USAF tests Rapid Dragon Experimentation Program
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USAF tests Rapid Dragon Experimentation Program

A Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicle with Extended Range, or CLEAVER, 2-pack pallet deploys from an MC-130J Commando II aircraft. Image: Courtesy photo/ US Air Force

Image Attribute: A Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicle with Extended Range, or CLEAVER, 2-pack pallet deploys from an MC-130J Commando II aircraft. Image: Courtesy photo/ Source: US Air Force

Last week, the United States Air Force (USAF) tested its Rapid Dragon Experimentation Program (formerly known as i.e., FKA: Palletized Munitions Program), along with partners from Air Force Special Operations Command. Together, they successfully demonstrated beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) Command and Control of a Palletized Weapon System. This milestone was achieved while participating in U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Northern Edge’21 exercise. 


The operational utility of delivering long-range strike weapons en masse from military cargo aircraft is being assessed through the fast-paced experimentation campaign known as Rapid Dragon and is led by the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“The Rapid Dragon Program demonstrated the ability to transfer targeting data to an airborne Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft,” said Dr. Dean Evans, Rapid Dragon program manager. “The data assigned a new routing and target to the on-board munition emulator, which set in motion the virtual launch of a ‘palletized’ Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) missile. Lockheed Martin Missiles & Fire Control, R4 Integration, Standoff Munitions Center, and Naval Surface Warfare Center - Dahlgren were integral to the success of this first-ever dynamic targeting capability.”


During this operational demonstration, which simulated the “closing of the kill chain,” an off-board sensor identified an emerging target and new targeting information was transmitted to the palletized weapon system onboard the MC-130J via BLOS communications. The JASSM-ER emulator achieved all-up-round (AUR) status, demonstrating the ability to strike the new targets in accordance with the updated orders.


This capability can provide combatant commanders additional flexibility and control in the prosecution of the high-end fight. Additionally, the retargeting methodology used is transferrable to other strike platforms, potentially making all JASSM-capable strike assets more lethal in an increasingly complicated and dynamic near-peer conflict.


Achieving this milestone paves the way for the next flight test this summer, where SDPE will conduct a system-level jettison test from an Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J and an Air Mobility Command C-17. The current phase of the program will conduct a live munition test of this new capability by the end of the year.


Rapid Dragon offers a roll-on, roll-off capability that uses standard airdrop procedures without any modifications to the aircraft, thus transforming mobility aircraft into lethal strike weapon platforms that augment the strike capacity of tactical fighters and strategic bombers.

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