Converted older planes would carry firepower directed by F-35s and F-22s remotely.
The US Air Force has a problem. While it bets its future on the stealth of the F-22 and F-35 fighters, that stealth has come at a cost: reduced weapon loads. To be stealthy, the aircraft both have to carry all of their weapons in internal bays, significantly limiting how many bombs and missiles they can carry to strike at targets on the surface and defend themselves from other fighters.
Without mounting weapons on external hard points on its wings—and creating a much bigger radar target as a consequence—the F-22 can carry just two air-to-air missiles and two JDAM bombs—though the new, smaller Small Diameter Bomb II (SDB II) allows it to carry eight bombs and two air-to-air missiles in the same space. The Air Force's F-35A fighters delivered so far aren't cleared for combat, and the first wave of F-35s being delivered to the Marine Corps (Block 2B) are restricted to two bombs and two air-to-air missiles because the software for more weapons hasn't been finished.
So, what are these multimillion-dollar aircraft supposed to do once they've emptied their weapon bays? That is where the Air Force's research and development plans, detailed in the 2017 Defense Department budget request being sent to Congress this month, come in: the Air Force wants to develop an arsenal plane. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter described the arsenal plane as "a flying launch pad for all sorts of different conventional payloads. In practice, the arsenal plane will function as a very large airborne magazine, networked to 5th-generation aircraft that act as forward sensor and targeting nodes."