Are gliders poised to make a comeback in the US military?

Jack Murphy
November 19, 2019 - 10:11 am
RAF gliders

(Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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In World War II they were known as flying coffins by the men who flew them.

The Waco CG-4 glider was constructed with a steel frame and canvas skin. Towed behind an aircraft, the glider held a squad sized element plus the pilot or could be loaded with up to 4,000 pounds of equipment.

The onboard navigation instruments were iffy at best, many of the glider pilots had previously washed out of flight school before being given the chance to fly gliders, and the disposable nature of the glider's construction meant that it would come apart on a hard impact. The glider was a one-way ticket into a war zone. 

These were the days prior to helicopters or any type of vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability as seen in today's V-22 Ospreys or F-35 Lighting. The United States needed another way to infiltrate non-Airborne (paratrooper) soldiers into various theaters of operation, and unpowered gliders were one way to accomplish this.

The U.S. military took note of Adolph Hitler's early success with gliders. The treaty of Versailles restricted Germany from building powered aircraft, but not to be deterred, the Nazi regime invested in gliders. In May of 1940, ten Nazi gliders landed on the grassy roof of the Eben-Emael fortress in Belgium and neutralized the base in 20 minutes. A few years later, Nazi commandos including the infamous Otto Skorzeny used gliders to rescue Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

The U.S. military used gliders with mixed results during World War II, employing them in France during D-Day, in Sicily and in Burma. Gen. William Westmoreland summed up his thoughts on glider troops saying, "Never before in history had any nation produced aviators whose duty it was to deliberately crash land, and then go on to fight as combat infantrymen. They were no ordinary fighters. Their battlefields were behind enemy lines.

"Every landing was a genuine do-or-die situation for the glider pilots. It was their awesome responsibility to repeatedly risk their lives by landing heavily laden aircraft containing combat Soldiers and equipment in unfamiliar fields deep within enemy-held territory, often in total darkness. They were the only aviators during World War II who had no motors, no parachutes, and no second chances."

1st July 1944: An American soldier crouching by the body of a dead German soldier with US Waco troop carrying gliders on the field behind him in Normandy.
(Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images)

In the history of military technology, old ideas that are long forgotten sometimes get dusted off and repurposed for modern conflicts. Today, it appears that gliders may be making a comeback in the U.S. military, but this time they will be unmanned.

This year, Air Force Special Operations Command decided to test the Silent Arrow GD-2000 manufactured by Yates Electrospace Corp. The US military has had a desire for pinpointing combat resupplies for troops in the field who, in future conflicts, may not have the luxury of operating out of battlefield enclaves such as the forward operating bases (FOBs) that they have had during the war on terror.

The current system used for this purpose is called JPADs or joint precision airdrop parachutes, which are airdropped by parachute similar to a conventional pallet drop but includes an Autonomous Guidance Unit (AGU) that steers that parachute during descent while being guided by GPS.

The Marine Corps wanted a system that was even more accurate and less expensive, which is where the Silent Arrow comes in. Measuring two feet by two feet by eight feet long, the Silent Arrow features retractable wings and 80 of the autonomous resupply units can be shipped in a normal connex container. The current model can carry up to 1,600 pounds of supplies. 

To get the Silent Arrow to teams on the ground, flight and landing data is entered into the unit's guidance system and then the glider is pushed off of the back of an aircraft, its wings deploying into position as it enters free fall. When deployed at 25,000 feet, the glider can travel 40 miles. Interestingly, these gliders are to be fully autonomous so that they can not be hacked, spoofed, jammed or otherwise susceptible to electronic warfare.

So it seems, the future of warfare will be a combination of high and low tech, utilizing old ideas in novel new ways.

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Reach Jack Murphy: jack@connectingvets.com or @JackMurphyRGR.