When analysts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies ran a series of war games simulating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan last year, they learned something surprising. The games indicated that the US Air Force, fighting nearly alone after the destruction of much of the US Navy, could almost single-handedly destroy the Chinese invasion force.
The key to this simulated aerial victory was a missile: the Lockheed Martin-made Joint Air-to-Surface Strike Missile, or JASSM. It’s a stealthy and highly accurate cruise missile that can range hundreds of miles from its launching warplane. There are long-range versions of the JASSM and a specialised anti-ship version, too – and the USAF and its sister services are buying thousands of the missiles for billions of dollars.
Now America is scrambling to expand the number of aircraft that can carry the war-winning missiles. While fitting the 2,200-pound JASSM, JASSM-Extended Range and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile – the ship-killing variant – to some of the USAF’s 2,000 fighters and most of it 150 heavy bombers is the obvious first step, the Air Force isn’t stopping there. Next, it wants to arm its cargo planes, too – potentially expanding by hundreds the number of missiles it can launch in a single day.
It’s a good idea, but a potentially risky one for the planes’ crews, who might fly into battle in a role for which they’re not fully trained or equipped.
The USAF’s effort to arm its cargo planes kicked off in 2019 under the umbrella of the Air Force Research Laboratories’ Rapid Dragon initiative. Two years later in 2021, an MC-130 transport belonging to an Air Force special operation wing tested the system for the first time. Another test with the same plane type took place in Qatar in August.
The idea is simple. Where fighters and bombers typically fire missiles from under their wings or from bomb bays, Rapid Dragon is developing hardware, software and procedures for transport planes to deploy missiles from their cargo holds.
The missiles are in special racks fitted with parachutes. To fire the missiles, the crew opens the rear cargo door and shoves out the racks. The parachutes deploy, slowing the missiles in mid-air. After a few seconds, the missiles’ rocket motors fire up – and the munitions fly free of their racks.
Consider the implications. The Air Force has been ramping up JASSM production from 400 missiles in 2021 to nearly 600 this year. Each missile costs a million dollars. The service’s goal is to maintain a stockpile of 10,000 JASSMs – enough to knock the Chinese military out of a war, fast.
A USAF B-1 bomber can carry just 24 JASSMs at a time, however. The service has just 43 B-1s plus 76 B-52s and 20 B-2s. But it has 222 C-17 cargo planes and around 360 C-130s. It’s unclear how many JASSMs might fit in the cargo hold of a C-17 or C-130. Dozens? Scores? In any event, arming the cargo planes hugely expands the number of missiles the Air Force can fire.
And that’s the whole point. “Rapidly deployable palletised munitions can saturate the air space with multiple weapons and effects, complicate adversary targeting solutions, help open access for critical target prosecution and deplete an adversary’s air-defense munitions stockpile,” the Air Force Research Laboratories stated.
Imagine hundreds or even thousands of stealthy cruise missiles speeding at wavetop height across the western Pacific and zeroing in on Chinese ships, ports and air bases all at the same time. It’s not for no reason the CSIS think-tank called the missile “decisive” in its war games simulating a war over Taiwan. The Japanese air force is so impressed by the Rapid Dragon technology that it’s considering developing its own version for installation in its C-2 cargo planes.
If it were easy, every air force with cargo planes and cruise missiles would do it. But Rapid Dragon has drawbacks. For starters, it compels crews who trained for point-to-point cargo missions in benign conditions to think and act like bomber crews. They’d have to fly toward the enemy in their slow, lumbering plans – and even risk interception by long-range interceptors.
Where fighters and bombers are equipped with radar-jammers, stealth technology and even self-defense missiles in the case of the fighters, cargo planes are minimally protected. The Air Force will have to think, and plan, very carefully before sending the airlifters and their crews into battle.
Moreover, a C-17 that’s flying cruise-missile strikes against the Chinese navy is a C-17 that isn’t performing its primary role: hauling vital supplies between far-flung bases. No one pretends the USAF has too many cargo planes; in transforming the airlifters into part-time bombers, the service is exacerbating a possible wartime airlift shortage.
And then there’s the nuclear wild card. There’s no reason the Air Force couldn’t also load its nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto its Rapid Dragon transports. While Russia, China and other nuclear-armed countries are accustomed to tracking, counting and deterring the USAF’s atomic bombers, atomic cargo planes would add an element of uncertainty. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, an advocacy group in Chicago, recently published an op-ed questioning the wisdom of the Rapid Dragon effort.
But it’s difficult to delete an idea. And now that the notion of missile-armed cargo planes is circulating in the headquarters of various air forces, it’s probably here to stay. The question is who can implement the idea first and best. The US Air Force has the lead – and that could make all the difference in any future war with China.
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