“Black Spot” and Night Battlefield Dominance

NC-123k period 2In 1967, the Air Commandos began to develop a night special operations gunship capability called Project Black Spot. They leveraged the capabilities of primitive imagery intensifiers to create an aircraft that could defeat the darkness and interdict enemy movement in areas where the threat situation was too “hot” for a low-and-slow-flying fixed-wing gunship. While a couple of these areas were obviously the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia, the ship was also used to hunt clandesting agent-landing boats off the coasts of South Korea.

nc123k

The airframe selected was the Fairchild C-123K Provider, which after modification was called the NC-123 (formal name) or AC-123 (as used by crews). Instead of side-firing guns, the Black Spot birds had cluster bomb unit (CBU) dispensers and carried a war load of over 6,000 1-lb dual-purpose CBUs, of which 24 could be delivered (2 x 12-unit racks) in a single pass. The CBU racks could then be in-flight reloaded by the crew.

Some sources say three airframes were modified, but only two show up in most references: 54-691 and 54-698.

NC-123k period photo

The key to the system was the sensors: X-Band Radar, Doppler terrain-following radar, night-vision Forward Looking Infrared Radar (FLIR), night-vision Low Light Level TV (LLLTV), a Radar Homing and Warning (RHAW) countermeasures device, and a laser range-finder/illuminator.  Some of these systems were new, and some had been developed for strategic bombers, but taken together they greatly improved the situational awareness of the crew.

In a harbinger of what was to come, the the TFR, FLIR and LLLTC were housed in a gimbaling “ball” in the nose.

c-123k pod

The outcome of the Korean tests is unknown. The Vietnam theater tests were successful, despite the aircraft having gross weight and density altitude limitations. In addition, a limitation of the cluster bomb dispenser required the pilots to fly the plane at 4,800 feet — no more, no less.

At the end of the test, the NC-123s were converted back to ordinary C-123K trash haulers. All of the sensors proven on the NC-123 were used in subsequent gunships.

Not all experimental sensors from this period went forward. Black Crow, for example, was a truck-ignition detector that zeroed in on the ignition “noise” produced by unshielded wires in the typical Otto-cycle gasoline engine’s spark-ignition system. It was deadly effective on the trucks of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but wouldn’t work on newer trucks. Black Crow was only installed on -698, but did become standard on the AC-130s for a time.

Proving this technology on large airplanes like transports and bombers was necessary and laid fundamental groundwork for US dominance in low-light sensing systems in present years. It is a matter of some concern that, while we continue to exploit, miniaturize and field these 1960s technologies, the rate of development has slowed, and we’re resting on our, sometimes 1960s-vintage, laurels.

Sources

Chinnery, Philip D. Air Commando: Inside The Air Force Special Operations Command. London: Airlife Press, 2008. pp. 210-218. 

Johnson, E.R. American Attack Aircraft Since 1926. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2008. pp. 210-211.

Images found here and there on the internet.

19 thoughts on ““Black Spot” and Night Battlefield Dominance

  1. BAP45

    It never ceases to amaze me how much sophisticated and just down right outside the box stuff was being used in the old days. I mean who even thinks of tracking engine ignition.

    1. joshua

      My ship’s electronic warfare receiver would go on the fritz every morning at 7… about the same time the boatswains mates were testing the small boat engines. I bet someone noticed the link long ago.

    2. BillC

      I came to say the exact same thing. There’s still stuff “like” that going on now. We won’t get to hear about it obviously, for a long time. The very few things I was privy to while I was in, I was like, “That’s cool!”.
      1) Notice a correlation or trend, usually by accident or observed repetition.
      2) Test the observation.
      3) Exploit the Hell out of it.
      4) Profit!

  2. LSWCHP

    I’m puzzled by the reference to a Forward Looking Infrared Radar. Infrared and radar sensors use completely different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum and work in completely different manners. I suspect there might be some acronym confusion happening here.

    1. Tim, '80s Mech Guy

      I heard that Forward Looking Infared Radar was a cover name that stuck, sort of like Tank.

  3. Cap'n Mike

    FLIR is definitely Forward Looking Infrared, nothing to do with Radar so I suspect a typo.
    I’m sure layers of editors have been sacked.;)

  4. redc1c4

    speaking of fighting at night, when guns are outlawed, only officers in kayaks will have flare guns…and burn down the mess.

    those crazy Brits again

    (link in nick)

  5. jfre

    Congratulations! You have been banned in the United club! Must be doing something right. Keep it up.

    1. OM

      The Forward Looking InfraRed error (it’s not radar) shows up in a lot of places.

    2. LSWCHP

      Australians have the useful word “wowser”, which describes self-righteous, puritanical types who wish to impose their own narrow views on others, thus eliminating any chance of fun or enjoyment of life.

      Looks like United’s clubs are run by wowsers. Banning WM is particularly ironic, given our hosts distaste for profanity, and the lack of content related to sex, drugs or anything else remotely controversial on this site. Except for all the sweet, sweet gun stuff of course. :-)

  6. Claypigeonshooter

    Google says your site might be hacked underneath the web site name when I do a google search for it. Just figured I’d let you know.

    1. runalltheway

      Yes I’ve seen the same thing when I search for Weaponsman on Google for a while.

    2. Hognose Post author

      That comes up from time to time. The hack is something malefactors put on the server to mislead Google bots with spam links… they’re never visible to regular browsers, there are sites on the web that can find them. Obviously Google is on to it so it does the spammers no good. They use some vulnerability in WordPress to put them on. I periodically have discussions with my hosting about it but they have yet to fix it.

      1. looserounds.com

        we have the same issue in the past over at looserounds

        also have had anti-gun mooks reporting the site claiming it has malware etc whenever we are quoted or linked to some newpaper or something

        got really heavy after the NY Times interviewed me and linked back to the site

  7. Badger

    Fascinating stuff, thanks. I wonder what the CBU dispenser limitation was, and was that AGL or MSL… like I need an excuse to get another source book for the shelf. :)

  8. Steve

    An interesting book you might check out is “Flying Through Midnight”, its a pilots account of doing interdiction on the trail.

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