Airborne Aircraft Carriers

      In order to deploy overseas today, fighters must link up with several refuelers en route. This is complicated, especially at night. The refuelers require overseas bases and burn a lot a fuel to just link up with the fighters. The fighter pilots arrive exhausted and the long journey causes engine wear. The US Air Force can easily expand its capabilities by adding fighter attachment points on its refueler aircraft.  

    Allowing a refueler to act as an "Airborne Aircraft Carrier" and ferry fighter aircraft overseas allows pilots to relax and eliminates the complex task of coordinating multiple aerial refuelings. Hardpoints on the bottom of the refueler aircraft, similar to a bomb attachment hardpoints, would allow modified fighters to dock so fighter pilots can idle their engine and take a nap. When they reach their destination, the tanker crew can wake up the pilots who release themselves to land. This allows a tanker to carry several fighters to distant overseas bases.  This is not a new idea, B-36 "Tom Toms" once towed fighters. (below)

      The US Air Force should realize that tankers towing fighter-bombers provide very long-range strike options. The US Air Force once deployed F-84 fighters to escort photo recon B-36s in the 1950s using the FICON concept. (below) The F-85 "Goblin" fighter was developed to be carried by B-36 bombers.  There were other types of what were known as "parasite aircraft." These projects were never adopted because aerial refueling was perfected that allowed fighters to accompany strategic bombers all the way to the target.  

      Imagine eight KC-10s, each towing three F-16 fighter-bombers, escorted by an AWACs airborne radar aircraft.  If enemy fighters approach, the 24 F-16s can be released to fight, otherwise they can conduct a strike mission. Afterwards, they can link up with the KC-10s and dock for the long ride home. This allows a fighter-bomber squadron based in Virginia to conduct air strikes anywhere in the world without having the pilots refuel several times and exhausted from flying.

     This is not ideal, but if the situation is urgent or friendly airbases are not available, the Air Force could conduct long-range strikes in this manner. Air Force fighter-bombers were shut out of the early stages of the war in Afghanistan when Arab nations refused use of their airbases.  Airborne aircraft carriers would have allowed F-16s based in Diego Garcia to hitch tanker rides to strike targets in Afghanistan.  This can provide the Air Force with an even greater "Global Reach" similar to Navy aircraft carriers.  This may seem expensive, but an aircraft strike package from a Navy aircraft carrier requires billions of dollars of ships and 6000 crewmen.  A round-trip flight by eight KC-10s is much cheaper, and doesn't need a fleet to protect the airborne aircraft carriers from being sunk.

     Colonel George D. Kramlinger USAF authored a detailed proposal for Airborne Aircraft Carriers. His idea is more complex in that a fighter-bomber would attach on the back of its carrier to rearm. This idea is more ambitious, but worthy of study because piggybacked aircraft are nothing new. The huge Space Shuttle orbiter was routinely moved in this manner. Simply the existence of airborne aircraft carriers requires an enemy to expect attack from very long ranges, and allows plausible denial when silent allies allow use of their airbases to launch attacks.