WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force conducted a test of its Rapid Dragon palletized munition system concept Nov. 3, which could one day pave the way to launching a barrage of cruise missiles out of the back of mobility aircraft.
The Air Force Research Laboratory said in a Tuesday release that it deployed a long-range cruise missile separation test vehicle — basically a cruise missile without its engine or warhead — from an MC-130J Commando II aircraft.
During the flight demonstration at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the MC-130′s crew — an operational group from Air Force Special Operations Command — obtained new targeting data for its onboard battle management system while it was flying to the drop zone, the release said. The battle management system then uploaded that new data to the weapon on the pallet, allowing it to find its new target.
This was the first time the battle management system, using a beyond line-of-sight command-and-control node, received and uploaded new targeting data into such a separation test vehicle, the Air Force said. The service’s previous beyond line-of-sight retargeting demonstrations had used a cruise missile emulator.
When the MC-130J neared the target, it airdropped the Rapid Dragon deployment system carrying the unarmed cruise missile, as well as three weights each simulating the mass and shape of cruise missiles. Within a few seconds, parachutes deployed to stabilize the pallet, and the cruise missile and the weights began to release sequentially to avoid collisions. The missile’s wings and tail popped out, it began to pull up, and then it glided toward its new target.
AFRL said this could lead to the first deployment of a live long-range cruise missile, operating under powered flight, from an MC-130J flown by Air Force Special Operations Command. And future programs following up on this effort will look at whether Rapid Dragon can handle other types of weapons and multiple effects capabilities.
“In future conflict scenarios against strategic competitors, the ability to cost-effectively deliver long-range standoff weapons en masse from nontraditional platforms expands warfighting flexibility and introduces new deterrence options,” Rapid Dragon program manager Dean Evans said.
AFRL spokesman Bryan Ripple said the next test will be a live-fire event, expected to take place in December.
The Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office is leading the Rapid Dragon program. The other organizations that took part in the demonstration were the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren, the Standoff Munitions Application Center, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, Systima Technologies, and the Safran Electronics and Defense subsidiary Parachutes USA.
AFRL said in the release that the demonstration also showed previous successful tests could be replicated, such as conducting high-altitude airdrops, jettisoning multiple weapons from Rapid Dragon, and deconflicting weapons during their release by cleanly separating the unarmed cruise missile and the three other simulated missiles.
And AFRL said Rapid Dragon would be able to easily roll on and off of mobility aircraft without any modifications to the planes.
The Air Force has been looking for ways to arm its airlift planes with multiple weapons strapped to smart pallets, which could upload targeting information to the weapons. This “bomb bay in a box” concept, as the Air Force once termed it, is intended to allow aircraft such as the C-130 and C-17 to release several weapons that could strike enemies from a distance, while itself staying out of danger.
But while the Rapid Dragon program could represent an advancement in the way the Air Force launches palletized munitions from mobility aircraft, it would not be the first time weapons were delivered from those planes. In 2017, an MC-130 from a special operations unit at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico dropped a GBU-43/B known as the MOAB, or Massive Ordnance Air Blast, on a tunnel complex in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, used by the Islamic State Khorasan militant group.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.