- BY: JAMES DREW
US Air Force Special Operations Command wants an expendable, tube-launched small unmanned aerial vehicle for its AC-130 “battleplane” for peering beneath cloud cover to direct gunfire and precision-guided munitions.
The special forces organisation, which employs a large fleet of manned gunships equipped with 30mm and 105mm cannons, is pursuing the so-called Tactical Off-board Sensor as a way of “taking the cover of weather away from the enemy”.
AFSOC commander Lt Gen Bradley Heithold says the tube-launched UAV could be dropped from the back of the Lockheed Martin C-130-based gunship and orbit below the clouds. The sensor gimbal is controlled remotely from the AC-130, allowing crews to feed imagery and target coordinates into the on-board fire control system.
“Today, in many cases, we’re giving the cover of weather to the enemy,” Heithhold said at an AFA Air & Space Conference in Washington this week.
“The enemy is manoeuvring and massing against an objective often times because of the cover of weather, and we need to take that away.”
AFSOC has initiated one quick concept-demonstrator programme using a Raytheon-Sensintel Coyote UAV and another standard 18- to 24-month acquisition project aimed at surveying industry and procure the best long-term solution. Heithhold wants an expendable device that can operate for 1h or more.
The Coyote was recently used by the Office of Naval Research to demonstrate UAV swarming and has been used in many other experiments.
L-3 Communications has a similar tube-launched UAV called Stiletto, which was on display at the conference. Stiletto weighs 12kg (28lbs) and has an endurance of more than 30min.
Off-board sensor technology is not new. The Air Force Research Laboratory has been exploring different devices for several years, but there needs to be a user like AFSOC for it to become a programme of record.
AC-130 gunships generally operate from 25,000ft to 28,000ft, proving “danger-close” air support to ground troops and special forces units. They carry a variety of smart weapons, including the Boeing Small Diameter Bomb and Raytheon Griffin missile.