USAF Launches Missiles Dropped From Cargo Aircraft

Palletized munitions like Rapid Dragon enable combatant commanders to strike from more airfields and engage more targets, while offering mobility aircraft and crews a rapid transition back to primary missions. Courtesy of Lockheed Martin

U.S. military cargo aircraft are one step closer to delivering long-range strike weapons en masse, according to an announcement by the U.S. Air Force.

The announcement comes after a demonstration Wednesday of a new Air Force rapid development program which aims to turn mobility aircraft into bombers.

The program, called Rapid Dragon, involved Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and Lockheed EC-130 test-dropping munition pallets over White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. The pallets contained surrogate Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM-ERs).

Rapid Dragon, which is led by the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office, seeks to offer commanders a wider range of air strike capabilities.

“These Rapid Dragon deployments represent the first end-to-end demonstration of a palletized strike mission, from rolling missile pallets onto an aircraft to in-flight missile release,” said Scott Callaway, Lockheed Martin’s director of advanced strike programs. “They are a big step toward showing the feasibility of the palletized munitions concept and the ability of mobility aircraft to augment the strike capacity of tactical fighters and strategic bombers.”

“Once stabilized by parachutes, the pallets released surrogate missiles in quick succession, each aerodynamically identical to a JASSM-ER,” Lockheed Martin said in a statement. During the flights, a ground crew transmitted new targets. “The ability to retarget missiles while the aircraft is airborne provides combatant commanders the flexibility to respond to changes in a dynamic operational environment,” it said.


Key to the program’s utility, said program officials, is the compatibility it would have with standard airlift inventory systems that require no aircraft modifications.

“Rapid Dragon could ultimately lead to a roll-on, roll-off system that transforms mobility aircraft into lethal strike platforms that augment the strike capacity of tactical fighters and strategic bombers,” said Dean Evans, palletized munitions experimentation program manager with SDPE, earlier this summer.

It’s a utility that could be expanded.

“The retargeting methodology used is transferable to other strike and cargo platforms, potentially increasing lethality of all JASSM-capable strike assets,” Evans said. “These new capabilities can provide combatant commanders additional flexibility to prosecute targets en masse in the high-end fight, thus changing the adversary’s calculus in an increasingly complicated and dynamic near-peer conflict.”

What’s Next

The next step is deploying another surrogate JASSM-ER from an MC-130J, a test that is expected to occur in the next few months.

“This test missile will have deployable wings and tail fins,” Callaway said. “The goal is to show that a JASSM-ER can stabilize itself after a vertical pallet drop.”

By the end of the year, things get real with a live-fire of actual JASSM-ER from a Lockheed MC-130J, he said. A similar airdrop from a C-17 is planned in Spring 2022.

“These tests will inform potential design refinement and accelerate the maturation of these systems for further capability experimentation and rapid fielding,” Callaway said.

Kimberly is managing editor of FLYING Digital.

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