HENSOLDT and Airdyne join forces for mission aircraft retrofit
Orlando/Florida – 23 October 2023 – Sensor solutions provider HENSOLDT joins forces with U.S. mission aircraft supplier Airdyne Aerospace Inc. Brooksville/FL, to jointly offer an integrated and certified mission suite, in a first step specifically for C-130 mission aircraft.
On September 20, 2023, both companies signed a MoU to set up the details of their relationship. The mission suite combines HENSOLDT’s “MissionGrid” portfolio of different sensors and mission management systems and Airdyne’s SABIR System which is a system of individual “bolt-on” modular components that can be configured in several ways to support various missions, aircraft configurations, and other customer-specific requirements.
“HENSOLDT has a long-standing track record of providing a variety of sensors for ISR missions as well as mission management systems and mission avionics”, said Steffen Kolditz, Head of Airborne Solution Business Unit at HENSOLDT. “Therefore, Airdyne with its versatile SABIR system is the ideal partner to jointly offer an exportable mission package to C-130 customers worldwide with very low integration risks for the end-user”.
HENSOLDT’s MissionGrid consists of building blocks such as airborne radar, COMINT and ELINT sensors, electro-optical sensors and mission computers which are pre-integrated and tested at their own premises. This results in significant advantages for the customer, such as reduced technical risk or shortened integration times. It can be used on fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles. In addition to military air and naval missions, it is used for border protection, search and rescue, maritime patrol, law enforcement and asset protection.
Airdyne’s SABIR System is a modular open architecture set of mounting components including Doors, Robotic Struts, Mission Pods, Workstations, Avionics Racks, Crashworthy Seats, Power Modules and more. SABIR mission systems accommodates thousands of sensor/communication configurations and many different pod designs – either independently developed or created by Airdyne. SABIR supports a wide range of missions such as full spectrum military operations, maritime patrol, search and rescue, surveillance, C5ISR, CBRNE, crisis response, command and control, and even scientific and environmental research. SABIR is compatible with all C-130 models and can be installed as a permanent solution, or as a temporary modification moveable between aircraft.
HENSOLDT is a leading company in the European defence industry with global reach. Based in Taufkirchen near Munich, the company develops complete sensor solutions for defence and security applications. As a technology leader, HENSOLDT drives the development of defence electronics and optronics and is continuously expanding its portfolio based on innovative approaches to data management, robotics and cyber security. With more than 6,500 employees, HENSOLDT achieved a turnover of 1.7 billion euros in 2022. HENSOLDT is listed in the MDAX of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange.
The Air National Guard-Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC), in cooperation with Airdyne Aerospace and Northrop Grumman Corporation, has recently demonstrated the successful integration and operation of the AN/AAQ-28(V) LITENING targeting pod utilizing the SABIR system aboard an HC-130J Combat King II.
This major milestone of the Multi-Spectral, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (MISeR) program further exemplifies the incredible versatility of the SABIR system in expanding the capabilities of the C-130 airframe.
Click below to view a video.
The search and rescue (SAR) process begins with an incident that isolates individuals to the point they cannot self-recover. Such an incident could be a downed aircraft, an injured individual (such as a hiker or hunter), or a natural disaster. Visual and electronic means are needed to locate these individuals and bring them to safety. The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is working to improve those capabilities for the Air Force.
The Multi-Spectral Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (MISeR) program is one of those programs that is modernizing and enhancing the Air Force’s imaging equipment. By attaching an electro-optical infrared sensor system from Northrop Grumman to Airdyne Aerospace’s Special Airborne Mission Installation & Response (SABIR) arm, the Air Force can better perform combat search and rescue (CSAR) missions. Furthermore, the MISeR program saves money for the government and taxpayers by leveraging existing technology and research.
Recently, the team reached a significant milestone by demonstrating the successful integration and operation of MISeR on board an HC-130J Combat King II. They are now working towards large-scale implementation to aid the Air Force’s CSAR missions.
PARTNERING TO MODERNIZE IMAGING EQUIPMENT
The Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC), which is sponsoring the MISeR program, frequently works with GTRI’s Air National Guard Program Office to develop actionable solutions that are tested and subsequently implemented.
“GTRI brings the ability to innovate and bring technology solutions to them [Air Reserve Component],” said Jo Eliot, senior research associate and director of the Air National Guard Program Office. “Industry has ideas, but we are the glue to get it on the aircraft and improve the mission.”
In 2020, AATC was looking to modernize its imaging equipment for the CSAR division. GTRI’s Air National Guard Program Office, a part of the Electronic Systems Laboratory (ELSYS), collaborated with industry partners, including Airdyne Aerospace and Northrop Grumman, to adapt previously developed technologies for the Air Force’s CSAR missions.
Rather than engineering entirely new technology, an opportunity was identified to adapt Northrop Grumman’s AN/AAQ-28(V) LITENING targeting pod. The pod, designed as an electro-optical infrared sensor system typically used to detect, acquire, identify, and track targets at long ranges, could be adjusted to support SAR missions.
“For the search and rescue, this could be used to locate survivors on the ground,” said Buzz Glover, GTRI senior research engineer, who serves as the GTRI MISeR task leader. “If you can use it to find a vehicle, why can’t you use it to find a person or downed aircraft?”
The first stage of this project involved an operational assessment to determine if the existing technology could be used. In order for MISeR to be successful, the LITENING pod needed to be quickly and easily attached to an aircraft, such as Lockheed Martin’s HC-130J. The team began working with Airdyne, a privately owned, highly focused aircraft special mission systems engineering, manufacturing, and aerospace research firm, to attach the pod. Airdyne’s SABIR system uses bolt-on avionics components to augment aircraft without requiring any permanent modifications.
The SABIR AS-7 STRUT is an articulated arm that can be mounted in the paratroop door of an HC-130J. The pod can then be easily affixed to the SABIR arm, and once the aircraft is airborne, the entire piece can be extended and retracted to facilitate the mission at hand.
“GTRI’s role was designing the integration and installation into the aircraft,” Glover said. “While Northrop Grumman and Airdyne have the technical expertise on their products, GTRI provided the expertise and experience to integrate these systems together and into the aircraft for flight testing.”
Pulling together the expertise of multiple organizations resulted in a technology that could positively impact the effectiveness of the Air Force’s CSAR missions.
“The technology MISeR provides and capability it brings to the table impacts and enhances every phase of both the CSAR and SAR processes,” said Lt. Col. Andy Williams, AATC CSAR Division director
PUTTING THE TECHNOLOGY TO THE TEST
Before any technology is implemented, it must be proven successful. Therefore in March 2021, the team utilized a roll-on/roll-off commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solution to address the need for SAR/CSAR advancements where the LITENING pod and SABIR arm were integrated and tested.
COTS technologies translate to savings—both time and money. Utilizing and incorporating existing technologies from a solutions-based approach minimizes the constant need for research, development, test, and evaluation via already proven advancements. “It’s an 80 percent solution at 20 percent of the cost,” Lt. Col. Williams explained.
“It’s not always about the next big scientific breakthrough, but about solving problems,” Eliot said. “We want to save taxpayers’ dollars.”
While the team had already done extensive lab testing, they eagerly awaited the first test flight in Alaska. There were five scheduled test flights to verify the system was safe to fly on the aircraft. The tests began with straight flight paths. Once that proved successful, the pilots advanced the level of flight maneuvers and started running emergency procedures to ensure the new technology did not inhibit any capabilities.
After successfully completing the test flight in Alaska, the team traveled to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada to test the technology at the United States Air Force Weapons School, which trains the world’s premier tactical experts. The MISeR program was tested during the CSAR mission period of Weapons School. After five additional test flights, the team concluded the testing phase of the project. The over-arching success at each level is now advancing the effort into phase three, which will involve a permanent or semi-permanent installation of the equipment.
Time is of the essence when conducting search and rescue missions, thus improving and expanding Air Force technology is of the utmost importance.
“MISeR is a game-changer in the CSAR and SAR realms,” said Lt. Col. Williams. “It expands the HC-130J’s capability, increases situational awareness among CSAR Task Force (CSAR-TF) assets, frees up time to allow those assets and persons to focus on the task at hand affecting the recovery, decreases the time the isolated person (IP) is in harm’s way, and provides a window into the SAR/CSAR world so ‘That others may live.’”
Moving forward with the installation, the team validated interoperability with supporting assets while conducting CSAR missions. The LITENING pod increased its visual capabilities by providing digital, high-definition video transmitted from the aircraft to Airborne Tactical Assault Kits (ATAK) worn by Special Warfare team members supporting the rescue operation. This real-time video provides them an eye-in-the-sky view of their objective, while also providing an unfiltered assessment of the area prior to infiltration/exfiltration.
“Having a very capable search and rescue system gives the warfighters peace of mind,” Glover said. “We will do everything to get them home to their families.”
MISeR serves as another tool in the CSAR toolbox. Combining efforts creates layers for mission effectiveness, all working toward minimizing the isolated person time on the ground. The team is also exploring how the National Guard could use this technology in Homeland Security and Emergency Response. There is an ongoing domestic mission in Alaska that involves aviation accident rescue on the state’s interior. Implementing the MISeR program could provide the National Guard with real-time video data link imagery to rescue personnel on the ground and back to command and control (C2) centers.
Working closely with sponsors and partners enables GTRI to more effectively serve national security and provide solutions to some of the nation’s most complex problems.
Glover and Eliot extend their gratitude to GTRI’s partners at Airdyne Aerospace and Northrop Grumman, who have been an integral part of the success of this project. The leadership at AATC has also been incredibly supportive during this whole process. GTRI thanks the Alaska Air National Guard and Lt. Col. Andy Williams from AATC for working with us and paving the way for testing in Alaska. And finally, we recognize the NGB/A5 group in the Washington D.C. office, which provided supplemental funding.
The MISeR program exemplifies the power of collaboration and how GTRI employees understand the value of applying existing principles and technologies when addressing emerging requirements. This effort is a glowing testament to the enduring relationship AATC shares with its industry partners, the successes that relationship has garnered, and the change it has accelerated for over 30 years.
The first batch of the Air Force’s new HC-130J Combat King II aircraft fleet have been outfitted with new SABIR “Bubble” Door assemblies and returned to the sky with great praise from their crews.
Eleven aircraft from both the Air Force and Air National Guard have received permanent modifications of the left and right rear paratroop doors with Airdyne’s AS-6BKS “Bubble” Doors with armour and retract assemblies.
A C-130 utilizing the SABIR system delivers a solution for armed overwatch that would be available more quickly, with more capability, and having greater flexibility with design characteristics that provide for the quick adaptation of new sensor and munitions technologies.
This modular solution is more survivable, more tailorable, provides more comprehensive overwatch and mission support, is self-deployable, and facilitates simple and rapid redeployment.
Most importantly, the Airdyne solution also retains all the C-130 core capabilities meaning this aircraft can still provide the ground forces with the customary array of expanded mission support beyond armed overwatch while remaining relevant and mission worth for decades to come. Lastly, the SABIR system is already a proven technology used by multiple services and countries for ISR roles.
Click below to view a video.
Manila, August 14, 2018 — U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Y. Kim turned over a sophisticated surveillance and reconnaissance system worth PhP807 million to the Secretary of National Defense Delfin N. Lorenzana at Villamor Air Base, Pasay City, on August 14.
The Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response (SABIR) system will increase the Philippine military’s maritime domain awareness, airborne command and control, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) capabilities.
“The transfer of the SABIR system today, along with the Scan Eagle system this past March, and the C-208 aircraft in August 2017, represents our steadfast commitment to enhancing the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines,” said Ambassador Kim at the ceremony.
Ambassador Kim and officials from the Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group provided the system to the Philippine Air Force (PAF) through Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) funding, a U.S. initiative to build the maritime capacity of Southeast Asian nations. The total value of the transfer is PhP807 million ($15.1 million), which includes the cost of training, installation, and sustainment support in addition to the equipment itself.
The SABIR system is a bolt-on avionics module for the C-130 Hercules aircraft. The system upgrades the aircraft with advanced command and control, communications, computer, and surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities without sacrificing the aircraft’s primary function as a cargo plane.
This SABIR system will be operated by the PAF’s 300 Air Intelligence and Security Wing (300 AISW) out of Benito Ebuen Air Base, Mactan. The 300 AISW provides the PAF with near-real time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities through both manned and unmanned aircraft, including the SABIR system, Scan Eagle Unmanned Aerial System, and the C-208 aircraft, all donated by the United States government over the past year. The 300 AISW was upgraded from a Group to a Wing in February 2018 to support the growing requirements of new platforms and equipment arriving from U.S. grant-funded programs like the MSI.
The United States, as a longstanding friend, partner, and ally of the Philippines, continues to provide support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) through both grant assistance and expedited sales of arms and munitions to assist both long-term AFP modernization goals and urgent counterterrorism and HADR requirements.
Finally, after a lot of delays and roadblocks along the way, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) can now really say that it got itself a proper Maritime Patrol Aircraft. This is after decades of not having one in its inventory.
A photo from Philippine Plane Spotters Group (PPSG) revealed the modifications made on one of the PAF’s Lockheed C-130T Hercules heavy tactical transport aircraft, which was seen with a protrusion near the rear paratroop door, and an oversized door glass in it.
In its Facebook community page, MaxDefense made an initial assessment that the photo is an evidence of the delivery and installation of the Airdyne Aerospace Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response (SABIR) system, with possibly an Electro-Optical Infra-Red (EO/IR) module in it. It appears that we are partially righr in this.
MaxDefense was also able to obtain another photo of the same C-130T aircraft with the SABIR upgrade and a mission sensor pod attached to it.
The Source – US Maritime Security Initiative:
The delivery of these upgrades for the PAF’s C-130 was born out of a commitment made by the former US Pres. Barrack Obama to the Philippines in 2015 as part of the US Maritime Security Initiative. Among the programs allocated for the Philippines was the delivery of a palletized Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) kit for use on then recently-acquired C-130T Hercules transport aircraft, under a package which was estimated to be worth US$8.7 million.
While other parts of its commitment were partially or fully completed, the ISR kit appears to be the last to be realized, with this specific kit seen on PAF C-130T Hercules with tail number 5040 said to have arrived in the Philippines for installation only several weeks ago.
The Airdyne Aerospace SABIR System:
The US military made use of the Canadian-built SABIR system, that allows the mounting of modular pods externally without the need for modifications on the airframe except for the rear paratrooper doors.
It involves the replacement of the standard rear paratroop door into a SABIR AS-6 door panel system with an oversized bubble window which allows a wider view of the outside by an observer. It was also designed for a seating observer which can swivel the seat between the door panel and the T-4 computer control workstation positioned nearby.
There is an option also from Airdyne to allow the dropping of sonobuoys for submarine detection although the PAF may not have included this in its system. But it can always be an option in the future.
The module also includes a retractable arm (AS-7) with a standard ejector rack ready to accept different kinds of modular pods including ISR equipment like EO/IR systems, radars, intelligence equipment (COMINT, SIGINT and ELINT), among others.
Mission pods can easily be installed or removed while the arm can be retracted to a minimized position during mission changes or when not needed for use once the aircraft is being used for usual transport duties. All this can be made within less than 2 hours as confirmed by a source with the PAF.
The Philippines’ C-130 ISR Modification:
In the case of the Philippine Air Force C-130T, several systems were installed to convert the aircraft into a dual use surveillance/maritime patrol – heavy tactical transport platform.
Both port and starboard side rear paratroop doors were replaced with the SABIR AS-6 door, including the installation of the SABIR AS-7 retractable arm.
Each arm carries an ISR equipment, one with an L3 Wescam MX-15HD EO/IR turret for day and night visual surveillance, detecting heat signatures, for target tracking, for video and photo recording, among other capabilities.
The other arm carries a large circular pod with an Israeli-made Elta ELM-2022 synthetic aperture surveillance radar which allows the aircraft to detect surface or ground targets with a range of 200 nautical miles forl ships. This is the pod visible from the photo shared in PPSG’s page.
Both sensors are connected to modular control computer consoles operated by men of the 300th Air Intelligence and Security Wing, while the aircraft is flown by pilots from the 220th Airlift Wing.
A Satellite Communication (SATCOM) / Line of Sight system, as well as military radio communication systems are also installed on the aircraft to allow the crew to communicate with other ground, naval or air units or stations.
Two T-4 workstations are available for the operation of the surveillance radar and EO/IR system.
So far, sources confirmed that there is only one of the PAF’s C-130 that has this upgrade, although we believe another set could be provided by the US to be installed with the other C-130T of the PAF. This upgrade is said to be the easiest, least costly alternative in the market at the moment, and the US might even be willing to provide more sets for the PAF in the future, this despite the PAF acquiring real Maritime Patrol Aircraft under its stalled Long Range Patrol Aircraft (LRPA) acquisition program.
Apparently it took several weeks for the upgrade works to be made, including maintenance works done of the C-130T. To cover its absence, the PAF’s C-295 fleet was put to good use in providing logistics support to the AFP. All works were only done locally at Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan, with minimal foreign assistance.
Training of operators and maintenance crews are said to be ongoing, although the PAF has an experience advantage with the L3 Wescam MX-15D EO/IR system due to it being used in their Cessna 208 Grand Caravan ISR aircraft also provided by the US government through military assistance program.
The PAF is also said to be interested in making use of the platform for Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) and Signal Intelligence (SIGINT), as well as Communication Intelligence (COMINT) missions by using specific mission sensors that can be acquired by the PAF in a latter time. This is actually related to the overall C4ISTAR build up of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, considering SIGINT and ELINT capabilities are being sought after as well by the Philippine Navy and its Naval Air Group, which wanted to utilize its existing fleet of Beechcraft C-90 King Air for such missions.
MaxDefense believes that the PAF should have considered using the larger MX-20 EO/IR system which was designed for larger aircraft like the C-130. The MX-15, in MaxDefense’s opinion, is small and is better equipped on smaller aircraft like the Cessna 208 Grand Caravan or the upcoming OV-10G+ Combat Dragon II Broncos.
With the modifications expected to be visible always, MaxDefense expects more photos of the aircraft to be posted online as taken by various amateur and professional photographers or plane spotters. Expect MaxDefense to also make more updates on this project, or if there will be any follow-on deliveries or related news on this.
1. Upgrade of PAF C-130T Hercules to ISR Platform
End User: Philippine Air Force (220th Airlift Wing and 300th Air Intelligence & Security Wing)
Modernization Phase: US Military Assistance (not under any Horizon phase)
SARO Release: N/A
Proponent: US Government, most probably through HISS Canada and Airdyne Aerospace Canada
Bid Price: N/A
First post by MaxDefense:
Concept: 18 April 2016
Delivery: 26 July 2018
With its two WC-135W Constant Phoenix atmospheric sampling jets becoming increasingly difficult to operate and maintain, the U.S. Air Force is looking for additional ways to rapidly scoop up air samples after nuclear weapon tests and other atomic incidents. Since three replacement WC-135Rs are still years away from delivery, the service may soon turn to a modular kit that can turn a C-130 Hercules into a nuke-sniffing WC-130 as necessary.
According to a report by Defense News, two of these systems, known variously as the Particulate Airborne Collection System (PACS) or Harvester, will be in service and operational by the end of 2019. Though the Pentagon did not request any additional money for the program in its latest budget request for the 2019 fiscal year, the outlay does note that the U.S. military has spent more than $1.5 million on the effort since it began in 2012.
The full Harvester system consists of two separate collection pods. These hang below the C-130 while it’s in flight to gather air samples potentially full of nuclear debris, as well as a workstation for the system’s operator.
According to Sandia National Laboratories, which led the initial development of the equipment, during an actual mission, the system operator would first use the Directional Gamma Radiation Sensor (DGRS) to pinpoint the radioactive plume. This particular component consists of four large sodium iodide radiation detectors and a complex processing algorithm.
The aircraft would then fly through this “hot spot” collecting particles, which would get caught in a piece of specialized filter paper. Harvester has its own radiation sensor that can provide immediate data on the possible types of isotopes and how densely they’re concentrated in the air. Once the plane lands, specialists on the ground can physically remove the filters for more detailed analysis.
Harvester is also a modular affair that will work on any of the Air Force’s C-130H or J model airlifters thanks to Canadian firm Airdyne’s Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response (SABIR), which you can read about more in detail in this past War Zone feature. This system is essentially a replacement for one or both of the Hercules’ rear paratroop doors that adds an extendable arm with a standardized bomb rack into the aircraft.
Personnel can then link this system, and any sensor pod or other stores it carries, to a workstation inside the aircraft. In Harvester’s case, SABIR systems on both sides of the aircraft each hold a single collection pod.
This combination offers the Air Force significantly more flexibility over the existing WC-135Ws and the future WC-135Rs. The 21st Surveillance Squadron, part of the service’s secretive Air Force Technical Applications Center, or AFTAC, the service’s main nuclear reconnaissance unit, “owns” the systems, but has no aircraft and will have to coordinate with airlift units as necessary to fly actual missions.
This arrangement could provide a badly needed backup capability in case the existing Constant Phoenix jets are not available. With only two of them to begin with, it doesn’t take much for accidents or heavy maintenance to bring aerial sampling missions to a halt.
“The current [WC-135] airplanes are old. They’re wearing out,” U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Dave Goldfein told Senators in April 2018. “Our mission capable rates, and more importantly our aircraft availability rates to go do this mission, are much lower than not only the secretary of defense but the combatant commander’s requirements for that mission.”
With the smaller C-130s, the Air Force would be able to fly collection missions from a more diverse set of airports and airfields, as well. This could offer a more responsive capability during a contingency whether it be an accident or attack of some sort.
The Harvester program actually began first as part of efforts to develop capabilities to guard against domestic nuclear incidents. In 2013, Sandia conducted the initial flight tests of the pods on a Customs and Border Protection MQ-9 Reaper drone.
According to one Pentagon presentation in 2015, one concept of operations would involve flying a Harvester-equipped aircraft over an incident site and then having it return to a safe and secure airstrip where technicians would quickly prepare samples for analysis in a laboratory by way of a rapidly deployable clean room. In this way, the U.S. government could quickly identify the exact nature of a potential nuclear incident and respond accordingly. The possible scenarios could range from a terrorist with a “dirty bomb” to a rogue state launching a ballistic or cruise missile with a nuclear or radiological warhead at an American facility abroad or a city at home.
In its most recent budget request, the U.S. military says that Harvester’s primary mission will still be to support the Department of Homeland Security-led National Technical Nuclear Forensics (NTNF) effort and its own Countering Nuclear Threats (CNT) mission. U.S. Special Operations Command recently assumed the role as the lead agency within the Pentagon for countering all weapons of mass destruction. With that in mind, the Air Force’s special operations MC-130s or MQ-9s could easily carry the pods if required.
Still, Harvester-equipped C-130s won’t be able to completely replace the WC-135s. The podded system can’t collect and analyze nuclear gases, which the Constant Phoenix jets can do with their larger sampling system. There is a separate Modular Whole Air Airborne Collection System (M-WACS) in the works that could give the aircraft this additional capability, but it is unclear when it will be operational.
Even so, the C-130s also don’t fly high or fast enough, or have the overall range, to perform the kind of sampling necessary to support AFTAC’s primary mission of monitoring compliance with the Limited Test Ban Treaty and other nuclear arms control agreements, Susan Romano, a spokeswoman for the center, told Defense News. Harvester is really better suited to fill a capability gap between the more capable systems on the larger WC-135s and the more limited suites on smaller platforms, such as the National Nuclear Security Agency’s fixed wing and helicopter-mounted Aerial Measuring System (AMS) and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology (ASPECT) aircraft.
As such, the Harvester-equipped C-130s will also help free up the WC-135s for missions that truly require their more extensive sampling systems. And together, the two types of aircraft will expand the Air Force’s overall capacity to perform this vital mission.
WASHINGTON — When the Air Force dispatches aircraft to the Asia-Pacific to monitor the atmosphere for signs of nuclear activity from North Korea, it relies on its WC-135 Constant Phoenix nuke-sniffing planes. But with only two of those in the service’s inventory, it’s possible the WC-135s might not be able to respond to every contingency.
Enter the ever-versatile C-130 Hercules, which now can be equipped with a modular kit that allows it to detect nuclear particles in the atmosphere.
The Air Force spent $10.1 million in fiscal year 2016 for two “Harvester Particulate Airborne Collection System” kits that can be strapped onto C-130H/Js and collect microscopic nuclear solids in the event that the service can’t make its WC-135 aircraft available, said Susan Romano, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Technical Applications Center (AFTAC), which is responsible for conducting nuclear surveillance for the Defense Department.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein has said that the current WC-135 planes are too old and too few in number to meet all of the Defense Department’s demands.
“Our mission capable rates, and more importantly our aircraft availability rates to go do this mission, are much lower than not only the secretary of defense but the combatant commander’s requirements for that mission,” he told Congress in April.
While the Harvester kits won’t give the C-130 the full capability of the Constant Phoenix, it gives the U.S. Air Force a needed boost in capacity at a time when its more focused than ever on the nuclear activities of Russia, North Korea, China and Iran.
Defense News first learned about these specially-outfitted Hercules thanks to a series of tweets by Quinton McGuire, a former C-130 loadmaster who participated in 2015 tests of the Harvester system aboard a Super Hercules flying out of Hurlburt Field, Florida.
McGuire’s photos show a C-130J with the rear paratrooper doors outfitted with a podded sensor hanging from the exterior of the door.
During the demonstration, a WC-135 crew operated the sensor pod and conducted onboard analysis, McGuire said in a series of tweets. Also present during the flight were representatives from Sandia National Laboratory, one of the nation’s largest research labs for nuclear weaponry, which developed the Harvester pods.
For a month in 2015 I spent a month with the test unit at Hurlbert. We had the Constant Phoenix folks along with Sandia doing flight test on a modular version of their sniffer in the door of a standard C-130J. (Former AMC J model Loadmaster. I have pics if you want to see them.)
— Actual Bigfoot (@Qmcguire) April 25, 2018
“The door was really cool. It allowed the Loadmaster or system operator to get a better view of the equipment (and also take kick ass pictures at high altitude),” McGuire tweeted. “And it’s more cost effective to develop more flexibility without dedicating 2 high value assets to that mission.”
The Harvester kit was also tested on Customs and Border Protection MQ-9 Reaper drones before technical demonstrations wrapped up in 2015, Romano said. Since then, the Air Force decided to procure two kits, which are currently going through the acceptance process and will fully operational and mission-ready in fiscal year 2019.
Each Harvester suite includes two sampling pods that collect radioactive particles and a gamma radiation sensor that helps guide the aircraft to a radioactive plume, according to a Sandia news release on a 2013 test aboard an MQ-9.
It also includes radiation protection gear and other equipment needed to sample and analyze nuclear particles in air and on the ground, Romano said.
During a mission, Air Mobility Command would provide C-130s and the pilots and crew needed to operate the aircraft itself, while the 21st Surveillance Squadron would provide the personnel needed to use the Harvester equipment and do the nuclear forensics onboard.
The C-130 would first use the gamma radiation sensor to find a hot spot of nuclear activity, and then flying through the plume, passing air rapidly through the sampling pod. That action rams microscopic nuclear particles into the filter paper in the pods much the way that a vaccum uses a filter to collect dirt.
“A separate radiation sensor analyzes the filter in real time to estimate the type and quantity of radioactive particles collected,” said a Sandia news release that explained the Harvester capability. “More extensive examination of the filters occurs after the aircraft has landed.”
So if nuclear particles can be detected by a C-130, why does the Air Force still need the WC-135?
A “rapid, medium altitude, manned, refuel-capable aircraft” is currently required to do the nuclear treaty monitoring mission, said Romano, and the C-130 doesn’t fit the bill.
For one, it can’t refuel other aircraft. But even more importantly, the modular Harvester kits only give the C-130 the ability to collect particles, while the WC-135 has a collection system for nuclear gases, as well as other equipment like internal filtration that allows the crews to conduct longer missions, Romano said.
Additionally, the C-130 flies slow and low. While the C-130J may be able to hit a higher top speed than a WC-135, its 28,000-foot ceiling is significantly lower than the WC-135’s 40,000-foot maximum altitude, according to Air Force fact sheets. Meanwhile, the WC-135 outperforms the C-130H variant in both areas.
Although the nuclear treaty monitoring mission isn’t often discussed by the Air Force due for classification reasons, it’s clear that the service is putting more money into ensuring that it can rapidly respond when an adversary tests nuclear weapons.
In September 2019, L3 Technologies will begin transforming three KC-135R tankers into WC-135s. Those three new Constant Phoenix planes will allow the Air Force to retire its current two WC-135s — and increase the number of nuke sniffers by one aircraft.
The Air Force is requesting $208 million in FY19 for the Constant Phoenix upgrade effort, with an additional $8 million planned in FY20.
After more than five decades of steady service, it’s safe to say that Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Hercules family, as well as the civilian L-100 and now LM-100J models, has proven to be an especially versatile design. Its widespread use has prompted a whole associated industry of third party upgrades and add-ons, including one modular system called the Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response (SABIR) in particular, that can turn the aircraft’s rear paratrooper doors into surveillance arrays, communications nodes, even a radio and television broadcast antennas and more.
Airdyne, an engineering firm based on Calgary, Canada, has been actively developing SABIR, one of the better known systems, and expanding on what it can do since 2007. Its subsidiary, Airdyne Aerospace, handles the sales and marketing of the equipment, as well as repairs, from its headquarters in Florida. Rather than one single piece of equipment, SABIR is a modular kit that includes a new door, a retractable “arm” able to carry a store weighing up to 400 pounds, and an equipment rack and work station with a seat so a member of the crew can operate the systems now attached to the aircraft.
Relatively easy and quick to install, crews can substitute the rig for either the left or right rear paratrooper doors on any C-130, or both. Airdyne’s website says it initially developed the setup for the Hercules specifically, but that it is “platform independent” and able to fit on other aircraft, though the Hercules still appears to be the primary platform.
The company says that an aircraft with this rapidly reconfigurable kit could be useful in a variety of military, law enforcement, and civilian roles. Its website lists more than a dozen possible mission sets, including surveillance missions, border patrol, search and rescue, and scientific research.
Airdyne itself offers a number of modular pods that fit onto the extendable strut, the AS-4 and AS-18, both of which can accept a variety of different sensors, including electro-optical and infrared still and video cameras, imaging and surface search and surveillance radars, laser imaging equipment, and signals intelligence suites. Another option is a wide-area surveillance systemthat incorporates multiple video cameras to capture imagery across a large swath of land or sea. Analysts can then put imagery together in a large mosaic making it easier to spot routine patterns of enemy movement or changes to the landscape over an extended period of time. Multiple users can exploit different parts of the imagery at one time, and vehicles and even people can be tagged tracked, including “rewinding” past footage and tracing their steps over a period of time.
With the retracting arm, which only takes approximately one minute to extend or fold back up, the crew can position the pod well below the aircraft’s fuselage, as well. This reduces physical obstructions and other interference that might limit the range, field of view, intensity, or other capabilities of the sensors on board. Airdyne says that the full SABIR system works with nearly 170 different sensor packages.
We at The War Zone have written numerous times in the past about the immense value of modular sensor packages, especially for cash-strapped military forces and civilian agencies who might have limited numbers of actual aircraft available, but the need to perform a wide variety of missions. In July 2017, while exploring the U.S. Air Force’s new AgilePod system specifically, I wrote:
“This level of modularity makes perfect sense. If the AgilePod works as intended, during actual operations, crews on the ground could quickly swap out gear to better fir the situation at hand rather than having to prepare an entirely different aircraft or even just install a completely different pod. This would reduce the total number of aircraft a unit might need to be able to perform the different mission sets, as well as potentially speeding up the process of getting the appropriate equipment into the air. It would be especially useful for units at forward locations where existing infrastructure and resources may be otherwise limited.
“Of course, individual manned or unmanned aircraft would only be able to perform the missions that the pod is configured for at any one time. However, the multiple stations inside the AgilePod would allow it to carry more than one type of sensor during each mission, which would still provide additional flexibility over some existing configurations. ARFL already has a number of examples within the Air Force and elsewhere in the U.S. military it can look to for evidence of the benefits of similar modular architecture.”
So it’s not surprising that SABIR is already in service across the U.S. military, including with the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy, as well as U.S. Special Operations Command and the Air National Guard. A number of other countries around the world also operate the system. The Air National Guard in particular has been steadily exploring the versatility of the concept to handle less typical missions.
Rare pictures of French Air Force C-130H-30 Hercules with optronic ball (SABIR system) fixed on a side door pic.twitter.com/dEItt9NBaG
— Loïc Lz (@DefensAero) October 31, 2017
In 2006, the New York Air National Guard turned to Sandia National Laboratories to develop an X-band radar for its LC-130H Hercules, already specially configured to support U.S. government activities in extreme cold weather locales such as Greenland and Antarctica. The 109th Airlift Wing had suffered a number of accidents when crews tried to land on what appeared to be stable ice, only to have the aircraft run into a hidden crevasse.
With the X-band radar, crews could see beneath the top sheet of ice and make sure their impromptu runway was safe before touching down. The 109th used SABIR to attach the equipment to the aircraft.
Afterwards, in cooperation with the National Science Foundation and Colombia University, the unit began helping test the “IcePod,” which could carry the radar, along with various other sensors for research purposes. The final design had multiple visual and infrared cameras, radars, and a GPS navigation system, and was able to gather data on ice depth and density and air and surface temperatures, among other information.
The Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 193rd Special Operations Wing also had a unique requirement, but one that didn’t involve sensors at all. The unit flies the EC-130J Commando Solo variant, a psychological warfare platform that can beam out propaganda radio and television broadcasts over warzones, urging civilians to avoid certain areas or implore them to give up any support they might be giving to the enemy.
The only problem was that the Commando Solo conversions were complicated, costly, and would only ever apply to a small fleet. In 2008, the U.S. military decided to trim back the planned fleet from an already paltry six aircraft, down to just three. This left the 193rd with three “slick” C-130 airframes, plus an additional spare, that it suddenly had no idea what to do with.
The unit subsequently combined SABIR carrying a pod with a version of a U.S. Army psychological operations broadcasting system. The cost-effective combination meant that these EC-130J aircraft, though less complex than the Commando Solos, could still transmit FM radio, analog and digital television, and even SMS text messages.
The psychological warfare mission highlights SABIR versatility beyond just modular sensor packages. Along with the broadcast equipment, the arm could just as easily accommodate a communications or data sharing hub to help pass information between friendly forces on the ground and in the sky. This could be an especially important capability for smaller militaries that cannot afford to field dedicated aircraft for this mission, such as the U.S. Air Force’s fixed wing E-11 or EQ-4B drone, both of which carry the powerful Battlefield Airborne Communication Node (BACN).
Off the battlefield, this capability could be especially useful for more civilian authorities, in particular during a natural disaster that disables a significant amounts the communications infrastructure, including emergency assistance hotlines, or knocks out large portions of the power grid in a particular area. A C-130 flying an orbit with a communications relay could provide a quick substitute system to get first responders and larger government disaster relief agencies back in regular contact with each other so that they can best direct their efforts and quickly share critical information about the overall situation.
With its 400 pound load capacity and a standardized bomb rack, the system could theoretically carry small munitions or other types of stores, as well. In a pinch, a C-130 with SABIR might be able to double as an attack platform or release swarms of small drones able to conduct their own myriad missions.
For maritime surveillance and anti-submarine work, Airdyne already offers a sonobouy launcher that fits into the new door. This doesn’t impede the ability of the system to carry other equipment, meaning that crews could have that capability plus a surface search radar for long range patrol operations over the open ocean just on one side of the aircraft. A second SABIR setup on the other size could carry additional sensors.
According to Airdyne, that same dispenser can accommodate other manually dropped payloads, too. These include the GBU-44/B Viper Strike lightweight glide bomb and small, expendable drones. It could also likely drop research probes, such as the dropsondes storm chasing aircraft drop into hurricanes and other extreme weather patterns to gather data on temperature, wind speed, and various other data.
It’s not the first time the U.S. military in particular has explored what it can do by simply swapping out the C-130’s rear paratroop doors. The U.S. Air Force Reserve flies two types of unique aerial spraying C-130s, both of which utilize that space.
In the 1970s, the Air Force first started using the Modular Airborne Firefighting System, or MAFFS, consisting of five pressurized tanks than can hold 2,700 gallons of fire retardant chemicals or water. The system fits inside the the main cargo area of a C-130 and dispenses the liquid over large forest and other wildfires through nozzles that poke out through the rear paratrooper doors.
In 2007, the Aero Union delivered the first improved MAFFS II, which replaced the five individual tanks with a single unit that also had a large 3,000 gallon capacity. In addition, the new system included two air compressors on board the aircraft, allowing the crew to pressurize the system themselves without the need for a separate piece of ground equipment.
In addition to MAFFS, the Air Force Reserve also has a small number of C-130s fitted with the Modular Air Spray System (MASS). This configuration includes spray nozzles fitted in modified paratrooper doors and under the wings. Unlike the fire-fighting MAFSS, MASS crews primarily spray chemicals to control harmful insects or invasive plants.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the aircraft headed to Texas to help control a potentially dangerous explosion in the mosquito population. The planes have have also gone to work after other natural and man-made environmental disasters, including spraying oil dispersing chemicals in the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in 2010, which you can see in the video above.
In the 1980s, the Air National Guard began flyingh C-130s with a special signals intelligence system called Senior Scout, as well. While, the bulk of the equipment fit inside a container that slides into the main cargo bay, new paratrooper and landing gear bay doors held the antenna farm necessary to spot and monitor enemy emitters.
Ground crews could relatively quickly install all of the equipment onto any C-130 or remove it to put it back to work as a regular airlifter. The modular nature of the system meant that the Air Force built up a few versions, called Senior Warrior, for the U.S. Marine Corps to use on its KC-130 tanker transports during the first Gulf War. The Air National Guard appeared to have retired its remaining Senior Scout systems by 2013.
More recently, the U.S. Marine Corps added a new paratrooper door to its KC-130 fitted with the Harvest Hawk weapons kit. Nicknamed the “Derringer Door” for its two weapons launch tubes, crews could fire various lightweight precision guided munitions, include the GBU-44/B and the AGM-176 Griffin missile, from inside the aircraft. Earlier Harvest Hawks had a larger launcher on the rear cargo ramp, but that meant the crew had to depressurize the main cargo compartment in order to use it.
A Harvest Hawk could conceivably expand its capabilities by using SABIR to combine the stores release capability with a sensor or other additional equipment. At present, the gunships use a modular sensor turret system that fits onto the rear of one of the aircraft’s under wing drop tanks.
SABIR could also offer a quick, bolt-on electronic warfare capability, especially when combined with something such as the U.S. Marine Corps’ Intrepid Tigerprecision jamming pod. Many of these systems can double as electronic intelligence suites since they have to be able to locate and monitor enemy signal sources. Intrepid Tiger itself makes use of so-called “open architecture” software that will allow engineers to quickly install upgrades and add new capabilities as time goes on, including potentially radar jamming and even the ability to launch cyber attacks.
In June 2017, Lockheed Martin unveiled a special operations configuration for the C-130J, the C-130-SOF. The concept art the company showed included a 30mm cannon firing through the left-side paratrooper door. This is a simpler, more modular arrangement than the purpose-built gun mount in the forward fuselage on the U.S. Air Force’s AC-130W and AC-130J gunships.
You really can hang a lot of stuff out of those rear paratrooper doors. More than six decades after its first flight, the C-130 is still going strong and it seems unlikely we’ve seen everything you can do with that space.