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Rapid Dragon: The US Air Force’s Plan for ‘Palletized’ Missiles

Rapid Dragon
Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

The United States Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office announced that it had completed the most recent flight demonstration of the Rapid Dragon program earlier this month from an MC-130J aircraft. The test, which was conducted at the White Sands Missile Range on November 3, successfully demonstrated the deployment of a production long-range cruise missile separation test vehicle (STV) – a cruise missile without an engine and warhead – from a palletized weapons system.

The goal of the Rapid Dragon program has been to explore the feasibility and operational advantages of airdropping long-range palletized munitions from existing airlift platforms, such as the C-130 and C-17, without aircraft modifications. The multi-phase program has brought together nearly 30 stakeholders from across the Department of Defense (DoD), Air Force Major Commands, Test and Evaluation enterprise and program offices, as well as industry to develop and demonstrate the capability through modeling, simulation, analysis, demonstration and flight tests.

Rapid Dragon was first established in December 2019 and sought to achieve powered flight within 24 months. Two previous tests were conducted in July to assess the operational utility of delivering long-range strike weapons en masse from the military cargo aircraft.

Rapid Dragon: White Sands Tests

During the most recent flight test on November 3, while on en route to the White Sands Missile Range drop zone the aircraft’s crew employed a beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) command and control node to receive new targeting data for the onboard Battle Management System (BMS), which was able to upload the targeting data to the palletized weapon. The aircraft agnostic BMS’s in-flight receipt and upload of the new targeting data into the STV was a first-time achievement; all previous BLOS retargeting demonstrations used a cruise missile emulator.

At White Sands Missile Range, the MC-130J airdropped the four-cell Rapid Dragon deployment system containing the STV as well as three mass simulants, which sequentially released from the palletized system. Seconds after release, the STV successfully deployed its wings and tail, achieved aerodynamic control, and began a pull-up maneuver as it glided toward its new target.

In addition to showcasing the utility of delivering stand-off munitions en masse via mobility aircraft, this palletized munition demonstration repeated and validated several milestone events from previous Rapid Dragon tests. This included the successful high-altitude airdrop using a modular Rapid Dragon deployment system; successful jettison of multiple weapons from the Rapid Dragon deployment system; and a weapon de-confliction through the clean separation of the STV and multiple cruise missile simulants (simulated missiles).

“In future conflict scenarios against strategic competitors, the ability to cost-effectively deliver long-range standoff weapons en masse from non-traditional platforms expands warfighting flexibility and introduces new deterrence options,” said Dr. Dean Evans, Rapid Dragon program manager.

This month’s demonstration participants included the Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren; Standoff Munitions Application Center; Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control; Systima Technologies; and Safran Electronics & Defense, Parachutes USA. It paves the way for the first deployment of a live long range cruise missile under powered flight from an AFSOC MC-130J.

The November 3 test will further inform potential design refinement and accelerate the maturation of these systems for further experimentation and rapid fielding, while a follow-on program will next look at expanding the Rapid Dragon portfolio to include additional weapon systems and multiple effects capabilities.

If successful, this could lead to a “roll-on, roll-off” system that greatly transforms mobility aircraft into lethal strike platforms and could allow the transport aircraft to augment the strike capacity of tactical fighters and strategic bombers. Using a transport’s cargo roller system, these “palletized” missiles could be dropped out of the cargo area in much the same way as other heavy cargo can be launched from the rear of transport planes.

The retargeting methodology used has been seen as transferrable to other strike and cargo platforms, potentially increasing lethality of all long range cruise missiles strike assets.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Written By

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Suciu is also a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine.

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