The future for missile warfare: The U.S. Air Force is about to test its Rapid Dragon missile-launching concept.

How the Air Force Turned a C-130 Cargo Plane Into a Missile-Slinging Bomber. It could be the future for missile warfare.

  • The U.S. Air Force is about to test its Rapid Dragon missile-launching concept.
  • It involves palletized cruise missiles rolled out the back of any plane with a cargo ramp.
  • Rapid Dragon could allow the Pentagon to surge huge numbers of cruise-missile-carrying planes in wartime.

NurPhoto//Getty Images

Let’s pretend it’s 2035. After an extensive buildup, the People’s Liberation Army just invaded Taiwan. Chinese forces have captured airfields and ports, and Beijing’s forces are streaming endlessly into the interior of the island. U.S. forces, particularly  transport planes, cannot get close enough to the island to resupply the Taiwanese military. The newly allied forces need something to break the steel ring of Chinese air and naval power isolating the island.

Meanwhile, a strange buildup is taking place across the Western Pacific. American C-17 Globemaster III transports, Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Super Hercules, Japanese C-2 transports, and even commercial C-130s are congregating at remote airbases. Each is loaded with strange green pallets rigged with parachutes. On D+31 of the invasion, the transports rise up as one—hundreds of planes winging their way toward Taiwan. Still hundreds of miles away from the island, they lower their ramps and their pallet cargoes slide out, free-falling towardd the Pacific Ocean below.

As the pallets fall, they trigger parachutes, slowing their descent. Individual land-attack and anti-ship cruise missiles begin falling out, spinning up their turbine engines and activating their internal navigation systems. Scores, then hundreds of missiles begin streaming toward Chinese ships, air defenses, command centers, supply depots, and other high-value targets. Behind this wall of AI-guided missiles is a U.S. Navy carrier battle group, dry cargo ships brimming with supplies, and an embarked U.S. Marine Corps brigade. The calvary is coming to Taiwan’s rescue at last.

A Chinese carrier task force such as this one centered around the aircraft carrier Liaoning, would become prime targets for a Rapid Dragon attack. -//Getty Images

This could be the future of missile warfare. On November 9, U.S. special operations forces off the coast of Norway conducted a live-fire demonstration of Rapid Dragon, an innovative new system that will allow air forces to use transport planes as missile-slinging 
bombers.

“When you look at partner capability, we have a lot of partners around the globe that don’t have heavy bomber-type platforms that would be traditional carriers of those types of munitions, but they’ve got plenty of C-130s proliferated around the world,” Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, AFSOC commander, says in an Air Force press release.

Traditionally, the world of big, strategic bombers has had a high barrier to entry. Most countries have never built them, most can’t afford them, and only three countries have any plans to build them today: the United States, China, and Russia. Yet there are many air forces that would, for one reason or another, like to have the capability.

Bombers require large airplanes with large internal volume and long ranges. Even stealth, or the ability to slip past enemy radar, is optional. Instead, a bomber can always carry large numbers of long-range cruise missiles meant to penetrate enemy defenses, just like Russia’s Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” bomber . The twin virtues of capacity and range allow the 1950s-era Tu-95, with its contra-rotating propellers and giant radar signature, to remain relevant on the modern battlefield.

Plenty of air forces (even modest ones), it turns out, have planes that satisfy many of the requirements of cruise-missile bombers: cargo planes.

Cruise missiles enable the Tupolev Tu-95 “Bear” to remain in service more than a half-century after its introduction. Anadolu Agency//Getty Images
Developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office, Rapid Dragon stacks air-launched cruise missiles like the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Munition (JASSM) or the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) on air-droppable pallets. In the event of war, as the above scenario describes, the aircraft can drop the pallet like any other parachutable cargo, except this is a cargo with live missiles that slide out and self-launch. A C-130J Super Hercules can carry six missiles, and a larger C-17 Globemaster III can carry nine ... so far. When dozens of aircraft are involved, the number of missiles launched on a single mission can reach into the hundreds.

After dropping their pallet cargoes, the cargo planes can fly home and prepare for further bombing missions or revert to their traditional roles as cargo haulers. Rapid Dragon requires no modifications of the transporting aircraft to take on the deadly new role: once the pallets are embarked, just like any other air-dropped pallet, the plane is a deputized bomber.

A pallet of equipment rigged for airdrop from a C-130, exercise Saber Junction 15 in Smardan, Romania. DVIDS
Rapid Dragon expresses the military concept of “mass” on the battlefield. Mass is the concentration of combat power at a specific point for a specific purpose. One-hundred tanks spread across 100 miles of battlefield can individually dominate their surroundings, but 100 tanks spread across a mile can dominate a single point in the enemy’s defenses and punch through. In this case, Rapid Dragon allows the Air Force to use its vast arsenal of cruise missiles on a massive, overwhelming strike, and not dozens of smaller, less effective strikes.

The Rapid Dragon test took place less than 600 miles from Russia’s Northern Fleet headquarters at Murmansk. While the official Pentagon line is that the test is “not signaling at Russia or any other adversary,” the Northern Fleet is one of the few untouched military resources available to Russia outside of its devastating war in Ukraine. Regardless of what the Pentagon says, Russia will almost certainly interpret it as a signal—and an unfriendly one at that.

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