Change is quite literally in the air for U.S. Air Force transport planes.
Not only are their parachute drops becoming more accurate — they’ll soon have a potent offensive capability as well.
One of the mainstays of the United States Air Force cargo and transport, the C-130 Hercules, recently underwent some unique testing.
The C-130 used a Litening Targeting Pod primarily to increase the accuracy of parachute drops, but also to “generate airdrop location coordinates, locate and avoid enemy and sensitive objects, such as people or structures; and track airdropped supplies following the airdrop release,” according to a recent Air Force release.
The Litening Targeting Pod is an externally-mounted forward-looking infrared camera sensor used primarily by fighter and bomber aircraft in order to acquire targets on the battlefield. It facilitates accurate targeting in the air and on the ground with a variety of precision munitions, including GPS- and laser-guided munitions.
The Air Force conducted the testing in a simulated active drop zone, an area that typically presents challenges to drop accuracy and risks in-air or on-the-ground collisions with equipment and troops without careful coordination between transport aircraft and cargo recipients. The Litening Targeting Pod could be particularly useful for drops from very high altitudes, helping to keep cargo planes safer from ground-based fire without degrading drop accuracy.
Integrating the Israeli-designed Litening Targeting Pod would certainly be a boon for cargo and transport planes — and it’s not the only significant change coming to Air Force heavy lifters.
The other significant change in store for the Air Force’s cargo and transport planes is palletized munitions, essentially missiles with long stand-off range that are strapped to wooden pallets. Using their onboard cargo roller systems transports could push palletized missiles out of their cargo bays while in flight, at ranges that wouldn’t put the relatively defenseless planes in danger.
A C-130 Bomber?
The concept combines cargo plane’s huge payload capabilities with advanced munitions, and could in theory be used to very quickly bring a significant amount of additional firepower to a fight and in essence turn heavy lifters into heavy bombers.
The Litening Targeting Pod could be used not only for parachute drops in a combat zone, but also for humanitarian-type missions, like domestic disaster response, or potentially to help combat wildfires and aid general situational awareness.
Regardless of how the Litening Targeting Pod is ultimately used on Air Force transport and cargo planes, one thing is sure: the usefulness of heavy transports is set to increase, both from an offensive capability side as well as in their traditional domain of heavy lifting. And despite the plane’s age — the C-130 design is over 65 years old — they may stay relevant for a long time to come.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.