US Arms AGM-158 JASSM Onto MC-130J Commando II Aircraft; Transforms Airlifters Into Bombers

The US Air Force recently demonstrated its capability to efficiently load, unload, forward arm, and arm the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) onto the MC-130J Commando II aircraft as a part of the Rapid Dragon system in Qatar.

In an official announcement, the United States Air Force (USAF) disclosed that the activity was executed by personnel from the Ninth Air Force (Air Forces Central), taking place at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on August 6, 2023. 

The concept, dubbed Rapid Dragon, involves a pallet containing Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range cruise missiles (JASSM-ER). This pallet can be readily loaded onto an MC-130J or C-17 Globemaster aircraft without necessitating any alterations to the aircraft’s configuration. 

The service said that the ongoing focus involves service members engaging in ground static training while maintaining a state of readiness for both forward rearming activities and using Rapid Dragon capabilities.

It is emphasized that meticulous practice of every detail, from ground movements to loading protocols, is imperative. 

This commitment to continuous practice ensures the consistent preparedness of maintenance procedures and the operational readiness of the crews.

Captain Paris Krula, serving as the AFCENT A4 FWD logistics liaison officer, highlighted the critical role of precise logistics in mission execution, particularly in fields with high risks, such as Aircraft Maintenance and Weapons deployment. 

Captain Krula said daily training routines and providing essential resources to team members are pivotal in nurturing the necessary skills. 

This continuous effort ensures the seamless execution of missions without the potential for failure, regardless of the time or location in which they are carried out.

That said, as per the information provided by the service, the loading and unloading of the missiles was successfully conducted; however, the missile launch was not included as part of the activity. 

Ensuring Rapid Forward Arming Of Fighters And Bombers

The importance of the latest accomplishment also stems from its ability to speed up the procedure of preparing and positioning AGM-158 missiles on fighter jets and bombers at a forward base.

Maj. Anthony Belviso, the Director of Operations for the Special Operations Task Group – Central, explained that the ongoing demonstration revolves around showcasing the unique capabilities of the MC-130. 

This specialized version of the C-130 Super Hercules aircraft is being highlighted for its capacity to perform tasks such as loading, unloading, and potentially arming the plane with the JASSM. 

The main objective of this demonstration is also to ensure preparedness for swiftly arming F-16 Fighting Falcons or other bombers stationed at forward locations. Yet, it appears that no such activity involving fighters or bombers was conducted during the most recent exercise.

Rapid Dragon is a project that tests the practicality and operational benefits of utilizing current airlift platforms like the C-130 and C-17 to airdrop extended-range munitions without necessitating aircraft alterations. 

The USAF has a large fleet of C-130s to deploy Rapid Dragon. (US Air Force photo)

This initiative transforms cargo planes into munitions carriers, enabling them to deploy cruise missiles and potentially other defensive or standoff weaponry. 

This is achieved by releasing these munitions, placed on pallets, through the rear cargo ramps of the aircraft. With this approach, cargo aircraft take on a role similar to bombers.

This strategy aims to enhance the ability to conduct standoff strikes, particularly in more intense operations against adversaries of similar capabilities, like China or Russia. 

Additionally, this presents a more cost-effective option for achieving this increased capacity, especially compared to the expenses associated with acquiring, running, and upkeeping larger fleets of conventional bombers.

According to US military strategists, incorporating Palletized Munitions capability can empower various airlift aircraft to utilize a variety of weapons through a self-contained, easily attachable, and detachable pallet system. 

This method could serve as an alternate method for the Air Force to significantly boost its combat effectiveness by introducing more firepower to engagements.

Rapid Dragon Sparks Concern Among Chinese Military Analysts

During Mobility Guardian 2023 in July 2023, the US Air Force tested the Rapid Dragon system in the Pacific, an event that Chinese officials were believed to be closely monitoring. 

Using the Rapid Dragon system adds complexity to safeguarding airspace, transforming even the widely used C-130 aircraft into a platform for launching cruise missiles.

On November 22, an article was published in the Science and Technology section of China National Defense News, authored by Xi Qizhi, in which he pointed out that transport aircraft tend to conduct more missions than bombers during warfare. 

He mentioned that these transport planes are harder for adversaries to monitor closely, which makes it challenging to detect and locate them when they carry palletized ammunition and deploy stealthy cruise missiles beyond defensive lines.

The Rapid Dragon system deploys the cruise missile after its parachute has deployed. (USAF)

Xi explained that these transport aircraft could perform strike missions on their return journey after delivering supplies from the rear to the front lines.

Additionally, Xi predicted that with the widespread implementation of palletized ammunition, the US military’s allocation of strike tasks would become more adaptable, leading to heightened surprise capabilities in their offensive actions.

In essence, the adversaries’ concerns have significantly multiplied. They’re not solely focused on the conventional bombers; they must now consider the C-130s as potential bombers.