U.S. Air Force turns cargo planes into weapons systems


The U.S. Air Force has accomplished a significant milestone in the development of its “bomb bay in a box” palletized munitions system called Rapid Dragon.

An Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J Commando II aircraft destroyed a target in the Gulf of Mexico with a cruise missile launched from a “palletized deployment box” that was dropped from the plane’s cargo bay, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) announced December 16, 2021.

The battle management system on the MC-130 received in-flight targeting data that was routed to the cruise missile. The uploading of new targeting data was a first for a live cruise missile during a flight, according the AFRL news release. When the Rapid Dragon deployed from the MC-130, a parachute stabilized the plummeting deployment box as the cruise missile and three dummy weights released sequentially. The AFRL said the manner in which the missile separated from the box was “unconventional” — nose down. After springing its wings and tail, the engine ignited and the missile righted itself before heading toward the target, according to the AFRL. (Pictured: A cruise missile in the deployment box is airdropped from the MC-130J in an earlier test.)

The mission marked the first live-fire attempt for Rapid Dragon and was its final flight test, which took place at the overwater range at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The program name is derived from a thousand-year-old Chinese crossbow catapult that launched multiple bolts, according to an AFRL news release.

The modern Rapid Dragon is a “roll-on/roll-off package to transform various types of airlifters into additional strike platforms,” according to The War Zone military news website. The platform would give the Air Force a “potentially more cost-effective and scalable way to quickly increase its overall stand-off strike capacity, especially during a future major conflict, such as one against China or Russia,” the website said.

The palletized launcher could also be configured to carry other types of weapons or even swarms of small drones, according to The War Zone.

“This type of experimentation campaign — that address capability gaps and demonstrates transformative efforts — helps us shape future requirements and reduces timeline to fielding,” Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, the Air Force Research Laboratory commander, said in the news release. “This approach ultimately enables a rapid fielding alternative to traditional lengthy acquisition timelines.”

The next Rapid Dragon experiment is scheduled for spring 2022 in a live-fire test with a cruise missile from a C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft, the AFRL said. The goal is to bring the program from a developmental prototype to an operational prototype in two years.

AFRL pointed to the quick development of Rapid Dragon as an example of how government and industry can quickly produce results when collaborating, according to a December 17, 2021, story in Defense News. The live-fire test came five months after the Rapid Dragon team conducted a system-level flight test, which came 10 months after the Air Force and industry partners conceived it.