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The US Air Force (USAF) is developing the capability to launch cruise missiles and other air-to-ground weapons from cargo aircraft. Experiments deploying palletized munitions are currently being conducted as part of the ‘Rapid Dragon’ programme. The new operational concept is also being recommended to allies as a rapid force multiplier.

The term ‘Rapid Dragon’ is derived from a medieval Chinese weapon – ‘Ji Long Che’ (ENG: ‘Rapid Dragon Chariots’) referred to ballista-like siege weapons that could fire twelve projectiles at once. According to a 2021 USAF press release, the service chose the name for the new weapon concept because the palletised ammunition similarly promises to launch massed effectors in a single salvo.

CG concept image of a flight of C-17s equipped with Rapid Dragon, deploying up to 36 cruise missiles each. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Its implementation requires no special infrastructure on the ground, no modification of the aircraft, and no special training of the flight or ground crew – any aircraft and crew qualified to execute heavy equipment airdrop would be capable of executing this mission. At the heart of the Rapid Dragon Palletized Effects System lies the standard roll-on/roll-off cargo pallet routinely used for dropping equipment from transport aircraft. A modular carrier frame or “deployment box” with four, six or nine payload cells is mounted on this pallet (respectively known as ‘four-pack’, ‘six-pack’ or ‘nine-pack’ configurations). Each payload cell holds a single munition, and presently the system is compatible with Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cruise missile family but efforts are ongoing to integrate other munitions, including bombs fitted with Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition – Extended Range (JDAM-ER) guidance kits and Raytheon’s ADM-160B Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD). Up to two ‘six-pack’ pallets (for a total of 12 cruise missiles) can be carried on a C-130 Hercules, while the C-17 Globemaster III can accommodate up to four ‘nine-pack’ pallets (totalling 36 missiles).

Each deployment box is equipped with a cargo parachute to pull the cargo out of the aircraft, and a drogue parachute to slow the box’s fall, as well as an electronic control module. The control module serves as an interface to the individual cruise missiles and is used, among other things, for entering target coordinates into the weapons’ navigation system. As a rule, the targets are set before the carrier aircraft takes off, but it is possible to change or update the target coordinates at any time before triggering the weapons.

When the launch zone is reached, the pallets are jettisoned via the cargo ramp. The parachutes open and the pallets assume a stable vertical descent. The electronic control module of each deployment box expels the individual cruise missiles one after the other at safe intervals. After expulsion, each cruise missile unfolds its wings and tail fins and achieves aerodynamic control, the air inlet opens, and the engine ignites. After engine ignition is achieved, the weapon performs a powered pull-up manoeuvre to transition from vertical to horizontal flight mode, and sets its course for the predetermined target coordinates.

Representation of Palletized Munitions CONOPS. Credit: AFRL

Operational Advantages

USAF describes the Rapid Dragon Palletized Effects System as a force multiplier with several operational advantages:

The new capability permits a rapid and flexible ramping up of offensive capacity whenever and wherever the tactical situation dictates. The US Air Force alone has more than 650 C-130, MC-130 and C-17 transport aircraft, but only 140 long-range bombers. Even more important than the absolute figures is the fact that transport aircraft are forward deployed in many parts of the world, while long-range bombers must first be dispatched from the Continental United States (CONUS). The Rapid Dragon concept therefore enables an early counter-offensive, buying time for deployment of forces from CONUS.

Even when a sufficient number of bombers is available in-theatre, Rapid Dragon-equipped aircraft can relieve a portion of their operational burden and allow theatre commanders to dedicate the bombers to the most demanding missions. As Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Strategy, Integration, and Requirements, expressed in 2020: “What we see is that no matter how big our bomber force is, the capacity that the joint force needs is always more and more.”

Transport aircraft deployed in the Rapid Dragon role can match or even exceed the payload capacity of dedicated long-range bombers – for comparison, a B-52 can carry 20 cruise missiles, and the B-1 can take 24. Deployment of palletised munitions could increase the “on demand” availability of large-capacity, cruise-missile capable aircraft significantly, without the need to invest in highly specialised and expensive bombers which will only be needed infrequently. Following weapons deployment, the aircraft can immediately resume their primary transport function, or conduct additional offensive operations as needed.

Long-range bombers have special infrastructure requirements and can only operate from a comparatively small number of airfields in most operational theatres. This leads to concerns that an adversary such as China or Russia could pre-emptively target suitable installations with ballistic and cruise missiles to deny their use by USAF bombers. The ability of tactical transport aircraft to take off from any number of airfields, including austere landing zones, forces the adversary to recalculate its strategy, said Lt. General Jim Slife, commander of USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC). “It’s not hard to figure out where all the 10,000-feet concrete runways in the Pacific are, but when you’re trying to figure out where the 3,000-feet straight stretches of road and grass strips are, that’s a different targeting problem for your adversaries,” Slife said at an Air & Space Forces Association (ASFA) event on 7 September 2022.

This unrestricted choice of starting location means that a larger number of transport aircraft can perform attack flights simultaneously from a variety of directions, putting a strain on enemy defences. The fact that the large transport aircraft have no stealth properties is considered inconsequential, as they are intended to deploy long-range cruise missiles from outside the protected area of enemy air defences. The low-observable AGM-158 JASSM-ER being used in the Rapid Dragon test series has a range of more than 800 km, while the extended range JASSM-XR variant due to be introduced in 2024, will be capable of reaching targets as far away as 1,900 km.

Programme Phase 1

The Rapid Dragon programme was launched in December 2019. The US Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) Office, a division of the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), acts as project lead, with substantial participation of AFSOC, Air Mobility Command (AMC), and industry partners Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, Safran Electronics and Defense, and Systema Technologies. The programme is divided into two phases: a two-year proof-of-concept phase (2020-2021), and a follow on phase to refine technology and operating procedures (2022-2023).

During the proof-of-concept phase, the programme progressed from a concept design to an initial system flight test within 10 months, followed five months later by the first live-fire flight test. A total of five system level test flights were conducted between August and December 2021, each with increasing difficulty. Three different aircraft – the MC-130J, the EC-130SJ, and the C-17A – were involved. The test missions, some of them utilising mass simulants and surrogate cruise missile payloads, confirmed the procedures for launching and stabilising the carrier pallets, as well as for releasing the missiles. On 16 December 2021, AFSOC conducted a test using a production model AGM–158 JASSM-ER cruise missile with a live warhead. As part of that test mission, new targeting data was transmitted from a ground control centre to an MC-130J aircraft flying over the Gulf of Mexico. The MC-130J’s battle management system (BMS) relayed the data to the Rapid Dragon control module mounted on the four-pack deployment box. The module transferred the target coordinates into the cruise missile, overriding the initial set of coordinates. The pallet was subsequently jettisoned, releasing the JASSM-ER and three mass simulants. The weapon successfully located and destroyed the intended target within the Eglin AFB Overwater Test Range off the Florida coast.

Concept image of a cruise missile transitioning to powered flight mode after release from the deployment box.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

This test flight marked the conclusion of the first Rapid Dragon test series. It set several milestones, including completion of a mission-relevant test flight within two years of programme inception. The successful transfer of targeting data via the MC-130’s aircraft-agnostic BMS also confirmed that missions using transport aircraft can still allow last-minute adjustments to mission parameters. This new retargeting methodology was first developed by the Rapid Dragon team, and now the Air Force plans to apply it to other strike and cargo platforms in the future.

Programme Phase 2

The follow-up developmental prototype phase, also scheduled to run for two years, is presently underway. It aims to refine and optimise the technology and operational concepts. It will also expand the Rapid Dragon carriage portfolio by testing the use of additional weapon systems beyond cruise missiles. This includes developing the ability to load multiple munition types into a single deployment box, enabling a single transport platform to attack multiple target categories on a single pass. Among the primary candidates for expanded ordnance options are AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM), which is the maritime variant of the JASSM, and sea mines. These payloads would be especially critical in the early days of a war with China, to prevent the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) from gaining dominance in the East and South China Sea area. Here again, the flexibility and availability of tactical transport aircraft carrying the Rapid Dragon Palletized Effects System could prove a game-changer, buying time for US and allied air and naval assets to deploy.

According to a 9 November 2022 AFRL press release, the Rapid Dragon Experimentation Program has also begun to look beyond kinetic munitions, expanding its focus “from Palletized Munitions to Palletized Effects, which include kinetic and non-kinetic munitions; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, platforms; cargo resupply; and humanitarian aid delivery.” Lt. Col. Lawrence Melnicoff, a staff officer with US Special Operations Command – Europe (SOCEUR) added that the system could potentially be paired with hypersonic weapons and swarming Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Members of the Polish Air Force help load the palletized precision effects on Nov. 8, 2022, in Powidz, Poland. This training is a continuation from previous iterations with US Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR). Credit: SOCEUR

(Joint) Force Multiplier

From the beginning the Pentagon has proposed that allied forces adopt the Rapid Dragon concept, which would enable large-scale airborne cruise missile deployment by allies and partners who do not operate heavy bombers. This would significantly increase the force multiplier effect, providing massive firepower against a strong or geographically widespread opponent.

The fact that more than 60 countries worldwide use the C-130 and seven allies have the C-17 in their inventory means that US experience and lessons learned can be seamlessly transferred. Moreover, the concept is not restricted to US-designed airframes. Any other medium-sized to larger class of transport aircraft capable of airdropping supplies and equipment is also suited for the use of the Palletized Effects System.

At the September 2022 ASFA symposium Gen. Slife revealed that several partners from different regions of the world had already asked USAF for help integrating palletised munitions on their transport planes. “We demonstrated this capability [to our allies] in the spring of 2022, and plan to repeat it in the fall of 2022,” Slife said.

This second demonstration took place on 9 November 2022 during the Atreus 22-4 NATO exercise conducted at Norway’s Andøya Space Defence Range, some 300 km north of the Arctic Circle. A US Air Force MC-130J assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Wing stationed at RAF Mildenhall (UK) jettisoned the deployment box over the Norwegian Sea. As the container descended, it sequentially launched a live JASSM-ER and three mass simulants. The live cruise missile manoeuvred to intercept an ocean surface target, detonating on impact. Allied personnel from Norway, Poland, Romania and the UK witnessed the demonstration. One day prior to this event, US special operations airmen briefed allies on operational procedures, and assisted Polish personnel with loading a Palletized Effects System onto a Polish Air Force C-130 in Powditz, Poland, though no attempt was made to launch that system.

A Rapid Dragon Palletized Effects System falls from the cargo hold of a 352nd Special Operations Wing MC-130J Commando II during a live-fire demonstration for ATREUS 22-4 at Andøya Space Defense Range, Norway, 9 November 2022.
Credit: USAF

The 9 November demonstration was the first of its kind to be conducted in Europe, and underscored Rapid Dragon’s potential for deployment on Russia’s flanks as well as in a sea-control mission over Arctic waters, enhancing allied capabilities. “It puts this thing within range of Russia,” said Lt. Col. Melnicoff, lead officer for the Atreus 22-4 exercise. “We are intentionally trying to be provocative without being escalatory. We’re trying to deter Russian aggression, expansionist behaviour, by showing [the] enhanced capabilities of the allies.”

Aiming for Rapid Fielding

At the end of Phase 2, the USAF hopes to have an operational prototype which will lead to serial deployment of the Palletized Effects System. If successful, the effort will represent another victory for advocates of re-tasking systems already in the military’s inventory in order to quickly gain new operational capabilities. The Pentagon attributes the program’s rapid progress, at least in part, to early inclusion of not only the developmental and operational test community, but also the relevant major commands, mission planners, and aircraft and weapon programme offices. “Rapid Dragon is a prime example of a government/industry partnership that embraces this acceleration mindset, building a community of subject matter experts and executing an aggressive, but well-thought-out, experimentation campaign,” said Dr. Dean Evans, SDPE’s Rapid Dragon programme manager.

“This type of experimentation campaign, that address capability gaps and demonstrates transformative efforts, helps us shape future requirements and reduces timeline to fielding,” said Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, Air Force Research Laboratory commander, following the December 2021 experiment. “This approach ultimately enables a rapid fielding alternative to traditional lengthy acquisition timelines.”

Sidney E. Dean