The US Air Force's plan to give its biggest planes new missions has gotten China's attention

  • US Air Force officials say they're pursuing a plan to drop "palletized effects" from cargo planes.

  • The "effects" those planes drop could be long-range cruise missiles or other sensors and jammers.

  • It's been noticed by China's military, which likely sees it as "a credible threat," one expert said.

The US Air Force is moving quickly to equip its cargo aircraft to drop long-range weapons, seeking to expand the number of aircraft that it can use to launch strikes.

Air Force officials say that their workhorse C-17 and C-130 aircraft can carry payloads similar to those of bomber aircraft and operate from a wider range of bases, which would make it harder for rivals, chiefly China, to track and destroy them.

In a series of tests since early 2020, the Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Special Operations Command have dropped pallets of real or simulated cruise missiles from cargo planes to see if they could deploy and strike a target.

The project is known as Rapid Dragon, and Air Mobility Command, which oversees the service's cargo and tanker fleets, is now looking to widen the effort.

Air Force Rapid Dragon palletized munition
US special-operations airmen and riggers prepare a Rapid Dragon palletized weapon system at Hurlburt Field in Florida in December 2021.US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brandon Esau

During a landmark exercise in the Pacific this summer, a C-17 deployed a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range cruise missile, which has a range of about 600 miles, and it "absolutely serviced a target and was extremely, extremely successful," Gen. Mike Minihan, who leads Air Mobility Command, said this month.

Minihan said "palletized effects" could include much more than just "kinetic effects" like missiles.

"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 on September 11 at the Air and Space Forces conference, held outside Washington DC.

The head of Air Force Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, echoed Minihan a day later, telling reporters that his command was "continuing to expand" what could be dropped.

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

Air Force Special Operations MC-130J palletized munition
US special-operations airmen load a Rapid Dragon palletized weapon system on an MC-130J at Hurlburt Field in December 2021.US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brandon Esau

Minihan and Bauernfeind stressed that they weren't looking for their aircraft to assume the role of bombers but to expand the number of aircraft that could perform similar missions.

"What I'm not trying to do is become Global Strike Command, but I have to carry those munitions anyway," said Minihan, whose command would move weapons and supplies between Air Force bases during a conflict.

Bauernfeind said the goal was "multiplication" of what Air Force bombers already do, "because we know that the future war-fight that numerous targets will need to be held at risk in a very short amount of time."

A commentary article in a Chinese military publication indicates concern that they could accomplish that.

The article was published on November 22, 2022 — two weeks after a Rapid Dragon test off the Norwegian coast — in China National Defense News, "a sister publication of the PLA Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Military Commission," Derek Solen, a senior researcher at the US Air Force's China Aerospace Studies Institute, wrote in an analysis in December.

The article was published in the outlet's Science and Technology section, which "tends to publish straight news," Solen wrote. Previous Chinese commentary cited challenges to Rapid Dragon, including the availability of cargo aircraft and the effectiveness of the JASSM-ER missile, but the November article "was almost alarmist" in its assessment of the program's benefits, Solen wrote.

MC-130J palletized munition cruise missile Norway Arctic
An MC-130J drops a palletized munitions system during a live-fire test in Norway on November 9, 2022.US Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire

The Chinese author notes that US cargo planes could carry a large number of missiles and would be hard to track, as they could pick up pre-positioned palletized missiles while performing other duties and then launch them from "just outside a defensive perimeter."

"One can predict that once it is armed with palletized munitions, the agility of the US military's distributed method for strike missions and the suddenness of those strikes will increase immensely," the author wrote, according to Solen.

The author credited Rapid Dragon with "cost effectiveness," as using cargo aircraft to drop weapons is cheaper than building more bombers and that militaries without bombers could quickly add the capability to their cargo planes — both features that Minihan and Bauernfeind highlighted.

"When it comes to palletized effects, I'm not looking for big modifications. That's an example of what a basic air-drop crew can do," Minihan told reporters. "I just need to make sure my crews are trained to get it out of the airplane safely and precisely."

While many US allies and partners don't have bombers, Bauernfeind said, "they have mobility platforms, and so these mobility platforms can leverage like-capabilities." (Bauernfeind's predecessor said last year that the capability was "easily exportable.") Japan's military is now reportedly considering using its cargo planes to drop missiles.

MC-130J palletized munition cruise missile Norway Arctic
A palletized effects system in the air during a live-fire test in Norway in November 2022.US Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire

Solen wrote that the November article is likely close to the consensus view within China's military, which likely sees the program "as a credible threat."

While Chinese officials may be concerned, US commanders say more is to be done to get the most out of the program. As the Air Force focuses on expanding its ability to operate from more remote and austere airfields — part of a broader effort to dodge Chinese attacks — it faces additional logistical challenges, including for storing and distributing palletized munitions.

Ensuring that the air crews launching those munitions can coordinate with other forces is also key to using them successfully, according to Minihan, who said "connectivity is absolutely king to these palletized effects."

"Having that situational awareness of where the red team is and the blue team is is incredibly paramount," added Minihan, who said his goal is to equip 25% of US mobility aircraft with affordable, easy-to-install gear to improve their crews' situational awareness and better connect them to other units and to do so by 2025.

Both commands are now "in lockstep" on the effort and more tests may be coming, Bauernfeind said.

"I have at least three theater special-operations-command commanders asking us how we can demonstrate that capability in their regions to help them," Bauernfeind said. "We're working through those conversations as we go right now."

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