US Air Force special ops forces are turning big cargo planes into bombers with a new weapon

Loading JASSM cradles into the special operations aircraft
US Special Operations Task Group-Central and Air Forces Central Airmen loading JASSM cradles and other cargo into the special operations aircraft.US Army Photo
  • US Air Force transport aircraft are going to be carrying more than just troops, equipment, and supplies.

  • The US Air Force is equipping its big airlift platforms to carry payloads similar to its bombers.

  • Photos show airmen during a loading training with Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile cradles.

The US Air Force is continuing its mission to transform its existing fleet of workhorse transport planes into bombers.

Recent photos show airmen with Special Operations Task Group Central and Air Forces Central on- and off-loading missile cradles in a training exercise involving an MC-130J and C-17s.

Rapid Dragon

A C-17 drops palletized munitions (simulated JASSMs) during Advanced Battle Management Onramp #2 testing.
A C-17 drops palletized munitions (simulated JASSMs) during Advanced Battle Management Onramp #2 testing.US Air Force

The rehearsal procedures are part of a larger USAF initiative known as Rapid Dragon, in which the Air Mobility Command (AMC) is exploring the "feasibility and operational advantages of airdropping long-range palletized effects from existing airlift platforms."

Since early 2020, AMC has conducted a series of tests dropping pallets of real and mock cruise missiles from cargo planes like the C-17 and MC-130J.

In September 2023, Air Mobility Command launched a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range cruise missile from a C-17 Globemaster III during an exercise in the Indo-Pacific.

At the Air and Space Forces conference last year, Gen. Mike Minihan, who leads Air Mobility Command, said the airdrop "absolutely serviced a target and was extremely, extremely successful."

Palletized munitions

Airmen conduct rehearsals of palletized cargo
US Special Operations Task Group-Central and Air Forces Central Airmen prepare missile cradles to be loaded onto transport aircraft in a procedure rehearsal.US Army Photo

The experiment looks to expand the offensive capabilities of its airlifters by giving them the ability to carry and release payloads that might include long-range cruise missiles, much like a traditional bomber can.

But the initiative is broader than just ordnance and is looking at having the planes carry things like sensors and jammers.

"When I talk about Rapid Dragon and when I talk about palletized effects, it's much broader than just the kinetic side of the business," Minihan said, referring to weapons that directly engage targets, as opposed to combat tools like electronic warfare.

"Imagine not only can we service a target, but we could deploy a decoy, we could put out a jamming sensor, we could put out a sensor that could find a radio and provide search-and-rescue. All those things, I think, are on the table," Minihan told reporters at last year's conference.

Workhorse transport planes fighting as bombers

Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) cradles near a transport aircraft
The rehearsals allow the airmen to rapidly employ a litany of effects via airdrop from airlift platforms, such as the MC-130J Commando II.US Army Photo

Traditionally, the Air Force's workhorse transport planes, like the C-17 Globemaster III and MC-130J Commando II, have aided in the strategic and rapid delivery of fuel and supplies via airdrop. The big aircraft can also carry personnel.

These two types of planes were selected for the initiative because turning them into bombers required fewer modifications and training.

"The beauty of that capability is it doesn't require any aircraft modifications," Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, then-deputy chief of staff of US Air Force Special Operations Command, told reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association conference, which Business Insider attended at the time.

"It doesn't require any special aircrew training. It really just takes advantage of the characteristics of that platform."

The MC-130J can climb 28,000 feet with a 42,000 payload and has a range of 3,000 miles. Slife said the cargo plane can carry as many long-range weapons as a B-52.

"An MC-130J is the perfect aircraft for this capability because we can land and operate from 3,000-foot highways and austere landing zones whereas a bomber cannot," Lt. Col. Valerie Knight, 352nd Wing mission commander, said in a release in November 2022.

The C-17 has a payload capacity of nearly 171,000 pounds, designed to transport armored vehicles, trucks, and trailers, as well as airdrop more than 100 paratroopers and their accompanying equipment. This plane, given its size, can carry three times as many long-range precision munitions as a B-52 bomber, according to Slife.

'Moving away from the antiquated view that AMC just brings stuff'

Airmen conduct orientations and static on-load/off-load familiarization rehearsals
Palletized effects have the potential to assist in multiple scenarios on the spectrum of conflict, ranging from contested resupply to kinetic effects.US Army Photo

At the AFA Air, Space, & Cyber Conference in September 2023, Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said the goal of Rapid Dragon is the "multiplication" of what bombers already do by adding airlift platforms to the mix.

"What else can we put in the back of the aircraft?" Bauernfeind said. "There's other kinetic effects, non-kinetic effects, jammers, that if it can fit in the back and can be air-launched," he added, then it could be used to deliver "decisive effects."

Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, formerly the head of Air Mobility Command, said in 2021 that Air Force tankers and cargo planes need to do more than transport supplies and fuel — and Rapid Dragon is working to prove that they can.

"Look at the competition that we're in right now," Van Ovost said at an event for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in March 2021.

"Why wouldn't we change the calculus by doing different things, moving away from the antiquated view that AMC just brings stuff ... and [stays] outside the threat ring to be a maneuver force to support inside the threat ring, because that's really where we're going."

Logistical challenges

US Special Operations Task Group-Central and Air Forces Central Airmen conduct orientations and static on-load/off-load familiarization rehearsals
US Special Operations Task Group-Central and Air Forces Central Airmen conduct orientations and static on-load/off-load familiarization rehearsals.US Army Photo

While Rapid Dragon has achieved a number of milestones since its launch, turning a fleet of transport aircraft into makeshift bombers also comes with its share of logistical hurdles, like working in "very distributed, austere kind of environments."

There are still a number of questions with palletized munitions and how best to use them. "How do we actually think our way through [where] we're going to keep these weapons, how are they going to be configured, do we really want them out in the middle of a field somewhere next to a straight stretch of road?" Slife said.

"We're kind of working our way through the logistics implications of these kind of concepts for how we operate," he added.

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