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The Air Force’s Clever Workaround for More Firepower, Turning Cargo Planes Into Bombers

Source: AFRL

When you think of bombers, the sleek silhouette of a B-52 or the angular frame of a B-1 comes to mind. But the Air Force is quietly transforming its airlifters into makeshift bombers, too. New photos reveal US airmen loading pallets of missiles onto C-17s and MC-130Js.

It is all part of Rapid Dragon, an initiative exploring how to drop cruise missiles and other “effects” from cargo planes. Since 2020, the Air Force has conducted tests releasing mock weapons from transport aircraft. Last September, an MC-130J successfully fired a live cruise missile in the Pacific.

Air Force Cargo Planes Get Offensive Upgrade

The US Air Force is continuing its mission to transform its existing fleet of workhorse transport planes into bombers.

Source: Nara.getarchive

Recent training exercises showcased airmen loading missile cradles onto MC-130J Combat Shadow IIs and C-17 Globemaster IIIs, part of an initiative known as Rapid Dragon.

Equipping for New Missions

Since early 2020, the Air Mobility Command has conducted tests dropping pallets of cruise missiles and mock weapons from cargo planes.

Source: Wikimedia/English: Staff Sgt. Efrain Gonzalez, U.S. Air Force

In September 2020, an MC-130J launched an extended-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile during an exercise in the Indo-Pacific. Gen. Mike Minihan said the test “absolutely serviced a target and was extremely, extremely successful.”

More Than Just Bombs

The Rapid Dragon initiative aims to expand cargo planes’ capabilities beyond ordnance. Minihan said the planes could also carry “decoys, jamming sensors, [and] sensors that could find a radio and provide search-and-rescue.”


The program selected the MC-130J and C-17 because they required fewer changes to transform them into bombers.

Fighting With Versatile Airlifters

Traditionally, the MC-130J and C-17 have delivered fuel, supplies, and troops. Turning them into bombers gives the Air Force more offensive options using its existing aircraft.

Source: Airman 1st Class Jenay Randolph, U.S. Air Force

Minihan said the planes’ new abilities are “Much broader than just the kinetic side of the business,” referring to direct attacks. The MC-130J and C-17’s size and performance make them well-suited to take on new missions with some modifications.

AMC Tests Dropping Cruise Missiles From C-17s and MC-130Js

In September 2020, an MC-130J successfully launched a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) cruise missile during an exercise in the Indo-Pacific region.

Source: Wikimedia/United States Navy

Gen. Mike Minihan, head of the AMC, called the test “extremely, extremely successful.” The goal is to give the AMC’s transport planes some of the offensive capabilities of traditional bombers so they can attack targets directly.

More Than Just Bombs

However, as the program is called, the Rapid Dragon initiative aims to do more than turn cargo planes into bombers.

Source: Wikimedia/U.S. Air Force

Minihan said the AMC wants to explore dropping “palletized effects” like electronic warfare tools, decoys, and sensors in addition to munitions. For example, the planes could drop jamming equipment, deploy search and rescue transponders, or place surveillance sensors.

Versatile Workhorses

The C-17 and MC-130J were chosen for the Rapid Dragon tests because they required fewer changes to transform them into makeshift bombers.

Source: Wikimedia/Airwolfhound

Ordinarily, these planes deliver fuel, supplies, vehicles, and personnel. Their ability to operate from short, unpaved runways makes them versatile workhorses for the Air Force.

Palletized Munitions Allow Flexible Effects Beyond Bombs

Transport aircraft are versatile platforms that can accomplish more than just moving troops and cargo. By deploying palletized munitions, the huge planes gain offensive capabilities traditionally reserved for bombers.

Source: Air Force/Staff Sgt. Jake Jacobsen

The Rapid Dragon initiative explores using existing airlifters to drop various payloads, not just bombs. Sensor suites, jammers, and decoys are all available as options for the C-17s and MC-130Js to deploy.

Missile Launch From C-17 Deemed “Extremely Successful

The US Air Force has successfully launched a cruise missile from a C-17 Globemaster III transport plane during an exercise over the Indo-Pacific region.

Source: U.S. Air Force

According to Gen. Mike Minihan, who leads Air Mobility Command, the test was “extremely, extremely successful.”

Familiar and Versatile

Pilots and crew are already highly familiar with operating these aircraft, so transitioning them to an attack role requires minimal additional training.

Source: Air Force Research Laboratory

The planes themselves also need a few modifications to take on the bomber mission. This allows the Air Force to expand its strike capabilities without investing in an entire new fleet of aircraft.

Size and Range

The C-17 and MC-130 have an intercontinental range and payload capacity, allowing them to strike distant targets that would require aerial refueling for smaller bombers.

Source: Quora

Their cavernous cargo bays can hold large amounts of ordnance, giving them a heavy punch when needed. The C-17 is designed to operate even from short, unpaved runways.

Modifications Required to Transform Transports Into Bombers

Only minor modifications are required to convert transport planes into makeshift bombers. The Air Force has found that the C-17 and MC-130J need the least changes to carry and drop ordnance like cruise missiles.

Source: Wikimedia/US Coast Guard/Dave Silva

The cargo bays of the C-17 and MC-130J were already designed to hold and airdrop heavy equipment and vehicles, so little needs to be done to outfit them to carry missiles and bombs.

Software and Avionics Upgrades

Some software and avionics upgrades are necessary to properly interface the planes’ systems with the new munitions.

Source: Wikimedia/United States Air Force

The upgrades allow the cockpit crew to monitor the ordnance during flight and release it when over the target. The plane’s existing defensive systems may also need to be upgraded to handle increased heat or electronic emissions from the munitions.

Risks and Challenges

Converting cargo planes into bombers, even with minor modifications, comes with risks and challenges.

Source: Youtube/The Daily Aviation

There are concerns about safely handling and separating live munitions in a cargo aircraft. The heat and forces involved in a missile launch could potentially damage the plane or injure crew members.

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Sally Reed

Written by Sally Reed

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