Cargo planes as missile carriers – US and allies will bank on ‘fast dragon’ to invade China in Western Pacific

The United States Air Force (USAF) wants to expand a capability under development that uses existing transport aircraft it and its allies have in the Western Pacific to fire cruise and air-to-surface missiles into the purpose of overwhelming the Chinese army.

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The “Rapid Dragon” is a simple and inexpensive solution to overcome the logistical and technological challenges posed by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF ).

An artist’s impression when a JASSM-ER is released from a pellet, which is dropped from a cargo plane

Over the past few years, the US military has developed a promising concept of operations to combat a formidable China in the Western Pacific. Beijing has a home advantage in logistics combined with long-range anti-ship, anti-land, air defense and hypersonic missile systems.

The Chinese YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles (540 kilometers range) and the PL-15 Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missile (300 kilometers) exceed the American Harpoons 240 kilometers range and the AIM 190D 161 kilometers.

The DF-21D missile threatens American aircraft carriers. This erodes the capability (or payload) advantage of the US Navy. This is part of its Anti-Access/Area Denial doctrine which can hold off an attacking US naval force without allowing it to close.

Even war games conducted by think tanks like the RAND Corporation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) have repeatedly ended in devastating defeats in the United States and Taiwan, with the former losing its huge gates. -planes and its naval armada.

Recognizing these handicaps, American military leaders attempted to turn things around. The US Marine Corps and US Navy have developed the Force Design 2030 Expeditionary Forward Operating Base (EABO), Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), and Ghost Fleet Overlord.

A Rapid Dragon module being loaded onto a C-130 for airdrop

Operating from islands controlled by friendly nations in the South and East China Seas, small, mobile and hard-to-detect coastal combat regiments can undertake long-range fire on Chinese shipping.

Operating under the U.S. Navy, unmanned surface ships take routine charge of larger combatants, allowing them to focus on larger roles of air defense, land attack, anti-ship and ship protection. aircraft carrier battle groups.

This helps to expand, get closer and hit China inside the A2/AD bubble. With the Rapid Dragon, the USAF can further complicate the Chinese military’s targeting priorities by “massaging” the fires flooding Chinese radars, sensors, and kill chains.

Rapid Dragon completes the triad of three services

The Rapid Dragon plans to use cargo planes and tankers like the C-130J Hercules/MC-130 Commando II and C-17 Globemaster III to launch dozens of missiles packaged in large ‘pellets’ from their main doors in the air as they usually do. with other airdrops.

The parachute stops the missile-carrying pellets, rotating vertically while an electronic control box on each pellet releases missiles one after another.

An illustrative video from Lockheed Martin shows how pellets can be ‘rolled’ and ‘unloaded’ like any other cargo. An MC-130 will have a pellet with a capacity of six missiles and one of nine for a C-17.

Assuming both aircraft can accommodate at least three such pellets and there are at least three such aircraft used for this purpose, between 54 and 81 JASSM-ERs can shout at Chinese military targets while the USMC , the US Navy and USAF fighter-bombers conduct their own separate but complementary operations.

The JASSM-ER with a range of 800 kilometers was tested from a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber in late August.

Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) chief Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said at an Association of Air and Space Forces event Sept. 7 that they had received “some number of requests worldwide from partners to integrate and demonstrate this capability on their aircraft.”

With several US allies using the MC-17/C-130J and C-17s, pellets can be used on the aircraft with little to no modification or “any special crew training”, Slife added.

The Rapid Dragon underwent three tests last year as part of a collaborative effort between the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office (AFSDPEO) and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

A July 2021 test transmitted targeting data to military cargo planes, which was used to program munitions onto those planes, hitting targets. In November of the same year, an AFSOC crew on an MC-130J received in-flight targeting data, transmitting it to a palletized simulation cruise missile, which was jettisoned from the aircraft and released.

A December 2021 test used an actual cruise missile, where target data in the Gulf of Mexico was transmitted to an MC-130J and loaded onto the palletized missile. The missile deployed and “succeeded in destroying its target,” the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) said.

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