AIR FORCE NEWS
Air Force to Replace Aging Bomb Loader
Air Force photo
The Air Force recently awarded Colorado-based company Stratom a contract to develop its Small Agile Lift Truck prototype — an all-electric, autonomy-ready platform to replace the service’s aging MJ-1 vehicle.
The MJ-1 — commonly referred to as a “jammer” — has been the Air Force’s bomb load vehicle of choice since the 1950s. While the vehicle’s longevity is a symbol of its reliability, technological advancements and the rapidly evolving security landscape have made an upgrade necessary for the Air Force, Stratom executives said.
The company’s Small Agile Lift Truck, or SALT, “is benefitting from 70 years of technology advancements, which is huge,” Jesse Weifenbach, Stratom’s lead vehicle systems engineer, said in an interview. “We spent some time examining the original vehicle, and … it has a lot of good attributes, and that’s part of the reason they’ve used it for 70 years. So, we kind of examined what we thought were the good attributes and held on to those” and then upgraded aspects of the MJ-1 that are more “dated.”
While SALT has the same lift capacity as the MJ-1, the former is more compatible with modern fifth-generation fighters and can be operated by wired remote, reducing the crew required to load and unload munitions and aerial stores, a Stratom release stated. The company estimates SALT is three times more maneuverable than the MJ-1.
The MJ-1 requires someone in the driver’s seat operating the vehicle, “and then you have several other airmen around the vehicle performing various operations,” Weifenbach said. SALT “is a little bit more flexible, in that the guy who’s driving it can also walk around the vehicle to the point of concern and look directly at what he needs to when maneuvering the store into place. So, our vehicle potentially can cut down upon the amount of manpower required to load these aircraft.”
Stratom president and CEO Mark Gordon said the flexibility SALT provides fits right in with the Air Force’s fifth operational imperative of resilient basing and the service’s Agile Combat Employment strategy, in which forces would be dispersed across a wide area of operating locations.
In a potential Indo-Pacific conflict, the Air Force will be operating in “more austere environments,” making the upgrade from MJ-1 to SALT “extremely important,” Gordon said. The MJ-1 is more “tarmac-based,” meaning it has to “work on more improved surfaces,” whereas SALT is designed to “work in a little bit more of an austere environment,” such as off-road or on a hasty, dirt airfield — “one that’s not as improved as what may be in a standard, traditional airbase.”
SALT can also be rapidly deployed in less than five minutes “when it gets to where it’s going” and will take up less space in a cargo plane than an MJ-1, allowing the Air Force to bring more supplies, Weifenbach added.
SALT also supports the Air Force’s electrification goals. In its October 2022 Climate Action Plan, one of the service’s stated objectives was to pursue alternative energy sources. SALT is powered by lithium batteries and is thus “extremely quiet,” Weifenbach said.
SALT is “designed to complete a full day’s work on batteries alone,” he said. “This vehicle actually has chargers built into it, so all you need is a wall outlet to charge it. … It helps them be more flexible. So, they can plug it in in a hangar, they can have a dedicated building or it can be out in the field just charging off of any generator.”
And while the vehicle is autonomy ready, “there were some specific requirements with this vehicle that it was wire-controlled, no radios and no active sensing,” he said. “It uses the same basic control system as our other autonomous vehicles, but we eliminated some features at the request of the Air Force to keep it more of a closed system.”
Future designs could include additional sensors and computers to provide alignment assist and autonomous loading, the Stratom release said.
Stratom plans to deliver the initial working prototype of SALT in early 2024 to the Air Force for evaluation, Gordon said. ND
Topics: Air Force News