US MC-130J Airdrops Cruise Missiles With Rapid Dragon Deployment System During Test In Norway

Rapid Dragon
A palletized munitions system falls from the cargo hold of a 352d Special Operations Wing MC-130J Commando II during a live-fire demonstration for ATREUS 22-4 at Andøya Space Defense Range, Norway, Nov. 9, 2022. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire

The Rapid Dragon deployment system contained JASSM-ER long-range cruise missiles.

An MC-130J Commando II from the 352nd Special Operations Wing airdropped a Rapid Dragon deployment system containing long-range cruise missiles which were sequentially released on a range over the Norwegian Sea the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory announced. This was the first time Rapid Dragon, a precision munitions capability for medium-sized or larger cargo aircraft that allows U.S. and NATO forces a flexible rapid response option, has been employed in the U.S. European Command theater.

The activity was carried out as part of U.S. European Command-approved, U.S. Special Operations Command led Operational Series ATREUS, launched in April 2021 to identify and conduct training opportunities on capabilities found throughout the theater that enable response options to the U.S. and NATO allies and partners.

The one currently underway is the seventh iteration of ATREUS in the European theater but the first combined and joint effort with participation of regional allies (Norway, Poland, Romania, and the United Kingdom) as well as United States Air Force Europe-Air Forces Africa, United States Indo-Pacific Command, Air Force Special Operations Command, U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific, and U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command.

Previous ATREUS events focused on the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, capability: for instance, as we reported back then, on Saturday Oct. 23, 2021, in Sweden, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J Commando II aircraft landed on a highway on Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, strategically located in the the Baltic Sea, and unloaded an M142 HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System).

The latest test with the Rapid Dragon on Nov. 9, 2022, saw the MC-130J operate over Andøya Space Defense Range, off Andøya, about 300 kilometres inside the Arctic circle. The event could be tracked online thanks to ADS-B.

The Rapid Dragon Palletized Effects System, allows the deployment of long-range cruise missiles using standard airdrop procedures from a cargo aircraft. The AGM-158 JASSM (with a range in excess of 200 nautical miles) and its extended-range version, the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range (JASSM-ER) with a standoff distance of over 500 nautical miles, are GPS-guided radar-evading cruise missiles with 2,250-lbs penetrator/blast fragmentation warhead. The JASSM cruise missile employs precision routing and guidance in adverse weather, day or night, using an infrared seeker in addition to the anti-jam GPS to find and destroy high-value, well-defended targets.

As the following video shows, after successful extraction, the AGM-158B JASSM-ER (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range) missiles extend their wings and turn on the engine.

“Now, more than ever we must take a different approach to accelerating capability to the warfighter,” said AFRL Commander Maj. Gen. Heather Pringle in the press release about the successful live fire test. “Rapid Dragon is a fantastic example of the speed at which technologists and warfighters can work — the design, development, prototyping and experimentation of new capabilities can get to the field on operationally relevant timelines.”

“The Rapid Dragon Experimentation Program is appropriately named, as it advanced rapidly from a concept on paper to a live fire using a developmental prototype in 24 months. Now less than three years from the program inception, Rapid Dragon is being used by SOCEUR in the Arctic Circle,” said Dr. Dean Evans, Rapid Dragon program manager. “This is a testament to the team’s focus on rapid fielding to meet warfighter needs.”

Interestingly, although the Rapid Dragon Experimentation Program has been focused on kinetic munitions, the program’s efforts are now expanding from Palletized Munitions to Palletized Effects, which include kinetic and non-kinetic munitions; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, or ISR, platforms; cargo resupply; humanitarian aid delivery. In other words, many different payloads can be airdropped using the same palletized system.

Dealing with the MC-130J Commando II, here are some details about the aircraft we posted in 2017.

The MC-130J Commando II, that has replaced the MC-130N/P Combat Shadow II aircraft, is the modern special operations variant of the Hercules, whose primary roles are HAAR (Helicopter Air-to-Air Refueling) of SOF helicopters/tilt rotor aircraft, infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of SOF by airdrop or landing on remote airfields. Interestingly, the aircraft can also be used for FARP (Forward Air Refueling Point) operations to perform covert, nighttime refueling operations in deployed locations where fueling stations are not accessible or when air-to-air refueling is not possible.

The MC-130Js mainly operate at low-altitude and at night, conducting clandestine missions with reduced probability of visual acquisition and intercept by airborne threats.

According to the U.S. Air Force, the MC-130J features an advanced two-pilot flight station with fully integrated digital avionics; fully populated Combat Systems Operator (CSO) and auxiliary flight deck stations; 13 color multifunctional liquid crystal displays; head-up displays; fully integrated navigation systems with dual inertial navigation system and global positioning system; integrated defensive systems; low-power color radar; digital moving map display. The aircraft is equipped with new turboprop engines with six-bladed, all-composite propellers; digital auto pilot; improved fuel, environmental and ice-protection systems; enhanced cargo-handling system; Universal Air Refueling Receptacle Slipway Installation (UARRSI), air refueling pods, Electro Optical/Infrared (EO/IR) System; dual SATCOM for voice/data; 60/90 KVA generators; increased DC electrical output, loadmaster/scanner restraint system; and LAIRCM provisions.

About David Cenciotti
David Cenciotti is a journalist based in Rome, Italy. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviationist”, one of the world’s most famous and read military aviation blogs. Since 1996, he has written for major worldwide magazines, including Air Forces Monthly, Combat Aircraft, and many others, covering aviation, defense, war, industry, intelligence, crime and cyberwar. He has reported from the U.S., Europe, Australia and Syria, and flown several combat planes with different air forces. He is a former 2nd Lt. of the Italian Air Force, a private pilot and a graduate in Computer Engineering. He has written five books and contributed to many more ones.