US Air Force Has Successfully Fired Live Cruise Missiles from a Cargo Plane

Next up, the C-17.
Ameya Paleja
The palletized weapon system deployed.Air Force Research Lab

Over the last two years, the Armed Forces Research Laboratory (AFRL) has been working painstakingly to develop a palletized weapon system that can be used on military cargo planes. Called Rapid Dragon, the weapon system completed its first live fire test of an inventoried cruise missile recently, the AFRL said in a press release

The inspiration for the weapon system is the Chinese crossbow catapult, Ji Long Che - Rapid Dragon Carts. Back in its day, the crossbow could launch multiple bolts from an impressive range with the press of a single trigger, the AFRL said in its press release. However, the weapon system developed not only can rain down destruction from the sky but also provides firepower to an integrant of the military that has no combat roles, transport aircraft.

Built to carry troops and military equipment, these aircraft often go into the background at war fronts but the Rapid Dragon system provides them attack capabilities without the need for any modification. The system works in a roll-on/roll-off configuration that enables quick repurposing of the aircraft. The missile units can be programmed remotely and as we have seen with previous demonstrations as well, can be assigned new targets midflight with ease.

During the recently conducted test, the MC-130J took off from the Elgin Air Force Base in Florida and proceeded to the Gulf of Mexico where it dropped the palletized deployment box under a parachute in an unconventional nose-down vertical orientation. Once the separation was completed, the flight test vehicle (FTV) deployed its wings and tail, ignited its engine, and then proceeded towards its target after performing a pull-up maneuver. On impact with the target, the latter was destroyed, the press release said. 

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Prior to the launch of the weapon, the flight crew received new target data which was then routed to the FTV by the Battle Management system. While this was a first for a live-fire cruise missile, the system itself is independent of the aircraft being used and the AFRL now has plans to conduct a live-fire test from a C-17 in Spring of 2022, the press release said. 

The recent deployment was the last test flight of the Rapid Dragon Program. A follow-up program will look at expanding the portfolio of the system to include additional weapons and multiple effect capabilities, the press release added. 

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