U.S. Air Force Gunships Won’t Be Getting This Radar Pod
‘Dragon’s Eye’ didn’t work out on AC-130J prototype
By JOSEPH TREVITHICK
The U.S. Air Force wants to install a powerful radar to track enemy targets on its new AC-130J Ghostrider gunships. But engineers are going to have to find something other than Northrop Grumman’s AN/ASQ-236 Dragon’s Eye pod.
By May 2015, the Air Force’s top commando headquarters had started testing Dragon’s Eye on one of its AC-130J prototypes. In December 2016, the Pentagon’s top weapon tester revealed the experiments hadn’t worked out.
“The AC-130J does not have a sensor system that enables adverse weather engagements by detecting and tracking targets obscured by weather, smoke and haze or obscurants,” the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation wrote in its annual review of the gunship program as a whole. “Earlier efforts to integrate an AN/ASQ-236 radar pod were unsuccessful.”
But the requirement for this type of equipment still stands and the Air Force will have to find a suitable substitute.
At the heart of Northrop Grumman’s is a large active electronically scanned array radar, or AESA. The gear can find multiple targets on the ground through darkness, bad weather or “obscurants” such as smoke and dust.
AESA systems use rows of smaller radar emitters rather than one large unit scanning slowly through a single field of view. This means they can gather more information and do it faster than traditional systems.
In 2009, the Air Force bought its first AN/ASQ-236s and quickly sent them off to Afghanistan strapped underneath F-15E fighter bombers. According an official fact sheet, the pod can produce detailed maps, spit out precise coordinates to aim GPS-guided weapons at and generate images of targets after an attack.
With the service already buying the equipment, it would have provided a relatively cheap option for an extra sensor on the Ghostriders. In addition, the Air Force and Northrop Grumman had signed a cooperative research and development agreement for the tests, a deal that formalizes sharing both risks and rewards — and their associated costs — from such experiments.
We don’t know why engineers couldn’t get the radar to work with the AC-130J. The Pentagon’s overview includes no specific details and, as of this writing, Air Force Special Operations Command had not responded to our inquiry for more information.
It is possible that the pod’s particular position on the gunship prevented it from scanning properly. On May 21, 2015, during a briefing at the annual Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida, Air Force Col. Eric Forsyth showed a picture of the Dragon’s Eye under the right wing of an MC-130 or AC-130.
The mount put the AN/ASQ-236 relatively high up and near one of the aircraft’s four engines. This is significantly different from the arrangement on the F-15E, where the pod rides low and centered beneath the aircraft’s fuselage.
Regardless, the Air Force will need to find another system with similar capabilities. Unlike most earlier AC-130s, the upcoming J model relies heavily on precision-guided bombs and missiles instead of guns.
The older AC-130Us have a 25-millimeter Gatling gun, a 40-millimeter cannon and an 105-millimeter howitzer. While there are plans to add the artillery piece to the AC-130J — or even install a laser weapon — the initial versions may enter service armed with only a 30-millimeter automatic gun and various laser- and GPS-guided munitions.
On Dec. 13, 2016, one of the Ghostrider prototypes dropped Laser Small Diameter Bombs during a test flight over the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. In addition, the Air Force expects the planes will carry the increasingly popular Griffin missile or another small glide bomb now in development.
A powerful radar like the AN/ASQ-236 would greatly improve the new gunship’s ability to lob these weapons at hostile forces. In particular, the crews could engage the enemy faster with a system that quickly finds appropriate GPS coordinates for a given target.
There are a number of potential alternatives, including finding another podded system or finding a new mount for the gear inside the AN/ASQ-236 or a similar radar. Air Force commandos have already tested a modular mount that can fit on any C-130 cargo plane, including specially modified MC-130s.
Airdyne’s Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response — aka SABIR — replaces one or both of the plane’s rear, side cargo doors. The pylons can hold pods with various different sensors, including foliage-penetrating radar, laser imaging gear and high-resolution video cameras.
“SABIR components do not block the cargo movement area and the aircraft can remain pressurized in flight,” Airdyne’s website noted. It “has little or no effect on existing C-130 air transport operations when installed.”
In another briefing in May 2016, Forsyth listed unspecified “larger sensors” among other “future” plans for the AC-130J. But the Air Force hopes the first Ghostriders will ready for combat by the end of 2017.
If the service sticks to that plan, those gunships may enter service without this key capability.