The US Air Force Moved a Step Closer to Launching Missiles From Cargo Planes

It’s finally happening!
Ameya Paleja

The U.S. Air Force's Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office moved a step closer to making palletized munitions a reality after it successfully conducted a flight demonstration earlier this month, paving way for the deployment of a long-range cruise missile in the near future. 

The U.S. Air Force is planning the deployment of palletized munitions from cargo aircraft as part of its Rapid Dragon Program. With aims to develop a roll-on roll-off system that can be utilized to quickly convert military transport aircraft into lethal strike platforms, the program has moved rapidly from concept to actual live fire in less than 24 months with the pallet design having completed just 10 months ago, the press release said. 

 The US Air Force Moved a Step Closer to Launching Missiles From Cargo Planes
Palletized munition dropped from MC-130J.  Source: Air Force Research Laboratory

During the recent flight demonstration, the Air Force trialed the separation test vehicle (STV) of a production long-range cruise missile. The MC-130J aircraft en route to the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico received new targeting data through the Battle Management System (BMS) - an aircraft agnostic system. The BMS then uploaded the new data to the STV without using a cruise missile emulator, which is a first for the program. 

The STV without a warhead or an engine retains all other components of a cruise missile. At the missile range, the aircraft dropped a Rapid Dragon deployment system capable of holding four munitions at a time. Apart from the STV, the deployment system carried three mass simulants of the cruise missile. 

The four units contained in the pallet were sequentially released soon after the airdrop. Upon its release, the STV deployed its wings and tail, achieved aerodynamic control, and even performed a pull-up maneuver as it moved towards its intended target, according to the press release. 

While some of the achievements of the demonstration flight might sound repetitive, the operational team also needs to demonstrate that the capabilities of the palletized munitions are reproducible given the accelerated pace at which the development has taken place. 

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During the demonstration, military and industry partners such as Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren; Standoff Munitions Application Center; Lockheed Martin Missiles; Systima Technologies; and Safran Electronics & Defense, Parachutes USA were present as well. 

Next on the agenda for the SDPE is the live long-range deployment of the munition using powered flight, which aims at seeking potential refinements to the design leading to further experimental demonstrations and rapid fielding.