“These Rapid Dragon deployments represent the first end-to-end demonstration of a palletized strike mission, from rolling missile paddles on an aircraft to dropping mid-air missiles,” said Scott Callaway, director of advanced strike programs. of Lockheed Martin, tests at Sables Blancs. “They are a big step towards demonstrating the feasibility of the concept of palletized ammunition and the ability of mobility aircraft to increase the strike capability of tactical fighters and strategic bombers.”
Lockheed Martin also provided more details on the targeting process used in the tests. In C-17 and EC-130 flights, ground personnel used beyond-line-of-sight communications (satellite communication data link) to transmit targeting data to the Rapid Dragon system, demonstrating the capability to retarget missiles during launch the plane is in flight.
From what the Air Force and Lockheed Martin have now shown of the Rapid Dragon system, we also see clearly that it is meant to be a modular and scalable concept, at least as far as the JASSM-ER goes. The missiles are each loaded into their own “deployment box,” which has an open, metal-framed design and breaks in half to release the missile. They can be stored in rows or stacked on top of each other on a pallet. In real world testing so far we’ve seen four missiles loaded onto a single pallet in a 2 by 2 array, but concepts and models have also shown six and nine missile charges.
Further tests are planned in the coming months and, while the August tests were billed as an end-to-end test, the missiles deployed were substitutes. Before the end of this year, the next step is to see an MC-130J special operations transport drop a real, powered example of the JASSM-ER, to fully demonstrate the capabilities of this intriguing concept.
While not officially addressed at this time, there is also a potential export opportunity that could be an even more game-changer for U.S. allies and partners. Although none of them have bombers, they do have transport planes. With this concept adaptable enough to even fit a derivative of the M28 Skytruck, it could give those countries a powerful remote strike platform option that would augment any limited fighter jet capacity they might have.
In addition, the range of a transport aircraft greatly increases the range of such operations over fighter jets, unless aerial refueling is available, and even then their carrying capacities are limited. . In addition, during major hostilities, all fighters in their inventory will be heavily loaded. As such, this capability makes a C-27J, C-130 or C-17 a cruise missile carrier with minimal cost or modifications.
Of course, the missiles have yet to be purchased, but JASSM is already in service with Poland, Finland and Australia, all of which could find great value in the Rapid Dragon concept in the current geopolitical and strategic climate. Other countries are also likely to be added to the list of JASSM users. Rapid Dragon may also be suitable for other missiles, including those less advanced and less controlled than JASSM. One would imagine that there would be a huge market for such capacity.
It’s also possible that this can be used to launch small drones that can be picked up via a parachute or conventional landing after their missions. Launching swarms in this manner could be extremely beneficial, with a modular cruise missile-like drone that can be quickly reconfigured to accommodate warheads, sensors, communications, and other payloads.
Either way, after much talk about turning transport planes into arsenal ships and weapons trucks, it seems a way to do it with minimal modifications has arrived, and quickly, like its name indicates it.