C-130J continues to show versatility- Low Cost ISR solutions!

So, I was enjoying a brief hooah video featuring the Sumos of VMGR-152, a Marine Corps squadron equipped with the KC-130J Hercules transport.

You’ll see most of the stuff you’d expect from a Hercules squadron- flying from austere strips, dropping special ops guys out the back, dropping loads by parachute, and some horseplay while on liberty. Good stuff. But right before the end of the video, there were a couple of brief shots of a Herc with pods hanging from the paratroop doors toward the rear of the aircraft. And so, I shot a message to Spill, asking if he knew what they were. Of course, he did, and it’s a pretty interesting bit.

Whatthehellis that.

Here’s the hooah vid:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-2p4NgKzE4]

A novel means of adding surveillance sensors to the C-130 quickly and with minimum modification is on display here at the Dubai Air Show. Highland Integrated Surveillance Systems (HISS) can replace the paratroop door on the Hercules with a roll-up door that includes a mount for sensors that retracts for takeoff and landing; a large bubble window and collapsible workstation for an observer/operator; and an equipment rack.

The Special AirBorne Mission Installation and Response system (SABIR) has already been fitted to some U.S. Navy C-130s when flying special operations missions, and to a U.S. Marine Corps C-130 in Japan. The system is attracting interest from the UAE and other air forces, according to HISS president and CEO Roger Smibert. The mount can take EO/IR sensor balls, small radars, SIGINT or electronic warfare equipment. When extended, it provides 360-degree coverage. An ejection tube for sonotubes or other SAR stores is also included. Two people can fit or remove the SABIR system in only one hour.

The modified door does not affect the C-130’s cargo-carrying capacity in any way. Moreover, a C-130 operator might fit SABIR doors to both sides of the fuselage to provide a multi-sensor capability. According to Smibert, the installation overcomes the weight limitation and turbulence issues of a nose-mounted sensor installation. The maximum payload is 400 pounds, and maximum sensor length is eight feet. The installation costs $1- to $1.5 million, exclusive of the payload.

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One of the best attributes of the C-130, and most successful transports, is their versatility, their adaptability. We’ve mentioned before the Marines have taken to tasking certain of their fleet of KC-130J’s with a roll-on palletized gunship/precision strike capability under the program Harvest Hawk.

Now it turns out the Marines (and apparently the Navy as well) are using the SABIR pod system to provide its vanilla KC-130s with significant Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capability.

SABIR, or Special AirBorne Installation Response system, is a series of pods that can be mounted on the troop doors of a KC-130J. The pods themselves can carry a variety of different sensors, such as imaging infrared, radar, day TV camera, or low light imaging.

A palletized, roll on/roll off operator station controls the pods and the display. More importantly, the an extensive drop in kit for communications allows the feed to be share in real time with other users, on board or off. For instance, VMGR-152 used another palletized kit to convert the tanker transport to a Direct Air Support Center, providing immediate on scene coordination and command and control for air support missions in support of Marines on the ground.

[scribd id=271084515 key=key-X0qJFO1O1hVzZNBIEHx6 mode=scroll]

And of course, the utility of such a system is limited primarily by the inventiveness of the users.  Potential missions that pop into my head immediately include ISR for ground troops, IED detection, Search and Rescue, Maritime Patrol, Fisheries Protection, support to law enforcement, environmental monitoring (such as tracking an oil spill or mapping a wildfire), and Blue Force tracking for friendly ground forces.

A further example of the versatility of the mighty Herc can be seen here, where Lockheed Martin is proposing a modified variant to the United Kingdom as a Maritime Patrol plane.

RNAS YEOVILTON, U.K. — Lockheed Martin is to offer a U.K-specific variant of its SC-130J Sea Hercules to Britain, as the U.K. looks to re-generate a maritime patrol capability.

The company says it could convert the U.K. Royal Air Force’s existing fleet of C-130J airlifters into SC-130Js, reducing procurement costs and technical risks, company officials told Aviation Week on the eve of the RNAS Yeovilton Air Day.

China is not playing well with others.

The US Navy has always maintained that international waters, and airspace, are just that, international. And that those waters and airspaces are free to the passage and use of any nation. And the US has long recognized the international standard of the 12 nautical mile limit on territorial waters.* And the Navy has long known that a right not exercised isn’t really a right. So the Navy has also long conducted Freedom of Navigation exercises, sending ships and planes into areas that we recognize as international waters or airspace, simply to make the point that they are available for use. Additionally, to maintain awareness of the maritime domain, the Navy has long used P-3, and now P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) to conduct surviellance of shipping in international waters. If they can also happen to track foreign warships such as submarines while going about their business, so much the better. That’s the whole point to MPA, to patrol.

China has long felt its proper place was to be at least a regional hegemon, if not a great world power. And as such, it has long resented the US presence in the Western Pacific, particularly in the South China Sea area. And so, they have a long history of intercepting US patrol planes in international airspace. Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with that. The US does the same thing, and has done so around the world.

But the Chinese also have a history of either outright attacking US reconnaissance aircraft, or of recklessly endangering our aircraft. While it has been a relatively long time since the Chinese have actually shot down one of our planes, it hasn’t been that long since the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a US EP-3E spy plane resulted in an international incident, with the EP-3 making an emergency landing in China.

And as we noted just the other day, a US Navy P-8 Poseidon on patrol in the South China Sea was aggressively intercepted by a Chinese fighter.

Pentagon officials said a Chinese fighter buzzed a P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine and reconnaissance plane on Aug. 19, at one point flying 9 meters (30 feet) from its wing tip before doing a barrel role(sic) over the top of it.

A Chinese J-11 fighter jet is seen flying near a U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon about 215 km (135 miles) east of China's Hainan Island in this U.S. Department of Defense handout photo taken August 19, 2014. REUTERS/U.S. Navy/Handout

Nor is this simply a case of an exuberant pilot feeling his oats.  Because the article also shares this bit:

“We didn’t give them enough pressure (before),” Zhang said in the Global Times, a popular tabloid under the official People’s Daily newspaper that is known for its nationalist sentiments. “A knife at the throat is the only deterrence. From now on, we must fly even closer to U.S. surveillance aircraft.”

Emphasis mine.

The US seems to be showing weakness everywhere on the international front, so why wouldn’t China feel emboldened to pressure the US to scale back its patrols? A strongly worded note isn’t worth the paper it is written on.

Were I in charge, I’d certainly think about providing some fighter escort for MPA flights. If they want to push, I’m fine with giving a shove back.

 

*The US also recognizes, as a general rule, the concept of a 200nm EEZ, or Exclusive Economic Zone, where fishing, drilling and other economic activity rights are retained exclusively by the bordering nation. Vessels and aircraft from other nations may pass through those waters, but not fish or drill.  That’s a pretty simple concept for nations like us, bordered only by Canada, Mexico, and Russia. But in the waters of nations like China, or in the Mediterranean Sea, it gets a bit more complex.

Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon KH-9 Reconnaissance Satellite

A component overview of the Hexagon System.
A component overview of the Hexagon System.

The CIA declassified portions of it’s KH-9 Hexagon imaging satellite in 2011. Hexagon was first deployed into space in 1971. Between 1977 and 1986 Hexagon performed 19 missions, imaging 877 million square miles of the Earth’s surface. The KH-9 was also the last and largest imaging satellite to return it’s photographic film to earth.

KH-9 being assembled by Lockheed.
KH-9 being assembled by Lockheed.

Hexagon was desgined to replace the Corona series imaging spacecraft:

The KH-9 was originally conceived in the early 1960s as a replacement for the Corona search satellites. The goal was to search large areas of the earth with a medium resolution camera. The KH-9 carried two main cameras, although a mapping camera was also carried on several missions. The photographic film from the cameras was sent to recoverable re-entry vehicles and returned to Earth, where the capsules were caught in mid-air by an aircraft. Four re-entry vehicles were carried on most missions, with a fifth added for missions that included a mapping camera.

Between September 1966 and July 1967, the contractors for the Hexagon subsystems were selected. LMSC was awarded the contract for the Satellite Basic Assembly (SBA), Perkin Elmer for the primary Sensor Subsystem (SS), McDonnell for the Reentry Vehicle (RV), RCA Astro-Electronics Division for the Film Take Up system, and Itek for the Stellar Index camera (SI). Integration and ground-testing of Satellite Vehicle 1 (SV-1) was completed in May 1971, and it was subsequently shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base in a 70 ft container. Ultimately, four generations (“blocks”) of KH-9 Hexagon reconnaissance satellites were developed. KH9-7 (1207) was the first to fly a Block-II panoramic camera and SBA. Block-III (vehicles 13 to 18) included upgrades to electrical distribution and batteries. Two added tanks with ullage control for the Orbit Adjust System (OAS) and new thrusters for the Reaction Control System (RCS) served to increase KH-9’s operational lifetime. In addition the nitrogen supply for the film transport system and the camera vessel was increased. Block-IV was equipped with an extended command system using plated wire memory.[9] In the mid 1970s, over 1000 people in the Danbury, Connecticut area worked on the secret project.[10]

A reentry vehicle from the first Hexagon satellite sank to 16,000 feet below the Pacific Ocean after its parachute failed. The USS Trieste II (DSV-1) retrieved its payload in April 1972 after a lengthy search but the film disintegrated due to the nine months underwater, leaving no usable photographs.[11]

Over the duration of the program the lifetime of the individual satellites increased steadily. The final KH-9 operated for up to 275 days. Different versions of the satellite varied in mass; most weighed 11,400 kg or 13,300 kg.

I suggest going through the Hexagon Wikipedia page as is there are some very interesting photos of the different components of the spacecraft.

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In 2013, Phil Pressel wrote the definitive guide to Hexagon called: Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon Reconnaissance Satellite. From the Amazon book description;

Meeting the Challenge: The Hexagon Reconnaissance Satellite is the recently declassified story of the design, development, production, and operation of the Hexagon KH-9 reconnaissance satellite. It provided invaluable photographic intelligence to the United States government, and it stands as one of the most complicated systems ever put into space. In 1965 CIA Director John McCone issued the call for a satellite with unparalleled technical requirements that could visually map most of the landmass of the earth, photograph selected areas of interest, and return the resulting film safely to Earth. Developed by the Perkin-Elmer Corporation and operated between 1971 and 1986 Hexagon was the last film-based orbiting photo-reconnaissance satellite. This engineering marvel features the following achievements: the world’s largest spherical thermal vacuum chamber used to test the system; the development and use of new and sophisticated electronics, such as LED’s and brushless motors; the ability to precisely control the synchronization of film traveling at up to 200 inches per second at the focal plane, on a rotating camera, mounted in a moving vehicle and focused on a moving earth; sixty miles of film used on each mission; and, stereo photography of the entire surface of the earth. When film captured by the satellite was sent back to earth it launched in a film-return capsule which was snagged by an aircraft as it parachuted downward upon reentering the earth’s atmosphere. In 1972 a film bucket containing sensitive images sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, resulting in a daring rescue three miles underwater by the U.S. Navy’s submergence vehicle Trieste II. Featuring both technical details and historical anecdotes, former Perkin-Elmer engineer Phil Pressel has written the definitive account of this important chapter in U.S. intelligence and aerospace history.

Seems like an interesting book and as such Mr. Pressel has done quite a few media interviews. I recently watched this one from the International Spy Museum in Washington DC:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmWlw8Ufo6Q&w=560&h=315]

As Mr. Pressel mentioned in the interview, you can view the KH-9 Hexagon at the National Museum of the USAF. I do recall seeing it there but being rather time limited I didn’t quite have an appreciation for exactly what I was looking at. I look at the satellite with a guide and to our amusement we noticed a piece of plywood acting as a bracing member on the airframe (granted the KH-9 there is a “mockup” used to troubleshoot problems the real satellites may be having in space).

The KH-9 Hexagon as display in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the USAF.
The KH-9 Hexagon as display in the Cold War Gallery at the National Museum of the USAF.