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.”

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • Robbie

    Current technology gunship sensors can’t see thru weather? Really?

    • Redeye

      For example FLIR (infrared sensors) are unable to see through bodies of water. It just looks like solid, impenetrable surface.

  • Nayan S

    C-130s and drones? Really?
    Old news.
    We flew DC-130s deploying Firebee drones back in the 1970s. Initially they were set up as aerial target launch platforms, up to 4 drones. But we took it further, deploying camera-equipped Firebees even into areas of North VietNam and elsewhere. Then we developed armed variants with actual live bombs they could drop, directed dozens of miles from the C-130 parent aircraft.

    The concept isn’t new, just the technology inside is.

  • william

    Only active sensors can “see” through heavy clouds as these block both IR and optical wavelengths. A modern radar can resolve vehicles and buildings, but still has problems with personnel. so this also not the perfect solution to these cloud issues. However a drone flying under the clouds could spot targets and control gunfire.

  • John

    please stop spreading tactics and operational weaknesses to the world. tech is one thing, but to expose how it is used only gives the tactic to other countries. I know most of the defense industry has spies and been hacked but enough is enough. its like trying to play poker but the casino is broadcasting your cards on the tv monitors to everyone.

    • anomyous coward

      Smoke and clouds has always been used as tactical cover. It is why we still use Whiskey-Pete. Shouldn’t be too shocking….

    • realist

      Be very very afraid of the a-holes in their HiLux trucks. They are going to kill us all if you give away tactics like this on a blog.

      Another pussy online.

  • stephen russell

    Or use other planes even civie models to drop drones for Spec Ops too.
    C17, plain jane C130, ecec jets modified?

  • Paul

    Has nobody read any of Dale Brown’s novels?

  • David Hambling

    Ah yes, I remember off-board sensors for AC-130s from several years ago — didn’t Defensetech report on it then?

  • Dfens

    It’s kind of like dropping a guy via parachute to light up a bombing target or call in artillery, except this guy can’t be killed. Too bad the only way they’re going to get this capability is by getting a defense contractor involved. Otherwise it would be a great idea.

  • Bob

    All these advances and ideas in technology and increased offensive responses are for naught, unless our bone-head President and our weak-kneed congress lifts the sequester of funds against the military. Our military is in the least prepared state to fight a war and dominate over our enemies since the Carter administration, when our military was reduced from a whopping 600 ship navy to less than 200 ships. When will we ever learn that the one institution that should never be cut, under any circumstances, is our military?

    • Dfens

      That’s the problem. The military doesn’t spend enough money.

  • mhpr262

    How are they going to get the drone back on board? Even a relatively simple Raven is pretty expensive and not really meant as a one-time-use, expendable item …

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    Nice point, that. Is the drone to be retrievable or expendable? If retrievable, can it fly a pre-planned course to a base? Or to a point in the area where the infantry the Spectre is present to support can retrieve it?

  • Valentin

    Why do we tell others of our tech stuff let the enemy find out the hard way with bombs on thier heads

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    Valentin, do you really think it’s news that cloud cover can interfere both with NV and IR surveillance? It really isn’t.