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MC-130J drops inert cruise missile in latest Rapid Dragon arsenal plane flight test

Rapid Dragon palletized munition system onload
A Rapid Dragon deployment system being loaded onto an MC-130J aircraft ahead of an airdrop. Photo: US Air Force

The US Air Force has carried out another flight test as part of its Rapid Dragon program, demonstrating the deployment of a production long range cruise missile separation test vehicle, or STV – a cruise missile without an engine and warhead – from the palletized weapons system.

Rapid Dragon is a fast-paced experimentation campaign led by the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office, designed to allow cargo aircraft to employ a range of palletized weapons.

During the latest flight demonstration, which took place on November 3, the MC-130J airdropped a four-cell Rapid Dragon deployment system containing the STV and three mass simulants, which sequentially released from the palletized system.

Seconds after release, the STV deployed its wings and tail, achieved aerodynamic control, and began a pull-up maneuver as it glided toward its new target.

A test from August this year also deployed JASSM-ER emulators, but with different test goals.

The photo shows a successful separation of a STV from the sabot following the weapon release, followed by the deployment of the missile’s control surfaces (wings and tail). Photo: AFRL

While the aircraft was enroute to the White Sands Missile Range drop zone, the crew used a beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) command and control node to receive new targeting data for the onboard Battle Management System (BMS). The BMS then uploaded the targeting data to the palletized weapon. The aircraft agnostic BMS’s inflight 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.

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 using a production long range cruise missile.

These milestones include a successful high-altitude airdrop using a modular Rapid Dragon deployment system, a successful jettison of multiple weapons from the Rapid Dragon deployment system, and weapon de-confliction through the clean separation of the STV and multiple cruise missile simulants.

“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.

An operational AFSOC aircrew conducted the airdrop, once again demonstrating the feasibility of a palletized delivery of long-range strike weapons in an operationally relevant environment. 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.

The service said the demonstration paved the way for the first deployment of a live long range cruise missile under powered flight from an AFSOC MC-130J.

This test will also inform potential design refinement and accelerate the maturation of these systems for further experimentation and rapid fielding. A follow-on program will look at expanding the Rapid Dragon portfolio to include additional weapon systems and multiple effects capabilities.

Rapid Dragon could ultimately lead to a roll-on, roll-off system that transforms mobility aircraft into lethal strike platforms that augment the strike capacity of tactical fighters and strategic bombers. The retargeting methodology used is transferrable to other strike and cargo platforms, potentially increasing lethality of all long range cruise missiles strike assets.