Viper Strike for AC-130s?
The Viper Strike bagan life as the BAT – a canceled munition option for ground-fired ATACMS missiles. After the success of USAF Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles became a new feature of the Global War on Terror, howeverm US Army planners began to examine options for placing a similar capability in the hands of Army ground commanders. In July 2002, these examinations led to the award of a 90-day demonstration contract to demonstrate the possibility of BAT deployment on a modified U.S. Army Hunter UAV.
Those tests went well, and Viper Strikes are currently carried by MQ-5A/B Hunter UAVs in Iraq – See this video of a Viper Strike in testing [MPG, 13.2 MB]. The weapon’s small size (3 feet long, 44 pounds) and special advantages in urban fights, mountainous terrain, etc. mean they’re likely to spread to other platforms as well. Which is exactly what’s happening…
Viper Strike: The Weapon
The GBU-44 Viper Strike is a small, precision attack munition with guide/ glide fins and a 4 lb. HEAT(High Explosive Anti Tank) warhead. It uses a semi-active laser seeker for the final attack phase. After the bomb is released, it glides to the target’s vicinity, and its seeker then looks for the laser spot from Hunter’s laser target designator and makes final adjustments to its flight. Using its electro-optical or infrared sensors, Hunter is able to locate an enemy vehicle, report its location to the ground commander, receive permission to engage, fire the weapon, guide the weapon with its laser, and after weapon impact, perform battle damage assessment. A GPS module can reportedly be added in order to extend its targeting range.
Since it functions as a top attack weapon, Viper Strike’s profile and the small HEAT(High Explosive Anti-Tank) warhead makes Viper Strike especially useful in urban situations, minimizing collateral damage while still allowing it to kill armored vehicles through their weakest point. Viper Strike uses a self-destruct mechanism to eliminate post-strike hazards in urban areas, and the final version of Viper Strike could have options for optional blast fragmentation or thermobaric warheads.
SOCOM’s Solution: Viper Strikes for AC-130s
US Special Operations Command believes that its AC-130 fleet of AC-130H “Spectre” and AC-130U “Spooky” Hercules variants, whose mission is the delivery of massive, accurate firepower into land battles where enemy air defenses are weak, offer an excellent potential platform for Viper Strike. At present, 13 AC-130U Gunships are flown by the 4th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) and 8 AC-130H Gunships are flown by the 16th SOS, both located at Hurlburt Field, FL.
While the AC-130s’ 105mm howitzers, 30mm chain guns, and other weapons are very useful against infantry and light vehicles, Viper Strike offers longer-range precision attack capabilities, plus an anti-armor punch that can make a big difference to pinned special forces units.
John Miller, director of the Viper Strike program for Northrop Grumman’s Land Combat Systems in Huntsville, AL put it this way:
“Right now, the AC-130 uses the 105 mm howitzer, and they wind up flying left hand circles at altitudes between 15,000 to 18,000 feet… That puts them in harm’s way. They would really like to be able to fly at higher altitudes with more survivability, more standoff and also to stay pressurized. We believe that if we take Viper Strike, mount them in a rack, and shoot them through the floor, that we can give them that capability. And not only that, but we can give them the capability to shoot multiple targets types.”
Contracts & Key Developments
The first phase of this effort will demonstrate the use of the SOPGM from the gunship and begin development of operations concepts, as well as launcher and battle-management systems to optimize use of the Viper Strike/ AC-130 combination. The second phase will demonstrate and assess the military utility of the weapon system on the AC-130, along with the idea of adding a datalink for two-way communications between the aircraft and the weapon.
March 12/07: Northrop Grumman of Linthcum, MD received a $7.4 million contract modification for the demonstration of their Viper Strike munition as a stand-off precision guided munition on the AC-130 gunship. This modification action adds the requirement for the contractor to support an extended user evaluation of the munitions on the AC-130, and brings the current total maximum estimated cost of this contract to $29.4 million (H92222-05-C-0020, Modification P00012).
Work will be performed out of Huntsville, AL, and is incrementally funded based on performance. The initial proof of concept work is to be complete by October 2006.
Feb. 28/07: Northrop Grumman announces that a successful round of RQ-5A Hunter and Viper Strike testing was conducted at White Sands Missile Range, NM in January 2007 against moving and stationary targets. The weapons tests were conducted under the auspices of the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office (PEO) for Aviation and the PEO for Missiles and Space. See release.
Aug 4/05: Northrop Grumman of Linthcum, MD received a sole-source $22 million cost-plus incentive-fee Advanced Concept of Technology Demonstration contract (H92222-05-C-0020) for the demonstration of their Viper Strike munition as a Stand-off Precision Guided Munition on the AC-130 Specter gunship.
Work on this contract will be performed out of Huntsville, AL and is being incrementally funded based on performance. The initial increment of work should be completed in December 2005 and all Initial Proof of Concept work is expected to be completed by December 2006. The $22-million contract is an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration program with a potential full value of $48.6 million.
- Defense Update – Viper Strike – Laser Guided Weapon for UAVs
- Special Operations Technology (Aug 18/04) – Viper Strike
- Designation Systems – Northrop Grumman BAT / GBU-44/B Viper Strike
- Armada International (Feb-March 2006) – Unmanned, But Now Armed. Covers UAVs and UCAVs generally; includes Viper Strike coverage.
- USAF (Oct 10/05) – The AC-130U Gunship program explores viper strike capability
- Northrop Grumman (June 15/05) – Northrop Grumman Demonstrates Viper Strike Precision Munition Enhanced with GPS
- National Defense Magazine (April 2005) – Army Developing Tactics for Armed Robotic Aircraft
- Northrop Grumman (Aug 27/03) – Northrop Grumman’s Viper Strike Precision Munition Achieves Perfect Score in U.S. Army UAV Tests