A war-decisive swarm missile will quickly drive China out of Taiwan

When analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies conducted a series of war games simulating a Chinese invasion of Taiwan last year, they learned something surprising. The Games showed that the US Air Force, which fought almost alone after destroying much of the US Navy, was able to almost single-handedly destroy the Chinese invading force.

The key to this simulated aerial victory was a rocket: the Lockheed Martin-made Joint Air-to-Surface Strike Missile or JASSM. It is a stealthy and highly accurate cruise missile capable of flying hundreds of kilometers from its launching fighter plane. There are long-range versions of the JASSM and also a special anti-ship version – and the USAF and its sister services buy thousands of these missiles for billions of dollars.

Now America is striving to increase the number of planes capable of carrying the war-decisive missiles. In equipping some of the USAF’s 2,000 fighters and most of those 150 heavy bombers with the 2,200-pound JASSM, the JASSM-Extended Range and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile – the ship-destroying variant – the obvious first step is: the Air The violence doesn’t stop here. Next, it wants to arm its cargo planes as well — potentially adding hundreds to the number of missiles it can launch in a single day.

This is a good idea, but potentially risky for the flight crews who may fly into battle in a role for which they are not fully trained or equipped.

The USAF’s effort to arm its cargo aircraft began in 2019 under the umbrella of Air Force Research Laboratories’ Rapid Dragon initiative. Two years later, in 2021, an MC-130 transporter from an Air Force special operations squadron tested the system for the first time. Another test with the same type of aircraft 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 develops hardware, software, and methods for transport aircraft to fire missiles from their cargo bays.

The rockets are in special racks equipped with parachutes. To fire the missiles, the crew opens the rear cargo door and slides out the racks. The parachutes deploy, slowing the missiles in the air. After a few seconds, the rocket motors start up – and the ammunition flies out of its holders.

Consider the implications. The Air Force has ramped up JASSM production from 400 missiles in 2021 to almost 600 this year. Each rocket costs a million dollars. The service aims to maintain a stockpile of 10,000 JASSMs – enough to quickly throw the Chinese military out of a war.

However, a USAF B-1 bomber can only carry 24 JASSMs at a time. The service has only 43 B-1s and 76 B-52s and 20 B-2s. But it has 222 C-17 cargo planes and around 360 C-130s. It is unclear how many JASSMs could fit in the cargo hold of a C-17 or C-130. dozens? Results? In any case, the armament of the cargo planes greatly increases the number of missiles that the Luftwaffe can launch.

And that’s the whole point. “Rapidly deployable palletized munitions can saturate airspace with a variety of weapons and effects, make enemy target acquisition difficult, help open up access for pursuit of critical targets, and deplete an enemy’s air defense ammunition stockpile,” explained Air Force Research Laboratories.

Imagine hundreds or even thousands of cloaked cruise missiles racing at wave heights across the western Pacific while simultaneously attacking Chinese ships, ports and air bases. Not for nothing did the CSIS think tank call the missile “crucial” in its war games simulating a war over Taiwan. The Japanese Air Force is so impressed with the Rapid Dragon technology that they are considering developing their own version for installation on their C-2 cargo planes.

If it were easy, any air force with cargo planes and cruise missiles would do it. But Rapid Dragon has disadvantages. First, it forces crews trained for point-to-point cargo missions in benign conditions to think and act like bomber crews. They would have to fly towards the enemy in their slow, lumbering plans – even risking being intercepted by long-range interceptors.

While fighters and bombers are equipped with radar jammers, stealth technology and, in the case of the fighters, even self-defense missiles, cargo planes are only minimally protected. The Luftwaffe must think and plan very carefully before sending the airlifters and their crews into battle.

Furthermore, a C-17 conducting cruise missile attacks against the Chinese Navy is a C-17 that is failing its primary mission: transporting vital supplies between distant bases. No one is saying the USAF has too many cargo planes; By converting the air transport aircraft into part-time bombers, the service is exacerbating a possible wartime air transport shortage.

And then there’s the nuclear joker. There’s no reason the Air Force couldn’t load their nuclear-tipped cruise missiles onto their Rapid Dragon transports as well. While Russia, China and other nuclear-armed countries are used to tracking, counting and deterring USAF nuclear bombers, nuclear cargo planes would introduce an element of uncertainty. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a Chicago advocacy group, recently published an editorial questioning the viability of the Rapid Dragon effort.

But it is difficult to erase an idea. And as the notion of missile-armed cargo planes circulates in various air force headquarters, it’s likely to persist. The question is who can implement the idea first and best. The US Air Force is in the lead – and that could make all the difference in any case future war with China.

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