US Air Force to Turn Cargo Planes into Bomber Aircraft

Rapid Dragon program completes demonstrations during system level flight tests.
Ameya Paleja
Palletized munitions being dropped from cargo aircraftLockheed Martin

When battling at multiple fronts, even a large fleet of fighter aircraft can be severely strained and get incapable of serving multiple missions. To prepare for this undesirable situation, the U.S. Air Force is developing palletized munitions under the Rapid Dragon Program, whose first system-level test was conducted in July 2021, a press release said. 

Even with multiple aircraft deployed at battle stations, one wishes for more to ensure a decisive victory. However, designing and developing fighter aircraft is a resource-intensive exercise. Therefore, the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office, embarked on an ambitious mission to deliver long-range strike weapons from a military cargo aircraft, and recently completed demonstrations at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. 

As seen in the video above, the Rapid Dragon consists of a modular deployment box that can stack multiple strike missiles, all controlled through a weapon deployment system. After being released from the cargo aircraft, parachutes stabilize the box and allow for sufficient time to release the weapons. 

Developed through a multi-organization collaboration, the recent system-level test was conducted using the C-17A and EC-130SJ aircraft, the latter being a specially modified C-130 Hercules for the Air Force, while the weapon was the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) cruise missile. 

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The target for JASSM-ER missiles was provided after the deployment box was already in flight through a Beyond-Line-of-Sight Command and Control node. The Battle Management System on the cargo aircraft transferred the new target data to the JASSM-ER emulator, which then redirected the missiles during flight.

The demonstration conducted on two aircraft was the first to achieve a successful airdrop of palletized munitions and clean separation of multiple JASSM-ER mass simulants from the deployment system, the press release said.

For the next stage of testing, the SDPE is aiming for a live-fire test of the system after which a follow-up program will expand the portfolio to include multiple weapon systems. Eventually, the Rapid Dragon system is aimed to become a roll-on, roll-off system that can be used to rapidly transform cargo aircraft into lethal strike platforms, providing commanders with additional flexibility to target multiple targets, the press release said.