This New Generation Of Weapons Could Mean More Covert Airstrikes Around The World

Somali soldiers at Sanguuni military base, near the capital of Mogadishu.Credit
Mohamed Abdiwahab/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images via The New York Times


On March 10, The New York Times reported that under the Trump administration the American military had drastically increased airstrikes in Somalia against the Shabab, an insurgent group affiliated with Al Qaeda, even as it scaled back counterterrorism operations in other parts of the world. In recent years, Africa Command has acknowledged using unmanned MQ-9 Reaper drones, which are mainly armed with Hellfire missiles and 500-pound guided bombs. But as far back as November 2017, the Pentagon deployed Air Force variants of C-130 Hercules cargo planes with dispensers called common launch tubes, or C.L.T.s, to launch a new kind of guided weapon at Somali targets, according to a report released by Amnesty International on March 20. While Africa Command would not confirm to The Times its use of ground-attack aircraft in the region, Amnesty International found photographs of an American airstrike site that showed the remains of a GBU-69 Small Glide Munition, a bomb that can be dropped only using a C.L.T., which in this instance was fitted to an AC-130 gunship.

The escalation of airstrikes, as well as the introduction of manned gunships, has transformed the Defense Department’s Africa Command, based in Germany, into a war-fighting element akin to Central Command, which directs the wars in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Africa Command, which was created only in 2007, has stressed that its role on the continent is to focus on training and equipping allied troops on the continent, but the rise in strikes points to a change in both posture and mission. Current and former American officials previously told The Times that there wasn’t one clear reason for the increase, but they noted that the drawdown of American military operations elsewhere in the world has given Africa Command more drones and gunships to use in Somalia. The loosening of regulations under the Trump administration on using force in the country has also contributed to the rise.

At just four feet long and slightly less than seven inches in diameter, the launch tube attached to these manned gunships dispenses a type of air-to-ground weapon that the Pentagon is buying in greater numbers. These tubes can, according to manufacturers’ websites, be fitted onto much of the Defense Department’s fleet of previously unarmed surveillance planes to enable covert attacks — and thus potentially vastly increase the number of aircraft capable of carrying out airstrikes, allowing the American military to discreetly move converted gunships around the world.

The C.L.T. has gone from concept to killer relatively quickly by defense industry standards. Developed in 2009 as a joint project between Special Operations Command and Systima Technologies, its first use in combat was in November 2010, according to Lt. Phillip Chitty, a spokesman for Special Operations Command. Chitty declined to provide additional details of that airstrike, saying that “the location and scenario are classified.” Systima Technologies did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

The types of weapons the Pentagon has tested with the launch tube offer some insight into how Special Operations forces plan to fight in the future. In interviews with The Times, military officials said they placed a premium on long-range silent weapons with smaller explosive warheads over traditional airdropped bombs. By removing solid rocket motors and adding aerofoil wings to produce lift, these “glide bombs” use gravity to reach their targets without making any noise. Contracting documents reviewed by The Times indicate that Special Operations Command required one such munition to weigh approximately 50 pounds, take no more than one minute to reach targets four nautical miles away, hit moving targets traveling up to 70 miles per hour and either burst in the air above the target or from contact with the target. According to those documents, only one weapon currently meets those requirements: the GBU-69 Small Glide Munition, made by Dynetics and dropped solely from C.L.T.s. This 60-pound glide bomb, which can be GPS-guided for stationary targets and laser-guided for moving targets, is a marked departure from weapons like the Hellfire missile.

Nearly two decades of nonstop combat has revealed the limitations of weapons like the Hellfire, which was originally designed to destroy tanks. Even though Hellfire’s warhead has been redesigned for use against combatants, when fired the missile still produces a sound that pilots say can tip off people on the ground, prompting them to flee. By contrast, the Small Glide Munition reportedly makes far less noise than a Hellfire missile. Dynetics says its range exceeds 20 nautical miles, which could allow for a gunship to drop the bomb far enough away that people on the ground would not even see or hear the plane. In June 2018, Dynetics received a $470 million “indefinite quantity” contract to supply Special Operations Command with GBU-69s. A spokeswoman said that Special Operations Command has ordered more than 2,000 so far.

Special Operations Command has also been firing a small guided missile called Griffin from its dispensers. It is similar to the Hellfire missile in design and function, but is only two-thirds as long, weighs two-thirds less and has a similarly sized warhead.

In its development of new munitions like the GBU-69, the military has also come up with new ways to launch them. As the war in Iraq ground on, the Marine Corps decided in 2008 to arm its KC-130J Hercules refueling aircraft and turn them into close air support gunships. The resulting program, the Hercules Airborne Weapons Kit, added Hellfire missiles under the wings and two rows of five C.L.T.s strapped to the planes’ cargo ramp. By 2012, the Navy refitted the left-side passenger door toward the rear of these cargo planes with pressure-sealed fittings that allowed crewmen to load two launch tubes inside the plane side by side and drop them through the bottom of the door. The Navy called this the “Derringer Door” after the double-barreled pocket pistol designed for easy concealability. In a further evolution, Air Force AC-130 gunships now have a modified tail ramp with similar pressure-sealed fittings that allow up to 10 tube-launched weapons to be dropped before reloading.

Air Force Special Operations Command declined to identify other aircraft that it intends to outfit with C.L.T. dispensers. But a review of available material from defense companies offers some clues that the Pentagon may be attaching the launch tubes to lower-profile aircraft like helicopters and small propeller-driven planes.

As the Special Operations Command evaluated different weapons for the launch tube, defense firms armed civilian planes for testing them. In 2012, MBDA, a defense giant in the weapons manufacturing industry, reported dropping a GBU-44 Viper Strike glide bomb from a Cessna Caravan, and in 2015, Textron dropped a G-CLAW guided bomb from the same kind of plane. Though the Pentagon has stopped buying the Viper Strike bomb and never purchased any G-CLAW guided bombs, the demonstrated ability to dispense these munitions from small propeller-driven airplanes is a notable development. A promotional video from Raytheon shows its Griffin missile being fired from a launch tube slung underneath the stub wing of an Army OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter, and a manufacturer in Arizona advertises such mounts on its website. All these aircraft are much easier to hide in plain sight than huge, weaponized C-130 Hercules airplanes.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff contributed reporting.