Special Operators Plan to Drop Drones from Gunships


U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command wants to drop a small drone from an AC-130 gunship to get better surveillance of the battlefield, its commander said.

The unmanned aerial system would fly beneath the cloud cover or inclement weather on a pre-planned route while crew in the aircraft control its sensors to scrutinize items of interest or obtain targeting coordinates, according to Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold.

The so-called tactical off-board sensing, TOBS, system was one of two technologies the general he wanted to develop in coming years. The other was a laser weapon.

"Right now today, in many cases, we're giving the cover of weather to the enemy," he said during a briefing with reporters this week at the Air and Space Conference near Washington, D.C. "The enemy is maneuvering, massing against an objective often times because of the weather. We need to take that away."

As a self-described gunship guy, Heithold said he has spent many hours in the AC-130, orbiting at higher-altitudes.

"I'm staring down at the top of the deck a lot and I can't peer through it to see what's going on," he said. "What we want to do is take the sensor off of the gunship and drop it out of the back. My eyesight is two high-def sensors on the airplane. Wouldn't it be really nice if I could drop a sensor off of the aircraft, below the deck, tie it back to the airplane?"

Heithold said the aircraft's common launch tubes measuring eight inches in diameter could be used to fire the unmanned aerial vehicle rather than a munition. The UAV would fall below the deck, cut its parachute, unfold its wings and fly in an orbit based on coordinates loaded by crew, he said.

"It's tethered -- not physically tethered, electronically tethered to the gunship," Heithold said. "Now I'm seeing below the deck, feeding coordinates."

He added, "Once I've got the coordinates, it directly feeds it into my fire control system. I can shoot. I can put a small diameter bomb on those coordinates ... I can shoot a 105mm [cannon] at a set of coordinates -- which I can do today, I just can't see where they go. So I put a sensor below the deck [and can] adjust fire. It's like boring your rifle."

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