The US Army Air Force’s least successful, but most imaginative, fighters of the Second World War were the YB-40 and XB-41. These were both modified variants of heavy bombers, respectively the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator, but they were built to escort other bombers beyond the range of Allied fighters. They were fitted with extra upper and nose gun turrets; their single waist guns were replaced with twin mounts and hundreds of pounds of extra armor plate were added; the bomb bays were stripped out and used as storage for massive reserves of .50 link.
It seemed like a great idea, but it didn’t work. The modified bombers bristled with extra guns and could seriously boost the firepower of whatever formation they were attached to – but only if they could keep up. The problem was they couldn’t. The bombers were a lot lighter and faster on the return trip, with their heavy bombloads gone; the escort planes were still weighed down with extra guns and armor. Either the whole formation had to throttle back and spend longer in the kill zones of the German flak – which the gunships couldn’t protect them from – or the gunships themselves would be left behind. If that happened then, despite their extra armament, they could be swarmed by German fighters.
A total of 25 YB-40s were built, and only a single XB-41. In total, they managed to knock down five German fighters in exchange for the loss of a YB-40, which was destroyed by a Fw 190 when it fell behind the formation. As casualties among the bombers they were escorting didn’t fall noticeably the USAAF decided – probably wisely – that the idea was a failure, and the surviving aircraft were converted for training or transport duties.
The idea seemed to keep a certain appeal though, and in the 1980s thriller, author and ex-USAF bomber pilot updated it in his novel Flight of the Old Dog. The Old Dog was a heavily modified B-52, with racks of air-to-air missiles packed into its massive airframe. Through a series of sequels, the plane and its successors picked up more weapons and advanced systems until they were capable of fighting a pretty major war by themselves.
Now it seems the USAF is looking at turning Brown’s Megafortress into reality. A concept the Air Force has been looking at for a while is an “arsenal plane,” or “flying bomb truck”, to counter some of the limitations of fifth-generation fighter aircraft. The F-22A can carry a decent missile armament but the F-35 is a lot more restricted, and can only carry four missiles unless it abandons stealth and starts hanging racks under the wings.
On the other hand, the F-35 has a pretty amazing sensor and datalink capability, and it’s easily capable of guiding massive salvoes of missiles fired by another plane. The USAF has been looking at converted airliners or cargo planes as launch platforms, but since last year they’re leaning towards a modified B-52. After all, it’s already a military design, it’s slated for a range of electronics and engine upgrades, and the already massive bomb bay is also being rebuilt to hugely increase the number of small – missile-sized, in other words – weapons it can carry.
Nobody expects a B-52 to get mixed up in combat, but as a flying missile battery with a group of F-35s to keep the enemy off it and guide its weapons it could be formidable. Other options for the arsenal plane include acting as a mothership for disposable surveillance or combat drones. The truth is there aren’t many limits on what it can do. It has space for an enormous weapon load as well as powerful electronic warfare systems, it can stay in the air for hours and it’s inherently a very robust airframe. As part of a fully networked air combat team, it has huge potential, and it might just by the system that finally shows the YB-40 concept wasn’t a mistake – just ahead of its time.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.