The U.S. Air Force is planning to hold palletized munition flight tests this December, as the service continues to look into long-range, conventional cruise missile strike options to limit the risk to U.S. aircraft in a “high-end fight.”
“For Rapid Dragon, I am tracking very closely what we’re doing,” Air Force Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., the commander of Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC), told reporters on Sept. 21 at the Air Force Association Air, Space & Cyber conference. “We’ve demonstrated the ability to pass new coordinates for those weapons…with beyond line of sight data links to feed that. We’ve safely separated that out. We’re on track to do a live demo in December to show we can do the palletized munition. It is interesting for me that we’re moving out in this area, and I’m happy the way that we are moving out in this area.”

A Lockheed Martin graphic of Rapid Dragon palletized munition release

The Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation (SDPE) office’s Rapid Dragon program conducted the two tests at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., using C-17 and Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) EC-130SJ aircraft.
“The ability to retarget missiles while the aircraft is airborne provides combatant commanders the flexibility to respond to changes in a dynamic operational environment,” Lockheed Martin said on Sept. 21. “SPDE and Lockheed Martin are conducting additional tests in coming months, culminating in an MC‑130J airdrop of a real JASSM-ER under powered flight by the end of 2021.”
Scott Callaway, the director of advanced strike programs for Lockheed Martin, said in a statement that the tests thus far “are a big step toward showing the feasibility of the palletized munitions concept and the ability of mobility aircraft to augment the strike capacity of tactical fighters and strategic bombers.”
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) established SPDE in May 2016 to help speed the fielding of future, multi-domain capabilities.
Beside AFRL’s SPDE office and Lockheed Martin, Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren; DoD’s Standoff Munitions Application Center; SafranSystima Technologies, Inc.; and R4 Integration, Inc. participated in the July tests.
Last September, AFRL awarded Lockheed Martin an up to $25 million, 18-month contract to demonstrate the palletized munition capability for C-130s and C-17s to drop dozens of long-range cruise missiles (Defense Daily, Oct. 30, 2020). A C-17 could drop 32 JASSM-ERs, and the Air Force and Lockheed Martin have discussed the optimal load out.
In January last year, AFSOC 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.