Under an up to $25 million, 18-month contract awarded by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) last month, Lockheed Martin [LMT] plans to demonstrate next year the capability for C-130 and Boeing [BA] C-17 airlifters to drop dozens of long-range cruise missiles, such as the Lockheed Martin Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER).

While such a capability may help in conflicts against nations with sophisticated air defenses, the use of airlifters as munitions platforms may also strain DoD transport capacity.

“A palletized munitions system is essentially a box of cruise missiles,” Scott Callaway, advanced strike and hypersonic systems director at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control in Orlando, told reporters on Oct. 30.

“Users can roll pallets of long range strike weapons onto an air transport aircraft, airdrop them like standard air cargo off the back ramp while they’re in flight, and the missiles deploy once they’re away from the aircraft,” he said. “It’s a self-contained system that promises to transform airlifters into strike platforms in order to augment the strike capacity of tactical fighters and strategic bombers.  This system will enable those non-traditional air transport aircraft to deploy long-range strike weapons like JASSM-ER in large quantities.”

No hardware modifications are required for the palletized JASSM-ER launch, as the pallets simulate the physical interface of a bomb rack, Callaway said.

A C-17 could drop 32 JASSM-ERs, but the Air Force and Lockheed Martin are discussing the optimal load out, he said.

The Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) group is leading the palletized munition effort. AFRL established SPDE in May, 2016 to help speed the fielding of future, multi-domain capabilities.

An official from the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) said in May that the service is interested in employing airflifters as munitions platforms to meet “the [fire] capacity that the joint force needs” (Defense Daily, May 27).

DoD’s Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) and the Air Force have also been looking into developing a new, “arsenal plane” to deliver munitions.

AFRL said that the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in January released palletized munitions from an MC-130J tanker in three airdrops at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Aircrew released five wooden pallets – dubbed Combat Expendable Platforms – stacked with six simulated munitions in both low and high-altitude airdrops.

Four of the munitions were Cargo Launch Expendable Air Vehicles with Extended Range (CLEAVERs), a prototype long-range, high precision weapon developed by AFRL.

The current Air Force palletized munition effort is a successor to CLEAVER.