Magazine article National Defense

Gunship-Launched Drone Approaches Transition Point

Magazine article National Defense

Gunship-Launched Drone Approaches Transition Point

Article excerpt

Air Force Special Operations Command wants to launch spy drones from its gunships to collect critical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information. The program to develop the technology is approaching a key transition point.

Tactical off-board sensing capabilities, also known as TOBS, would give AC-130 crews the ability to see the battlefield when their onboard sensor views are obscured.

"We have a requirement for an allweather capability on our gunships right now," Air Force Lt. Col. Jeffrey LaFleur, materiel leader for integrated strike programs at Special Operations Command, told National Defense.

"We need to be able to track the enemy and we need to be able to engage the enemy whether there's clouds, whether there's any type of situation there that would prevent us from doing that," he said. TOBS "is addressing that capability gap."

Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, the commander of AFSOC, described how the technology could be used during a hypothetical raid to capture a high-value terrorist target.


The team leader on the ground "knows that the cloud cover will make it difficult for traditional ISR to be of much use," Webb told an audience at a recent conference in Washington, D.C. The commando "keys his radio and calmly states, 'Send the TOBS.'"

Webb continued: "Thousands of feet and miles away an orbiting AC-130J gunship receives the call.... The operations airborne mission commander presses the illuminated launch button. The TOBS air vehicle slips out of its common launch tube and starts to autonomously fly towards the team's location.... It slides below the cloud deck giving the asset its first opportunity to view the team on the ground."

Feed from the sensors would be transmitted back to the gunship where operators could manipulate picture framing, zoom levels and positioning. The TOBS system would remain overhead maintaining a continuous scan for any surprises or threats until the weather situation improved and it was no longer needed, Webb noted.

Such a scenario is "100 percent feasible and realistic," he said.

Tactical off-board sensing is on the "top shelf' of AFSOC's innovation priorities, he told National Defense at the conference.

Last year, the organization experimented with deploying Raytheon's Coyote unmanned aerial vehicle from an AC-130W. Tests and crew training were conducted at the Melrose Range near Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico. The system was later deployed to the Central Command area of operations --which covers most of the Middle East and Central Asia--for combat experimentation and evaluation, according to an AFSOC spokeswoman.

The experiments provided operators the opportunity to refine tactics, techniques and procedures for using tactical off-board sensing technologies. But the Coyote does not meet AFSOC's endurance requirements, officials said.

The Air Force Research Laboratory, which has been shepherding the TOBS program, is planning a technology demonstration in August with a different drone that has extended endurance. The air-launched, tube-integrated unmanned system, known as ALTIUS, will be launched from an AC-130.

"We're going to run through a basic mission which is send the UAV off to look at something," Jason Bowman, the TOBS program manager at AFRL, said in an interview.

"We'll look at it for a little bit, try to get a sense of how well the gimbal on the UAV is performing... and basically see if we're hitting our gimbal" key performance parameters, he said.

The process could be repeated by sending the drone to observe other targets during the demonstration, he added.

The objective is to "give AFSOC and SOCOM confidence that the system is at a point where we can move forward with it for real gunship integration," he said.

AFRL has already deployed the equipment from surrogate aircraft such as Cessna Caravans and civilian C-130s. …

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