Air Force Special Ops Eyes Off-Board Sensors

By Allyson Versprille
Air Force Special Operations Command is calling on industry to develop a tactical sensor that can be flown separately from an aircraft to pinpoint enemy locations on the ground, said the command’s leader. 

“I spend hours and hours and hours at 15,000 feet or higher looking at the tops of clouds while my joint partners are being engaged on the ground,” said Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of AFSOC. “That’s not right.”

Acquiring a tactical off-board sensor on an unmanned aerial vehicle to be flown off the service’s aircraft would address that problem, he said. Existing common launch tubes — currently used to hold Griffin missiles — could be employed to carry a small UAV that would support such a sensor, he added.

An off-board sensor is useful because it can be dropped below cloud cover, move into a pre-programmed fixed orbit, target the enemy and send coordinates electronically back to the airplane, he said.

Once those coordinates are known there are a variety of options airmen could pursue. “I can drop just about anything on a set of coordinates,” Heithold said. “I’ve got small diameter bombs; I’ve got versions that go to GPS coordinates.”

An off-board sensor could also be beneficial when skies are clear, he noted. “I don’t want to put an AC-130 over a threat” where it is visible to the enemy, he said. Such a capability could be used in a “killer scout” role to fly ahead of the aircraft and notify airmen of impending threats enabling them to launch a standoff weapon — missiles and bombs that can be deployed at a distance.

Additionally, an off-board sensor could be used on non-combat aircraft such as an MC-130 for supply missions, Heithold said. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a tactical off-board sensor that we could send out in advance to tell us what was on the runway to decide whether we airland or whether we airdrop?” he asked.

Currently, AFSOC is pursuing such technology within its combat development division. It also has a long-range effort with Air Force Materiel Command, which will proceed at the standard 18-month to two-year acquisition rate and result in a more permanent capability, Heithold said. However, he stressed that the Air Force needs to find a way to get the technology to the warfighter sooner. “I need to field it in the battlefield today.”

Topics: C4ISR, Sensors, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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