The U.S. Air Force Rapid Dragon Program, a fast-paced experimentation campaign led by the Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation office, completed its final flight test on Dec. 16 at the Eglin Overwater Test Range. The program name is derived from a 1,000-year-old Chinese military-designed crossbow catapult that launched multiple crossbow bolts with the pull of a single trigger, raining destruction down on armies from tremendous ranges. These lethal devices were called Ji Long Che—Rapid Dragon Carts. Today, the Rapid Dragon concept is changing the game again, this time as an airborne delivery system for U.S. Air Force weapons. And like its namesake, these palletized munitions promise to unleash mighty salvos en masse on distant adversaries. The flight test captioned a two-year series and culminated in a live-fire of a current inventory cruise missile armed with a live warhead. Rapid Dragon demonstrates the ability to employ weapons using standard airdrop procedures from cargo aircraft using the Rapid Dragon Palletized Weapon System.
During the December test, and MC-130J flown by an Air Force Special Operations Command operational flight crew, received new targeting data while in flight which was then routed to the cruise missile flight test vehicle. The aircraft agnostic Battle Management System’s inflight receipt and upload of the new targeting data into the FTV was the first-time achievement with a live cruise missile. Once inside the drop zone over the Gulf of Mexico, the MC-130J aircrew airdropped a four-cell Rapid Dragon deployment system containing the FTV and three mass simulants, which were sequentially released from the palletized deployment box while under the parachute. Safe separation from the deployment box and weapon deconfliction were demonstrated using an unconventional deployment method (nose-down vertical orientation). Immediately after the vertical release, the FTV deployed its wings and tail, achieved aerodynamic control, ignited its engine, performed a powered pull-up maneuver, and proceeded toward its newly assigned target. The cruise missile successfully destroyed its target upon impact.
“Rapid Dragon is a prime example of a government/industry partnership that embraces this acceleration mindset, building a community of subject matter experts and executing an aggressive, but well-thought-out, experimentation campaign,” said Dr. Dean Evans, SDPE’s Rapid Dragon Program Manager.
“This type of experimentation campaign, that addresses capability gaps and demonstrates transformative efforts, helps us shape future requirements and reduces timeline to fielding. This approach ultimately enables a rapid fielding alternative to traditional lengthy acquisition timelines,” said Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle, Air Force Research Laboratory commander.
The next step for the Rapid Dragon Program will be a live-fire test with a cruise missile from a C-17 in Spring 2022, demonstrating the aircraft agnostic capabilities of the Palletized Weapon System. Of note, the new retargeting methodology developed by the Rapid Dragon team is designed to be transferrable to other strike and cargo platforms, potentially increasing the lethality of those aircraft. Lastly, a follow-on program will look at expanding the Rapid Dragon carriage portfolio to include additional weapon systems and multiple effects capabilities, as well as continuing the maturation of the system, taking it from a developmental prototype to an operational prototype over the next two years. Agility and collaboration enabled this government/industry team to go from a design to a system-level flight test in 10 months, followed by a live-fire five months later. During those last five months, Rapid Dragon has conducted five system-level flight tests using three different aircraft (MC-130J, EC-130SJ, and C-17A). The successful Rapid Dragon experiments pave the way for U.S. and allied mobility platforms to dramatically increase fires available for a combatant commander to place more adversary targets at risk.