A U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J dropped a “current inventory cruise missile armed with a live warhead” at the Eglin AFB Overwater Test Range, Fla., as part of the Rapid Dragon program to test and field palletized munition operational prototypes on cargo aircraft in the next two years, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) said on Dec. 17.
In September, Lockheed Martin had said that the test would involve an MC-130J airdrop of a company Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), but neither the Air Force nor Lockheed Martin had a comment by press time on Dec. 16 on whether the Dec. 16 test had involved a JASSM-ER or another cruise missile in the Air Force inventory.
On Dec. 17, the Air Force said that the test had not involved a JASSM-ER, but a standard JASSM. “The Air Force’s initial thrust is to deliver JASSM in mass quantities, while building out the structure to integrate additional current and future weapons, projecting a variety of effects,” the Air Force said.
AFRL said that the Rapid Dragon program under the Air Force’s Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office is named for a “thousand-year-old Chinese military designed crossbow catapult that launched multiple crossbow bolts with the pull of a single trigger, raining destruction down on armies from tremendous ranges. These lethal devices were called Ji Long Che—Rapid Dragon Carts.”
On Dec. 16, the MC-130J received new targeting data while in flight and sent the updates to the cruise missile flight test vehicle (FTV) before dropping a palletized deployment box with a parachute over the Gulf of Mexico. The box carried the FTV and three mass simulants. After the unconventional nose-down vertical release of the FTV and the three mass simulants, the FTV deployed its wings and tail, ignited its engine, conducted a powered pull-up maneuver, and proceeded to the new target, which it destroyed, AFRL said.
“The aircraft agnostic battle management system’s inflight receipt and upload of the new targeting data into the FTV was the first-time achievement with a live cruise missile,” per AFRL.
Over the last five months, the Rapid Dragon program conducted five system-level flight tests using MC-130J, EC-130SJ, and C-17A planes, per AFRL.
Next spring, the Rapid Dragon program is to conduct a live-fire test of a cruise missile from a C-17 transport to demonstrate that the palletized weapon system and retargeting methodology will jibe with other aircraft, “potentially increasing the lethality of those aircraft,” AFRL said on Dec. 16.
AFRL established SPDE in May 2016 to help speed the fielding of future, multi-domain capabilities, and the Rapid Dragon program began in 2019.
Besides AFRL’s SPDE office and Lockheed Martin, Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren; DoD’s Standoff Munitions Application Center; Safran; Systima Technologies, Inc.; and R4 Integration, Inc. have participated in the Rapid Dragon tests.
Air Force Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., the commander of Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), said in September that he is “very closely tracking” Rapid Dragon (Defense Daily, Sept. 22).