US Air Force special operators turned cargo planes into bombers. Now they’re showing other militaries how it’s done.

  • The US Air Force is looking for new ways to use its aircraft to make life harder for adversaries.
  • One effort involving Air Force Special Operations Command is modifying cargo planes to drop bombs.
  • Other air forces could easily deploy those weapons from their cargo planes, the head of AFSOC said.

The US Air Force is developing new ways to use its aircraft in order to prepare for a war against a capable opponent. A major part of that effort has been repurposing its largest aircraft, cargo planes and tankers, for other missions.

US Air Force Special Operations Command has been working with other airmen and researchers to enable AFSOC’s workhorse cargo plane, the MC-130J, to drop pallets of long-range cruise missiles.

MC-130Js and other US cargo planes can operate from a greater range of airfields than bombers, and enabling those airlifters to deploy long-range missiles is expected to create more work for an enemy.

“I think an adversary has to take a lot different look at the region when it comes to where can we project power from,” Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, the head of AFSOC, said at an Air & Space Forces Association event on September 7.

It can also be adopted by allies and partners. “The beauty is this capability doesn’t require any aircraft modifications and it doesn’t require any special crew training,” Slife added. “So it’s really easily exportable.”

Palletized munitions

Air Force Special Operations MC-130J palletized munition

US airmen load a Rapid Dragon palletized weapon system on an MC-130J at Hurlburt Field on December 13, 2021.
US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brandon Esau

The Air Force has been contemplating how to deploy more firepower with its existing fleet for nearly a decade. The idea has advanced rapidly over the past two years in an initiative known as Rapid Dragon, involving MC-130Js and other airlifters.

The Air Force Research Laboratory, which has led the work, said in 2020 that it had tested the so-called palletized-munition concept in January and February that year by dropping wooden pallets carrying simulated munitions from a C-17 and an MC-130J.

Tests in mid-2021 showed the viability of passing targeting data to military cargo planes, using that data to program munitions on those planes, and then hitting targets with those munitions.

In a November test, an AFSOC crew on an MC-130J was able to receive targeting data while in flight, pass it to a simulation cruise missile loaded in a palletized munition, and drop the munition, which then deployed the missile.

In a culminating test in December, data for a target in the Gulf of Mexico was passed to an MC-130J and loaded onto a live cruise missile, which was then dropped in a palletized-munitions container. The missile deployed and “successfully destroyed its target,” the Air Force Research Lab said.

The December test involved a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range, which has a range of about 600 miles, but AFSOC is looking at using other weaponry in a similar manner, Slife said.

MC-130J palletized munition cruise missile

A simulated cruise missile deploys its wings and tail after separating from the palletized-munition container during a November 2021 test.
US Air Force Research Laboratory

The test demonstrated what Slife described as potential “volume of fire” and targeting challenges for adversaries. “If you can take a C-130 and enable that to be a delivery platform for a dozen long-range standoff precision munitions, this is the same payload that a B-52 has.”

With a C-130 operating from a 3,000-foot airstrip, “you can have a long-range fires platform that carries the same payload as a B-52,” Slife said. “A C-17, which doesn’t require much more than 3,000 feet of dirt strip, can carry 36 palletized long-range munitions.”

Being able to operate from more airfields creates more work for enemies trying to find those aircraft — a dilemma the Air Force is trying to exploit by expanding the number of bases its aircraft can use.

“It’s not hard to figure out where all the 10,000-feet concrete runways in the Pacific are, but when you’re trying to figure out where the 3,000-feet straight stretches of road and grass strips are,” Slife added, “that’s a different targeting problem for your adversaries.”

Dozens of militaries operate C-130s, C-17s, or other airlifters, and the ease with which they could use palletized munitions has what Slife called a “multiplying effect.”

“We’ve had a number of requests from around the globe from partners to actually demonstrate this capability, to help them integrate that capability onto their aircraft,” Slife added. “We did an iteration of that in the spring. We’re going to do another one in the fall.”

Capabilities and dilemmas

AFSOC MC-130J Commando II float amphibious plane rendering

A rendering of an MC-130J with a twin-float amphibious modification.
US Air Force Special Operations Command

AFSOC is looking to add other capabilities to its MC-130s as well. Slife said the command is making progress on “a field-installable” amphibious modification that would allow planes to operate on land and water.

The design is complete and being tested in a wave tank, and the command aims to start integrating it on aircraft in 2023.

“We ran through a series of testing to figure out do we want to do a catamaran, a pontoon, a hull appliqué on the bottom of the aircraft,” Slife said, without specifying which was chosen. “We settled on a design that provides the best trade-off of drag, weight, sea-state performance, all those types of things.”

Palletized munitions and the amphibious modification both reflect AFSOC’s interest in “the unconventional use of the platforms that we have available” to increase its options and challenge its rivals, Slife said.

“If you were going to build an amphibious airplane, you probably wouldn’t start with a C-130, but the C-130 is the ingredient that we’ve got in the cupboard,” Slife said. “We’ve got a pretty compelling digital design that’s going to give us the ability to turn any large body of water into a landing zone where we can insert [and] extract special-operations forces and equipment and other things that might cause dilemmas for our adversaries.”