See, Scan, Shoot — the U.S. Air Force Prepares a Powerful New Gunship Radar
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
U.S. Air Force plans for the AC-130J Ghostrider gunship could include the addition of a powerful radar. The flying branch has already tested a radar pod in combination with a new guided bomb called the Small Glide Munition.
On May 21, Air Force Col. Eric Forsyth showed a picture of an AN/ASQ-236 Dragon’s Eye under the wing of either an AC-130 gunship or a special operations MC-130 transport during a briefing at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida.
The experiment was part of a larger program to develop new weapons for the gunship, including new cannon ammunition, programmable shells and weapons that could “loiter” above the battlefield waiting for their prey.
Northrop Grumman’s system contains a large active electronically scanned array — a.k.a. AESA — radar that can spot and track multiple targets on the ground even in the dark or bad weather. The official fact sheet explains:
The AN/ASQ-236 Radar Pod contains synthetic aperture radar that provides detailed maps for surveillance, coordinate generation and bomb impact assessment purposes. This technology provides Combat Air Forces with the ability to precisely geo-locate points of interest and conduct surveillance activities day or night, in adverse weather conditions.
Operational on the F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft, the AN/ASQ-236 pod system is externally mounted and fully integrated with the aircraft. The radar pod is a self-contained system consisting of an antenna, inertial navigation system, and environmental cooling system.
An AESA radar can do all this in no small part because it rapidly shoots out tiny radar beams instead of using one big emitter to slowly scan across its field of view. A synthetic aperture radar, Dragon’s Eye can then take that information and turn it into high-fidelity images of the terrain below.
The Air Force bought the pods primarily for its multi-role F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets. The flying branch bought the first units in 2009 to help improve the accuracy of air-to-ground strikes in Afghanistan. Five years later, the service also tested out whether the pod would help the lumbering B-52 bomber spot ships at sea.
According the the presentation, the Air Force’s latest test was part of a so-called cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA.
An official Air Force pamphlet explains how a CRADA is supposed to work:
A CRADA is a legal agreement between a federal laboratory and one or more non-federal parties such as private industry and academia. CRADAs offer both parties the opportunity to leverage each others’ resources when conducting research and development (R&D) that is mutually beneficial. Through teaming, the parties share the risks and benefits of collaborative research and development.
The briefing doesn’t say who the “non-federal parties” were in this case, but at least one of them was probably defense contractor Northrop Grumman. Northrop Grumman makes the AN/ASQ-236 pod.
Along with existing plans to add an 105-millimeter howitzer and even laser cannons to the gunship, the new AC-130J would only get more fearsome with a radar like Dragon’s Eye to guide its massive arsenal.