Photo by National Archives

Back in the 1990s when the B-2 Spirit bomber was still not fully deployed I wrote one of my first published pieces, a letter to the editor at the Washington Post.

There I argued that considering the demise of the Soviet Union, and lack of other near-term nuclear threats, the U.S. Air Force should consider buying a fleet of militarized 747 aircraft armed with dozens of nuclear-tipped AGM-86 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), instead of the obscenely expensive stealth B-2.

These aircraft would not need to penetrate heavily contested enemy airspace, but could fire their weapons from a safe stand-off distance.

Clearly my letter didn’t have much of an effect on the Pentagon’s plans, as we bought 21 of these B-2 bombers.

But I wasn’t the only one proposing the 747 CMCA (Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft), and today the idea is getting another look under the ‘Rapid Dragon’ concept.

Regarding the original concept, 19fortyfive explains:

The long-serving B-52 Stratofortress was able to carry around 20 of these 1,500-mile-range missiles, but the proposed 747 CMCA (Cruise Missile Carrier Aircraft) would have flown with a whopping 72 onboard. The weapons would have pre-programmed target data that could be adjusted from within the onboard command center, and would be launched one at a time in rapid succession from a door near the tail of the aircraft.

Because of the existing global infrastructure for the operation of 747s already in place and a production line already in operation, this effort seemed both promising and cost-effective. The 747 CMCA could carry nearly three times the cruise missiles of a B-52 at nearly 1/3 the price per flight hour.

The Air Force’s current Rapid Dragon concept is similar to the CMCA idea but would use existing standard military cargo planes (C-130s and C-17s) as the missile launch vehicles, and the missiles would initially likely be a version of the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) with ranges over 1,000 miles.

And 19fortyfive adds:

Rather than customizing specific aircraft for the arsenal ship role, Rapid Dragon uses self-contained palletized munitions called “deployment boxes” that can be loaded aboard any C-130 (in a six-missile magazine) or C-17 (with a nine-missile magazine). These modular deployment boxes allow for the maximum variety in both weapons deployed and space utilized while keeping production costs low.

The deployment boxes are loaded like any other airdrop pallet and then deployed while airborne without the need for any modifications to the aircraft itself, in what the Air Force Research Laboratory calls “roll-on roll-off capability.”

Once the order has been given to deploy the weapons, the crew onboard the cargo aircraft go about their business just like any standard airdrop, with parachutes deploying to orient and stabilize the deployment box for the missiles to launch. Once ready, the onboard control box begins releasing AGM-158 JASSM cruise missiles individually to prevent them from conflicting with one another. Each missile then deploys its small wings and control surfaces, fires up its engines, and pulls up into its traditionally horizontal flight path.

Rapid Dragon, named after the ancient Chinese siege weapon from around 950 AD known as “Rapid Dragon Carts,” could also turn cargo planes into deadly ship-hunting platforms over the vast expanses of the Pacific. In December, the Air Force successfully hit a “maritime target” with a cruise missile deployed from a C-130.

And like the old Chinese system that launched multiple arrows from a single crossbow catapult, the U.S. Rapid Dragon system could saturate enemy airspace with a large volley of low-observable cruise missiles at relatively low cost and low risk.

Communist China may not be amused that the Rapid Dragon weapon system could be devastating in a conflict against the very nation that gave it its name.

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. A defense and national security expert, he served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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Stephen Russell
Stephen Russell
1 month ago

Deploy to Alaska, Japan, Hawaii, Australia alone

Bemused Berserker
Bemused Berserker
1 month ago

Gee, I thought maybe someone could plant Biden in the Communist Party. Let him F**k China up the same way he’s F**ked the US up.

K. Smith
K. Smith
1 month ago

“Secret” weapon revealed- the. It isn’t secret.