercules on a standard cargo pallet. It "opens the door for the non-traditional use of a high-capacity aircraft to deliver hundreds of MALDs during a single combat sortie," according to Raytheon veep Harry Schulte.

An expendable MALD, after being dropped from its carrying aircraft, deploys a pair of wings and fires up its onboard jet engine. It then flies a preprogrammed course for up to 600 miles. To an enemy air-defence radar it looks just like a full-size jet fighter.

The idea is to send MALDs into range of enemy air defences – for instance those of Libya recently – and so get targeting radars to light up and missiles to launch, so giving away the opposition positions. Then the enemy batteries can be taken out: perhaps by air weapons, but in this day and age more probably using cruise missiles launched from warships or submarines offshore.

Such defence-suppression missions are one of the main tasks seen nowadays for the expensive, high-performance combat jets which make up most of a typical air force's order of battle. It is acknowledged that such planes are more than a little over-spec'd for the task of dropping bombs to ground troops' requirements, as in Afghanistan: an armed cargo plane or a cheap robot strike aircraft does at least as good a job in the role of flying artillery.

But cargo planes and robots couldn't be used to deploy MALDs – not until last week, anyway. Until then the only aircraft able to carry MALDs were traditional airpower ones: F-16 fighters or massive eight-engined B-52 bombers.

Now, though, it seems that the taking out of an enemy air-defence setup could be an almost all-robot operation: apart perhaps from a few cargo planes to carry MALDs to their launch point, where they would join the Reapers, cruise missiles etc which would carry out the strike missions.

The only manned planes left in the air force would be cargo jobs, which might also, suitably modified, help out the robots with the flying-artillery tasks during any subsequent ground operation. And as there's always a terrible shortage of cargo planes at the moment that might not be such a bad thing.

It would be extremely unpopular with the air forces of the world, however, which perhaps explains why Raytheon has had to pay for development of the C-130 birdcage robot ramp launch kit with its own money rather than getting any USAF development cash. It might sell to the US Marines or special-operations forces (both have their own cargo planes and neither are dominated by fighter and bomber pilots) or alternatively to overseas customers like Blighty. The RAF might be a bit more willing to be reasonable, not having any F-16s or B-52s and thus no way at all to deploy any droid decoys. ®

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