A technician looks at a Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter during a 2016 exercise at a military base in Vasylkiv, some 40 km from Kiev.

A technician looks at a Ukrainian MiG-29 fighter during a 2016 exercise at a military base in Vasylkiv, some 40 km from Kiev. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

USAF Puts HARMs on MiG-29s, Cruise Missiles on C-130s, Cargo in B-52s

If the U.S. can’t give Western jets to Kyiv, it’s got a plan B.

In the last few months, the U.S. Air Force has modified Ukrainian MiG-29s to carry Western anti-radar missiles, turned U.S. strategic bombers into cargo carriers, and transformed airlifters into long-range strike aircraft, officials said this week, as Russia and the changing Indo-Pacific security environment have forced the service to think outside the box. 

The modifications to the Soviet-era MiG-29s, which were done by an undisclosed Air Force contractor, will allow Ukraine to wield U.S. AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missiles. It’s one way to get Kyiv Western-compatible capabilities without the policy decision on whether to provide Ukraine U.S. fighter aircraft, and the Air Force is interested in seeing what else can be done, said Chief of Staff Gen. C.Q. Brown Jr. 

“These are the conversations I want to make sure we are having,” Brown said at the Air & Space Forces Association’s annual conference outside Washington, D.C.. “Whether we decide to do it or not, I think we actually need to have the conversations on some of these to see what options there are.” 

Air Force Special Operations Command and the Air Force Research Laboratory are testing another option: palletizing U.S. cruise missiles so they can be dropped out of the back of a cargo airplane. Last fall, a pallet was pushed out the back of an MC-130J during flight. After parachutes stabilized the descending pallet, a mock AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile - Extended Range (JASSM-ER) was successfully released.

It could be a way to get cruise missile capability to NATO allies and other countries whose smaller militaries lack bombers but do have some type of cargo plane. 

“We've got a lot of allies and partners that have cargo airplanes, and they don't necessarily have, you know, deep-magazine heavy bombers in the way that the United States does,” said Lt. Gen. James Slife, who leads Air Force Special Operations Command. “If we can give them similar kinds of capability to us with the cargo platforms we have, then we're helping our partners become more capable.” 

“The NATO partners are probably at the forefront of that, but I think that applies to other places as well,” Slife said. “There’s nothing particularly complicated about the pallet.” 

Gen. Mike Minihan, head of Air Mobility Command, said the concept is being extended to C-17s, larger aircraft that could carry even more cruise missiles. 

“If you just use the same kit that was outfitted on the C-130, it would be palletized cargoes, but it would be over 30 that can be dropped, as opposed to a dozen,” Minihan said. He called himself a fan of the concept, because it would reduce the time that valuable airlifters are on the ground and vulnerable, if they don’t have to land to unload the munitions.

“The question [that] always comes up is, ‘Well, you got you got to haul cargo. So are you going to become this, somewhat of a striker, and then not not do your cargo mission?’ But the reality is, I gotta haul the cargo anyway,” Minihan said. “I gotta take that munition. If I'm not dropping it, I gotta take it somewhere to someone that can.” 

Palletized cruise missiles aren’t the only way AFSOC is changing the way the C-130 is used. For months, it's been testing a seaplane kit for its MC-130J Commando II to allow it to take off and land on water – something that might be critical in a conflict with China. The concept is undergoing wave tank testing and the Air Force plans to test-fly the amphibious warplane in the next calendar year, he said. 

While AFSOC has been testing how to turn cargo aircraft into bombers and amphibs, Global Strike Command has been experimenting with how to turn bombers into cargo aircraft. 

Barksdale Air Force Base, home of the 2nd Bomb Wing, tested an On-Board Cargo System, or BOCS, concept in August in which four B-52H Stratofortresses were kitted with two cargo containers that fit inside the bomb bay. Each container can carry up to 5,000 pounds, meaning the B-52 might be able to haul its own maintenance gear or other cargo. 

Brown said the switch is about creating uncertainty. 

“The way I've looked at this, just like I talk about multi-capable airmen, multi-capable platforms provide us the opportunity,” Brown said. “It also complicates and creates limits for our adversaries.” 

“We kind of restrain our thinking when we think about, you know, ‘C’ airplanes only do cargo, ‘B’ airplanes only do bombing,” Minihan said. “Do I think that there's combatant commands looking for a B-52 to haul cargo? I don't know. But if there's room on it, and it can create efficiency, why wouldn't you?”

Correction: An earlier headline on this story named the wrong bomber.