One Of U.S. Special Operation Command’s Shyest Spy Planes Has A New Name

Oddly, it shares its moniker with the NATO reporting name of a prominent Russian military aircraft.

SOCOM_DASH 8_FOXHOUND
PD SAI

One of the shyest aircraft types operated by U.S. Special Operations Command — the specially configured twin-turboprop Dash 8 SOCOM Tactical Airborne Multi-Sensor Platform, or STAMP — has been given the name Foxhound, it’s recently been revealed. The information emerged as part of an announcement that the modifications were recently completed on the latest example, which SOCOM acquired to replace one lost in a terrorist attack in Kenya last year.

A recent Facebook post from the U.S. Army’s Program Executive Office, Intelligence, Electronic Warfare & Sensors (PEO IEW&S) reveals the new name which, of course, the Dash 8 STAMP shares with the Russian MiG-31 interceptor, antisatellite, and long-range strike platform. The Army’s aircraft is based on the drastically different De Havilland Canada DHC-8, or Dash 8, airframe, a popular regional airliner that’s increasingly adapted for military surveillance purposes, too. 

It’s unusual, but not entirely unheard of for the U.S. Department of Defense to approve popular names for systems that replicate reporting names for potential adversary systems — one less direct example is the U.S. Navy’s C-2 Greyhound carrier onboard delivery aircraft and the Russian-made Pantsir-S1 self-propelled gun/missile air-defense system, codenamed SA-22 Greyhound. In the past, it seems deliberate efforts were sometimes made to avoid potential confusion, the Soviet Yakovlev Yak-28 having its reporting name switched from Brassard to Brewer, apparently due to the similarity to the name of a French liaison aircraft, the Max Holste MH.1521 Broussard.

Since it originates from an official U.S. Army account, we can be more or less certain that Foxhound is at least a quasi-official name for the complete system, especially since the service has a long history of applying nicknames to aerial intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems. It's interesting to note that U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command operates a fleet of militarized Dornier Do-328 twin-engine light transports designated as C-146A Wolfhounds. The Air Force also operates a Do-328 ISR testbed, nicknamed Cougar, in support of SOCOM projects.

The latest such aircraft (Foxhound 4) underwent a yearlong modification process transforming it to STAMP configuration. “With the addition of Foxhound 4, the SOCOM team will now have greater flexibility in scheduling missions and performing engineering upgrades to improve Foxhound capability and reliability,” the same Facebook post adds.

Last year it was reported that Leidos Holdings Inc. had received a $22.7-million contract to modify a Dash 8 aircraft to support SOCOM requirements, with funding from the fiscal year 2020 budget as well as “defense-wide appropriations.” The work was to be completed at Bridgewater, Virginia, and, while no further details were released, it seems fairly certain that this was Foxhound 4, which replaces an earlier example that was among the aircraft destroyed in a brazen attack by Al Shabaab terrorists on an airbase in Kenya in January 2020.

AL SHABAAB/VIA @RONCLIFFEODIT

The remains of the Dash 8 in the aftermath of the Al Shabaab terrorist attack on Camp Simba/Manda Bay in Kenya on Jan. 5, 2020.

The first two Dash 8 STAMPs replaced two other mysterious spy planes based on the earlier Dash 7 airframe. Those aircraft had been used to perform discreet persistent surveillance missions, including in support of counter-terrorism missions in Libya, among other locales.

Beyond that, we still don’t know a whole lot about these enigmatic aircraft, their sensor fits, and overall capabilities. The first two Dash 8 STAMPs were previously operated by Dynamic Aviation, which provided contracted surveillance on behalf of the U.S. Army. That involved flying the aircraft, N8200L and N8200R, in different configurations in support of two programs: Desert Owl and Saturn Arch.

Bill Word

One of the Dynamic Aviation Dash 8s, registration N8300S, while flying as part of the Desert Owl program in 2015.

N8200L was transferred to the SOCOM fleet in 2017, with N8200R apparently entering service the following year.

While the original Desert Owl configuration involved a PedRad 7 synthetic-aperture radar plus an electro-optical sensor turret, Saturn Arch incorporated a vague-sounding “Mission Sensor System,” and another sensor known as “Big Green.” The Saturn Arch system was specifically designed to provide an aerial ground-penetrating sensor capability that could detect shallow-buried objects, helping in the hunt for improvised explosive devices.

Other equipment on both these aircraft included a secondary camera turret, a hyperspectral camera, and a compact wide-area optical camera system. Information gathered could be transmitted back to ground exploitation stations or shared with troops on the ground in near real-time, via a satellite datalink.

It’s unclear which, if any, of these sensors are now incorporated on the SOCOM-operated Dash 8 STAMPs, but it appears likely that they fly the same kinds of persistent surveillance missions, where they monitor fairly wide areas and build up a picture of the ground situation in the areas of interest. Detailed monitoring of the ground in particular areas over time makes it possible to determine ‘patterns of life’ that could reveal the presence of high-value targets or militant groups.

As The War Zone has hypothesized in the past, it’s also possible the Dash 8 STAMPs very are fitted with signals intelligence, or SIGINT, equipment that would allow them to detect and monitor enemy communications, including cell phone signals.

It could also be the case that the aircraft now known as the Foxhound carries a sensor fit that’s actually more in line with the Army’s new RO-6A aircraft, which are also based on the Dash 8 airframe but which comprise a notably distinct fleet and one that you can read more about here. These especially well-equipped aircraft carry a wide variety of sensors including electro-optical, infrared, and hyperspectral cameras, as well as wide-area surveillance systems, powerful imaging radar, and SIGINT payloads.

U.S. Army

Derived from the Dash 8, the Saturn Arch aircraft serves as the basis for the RO-6A.

Meanwhile, the existing STAMP fleet has also received further specialized equipment to prevent hostile forces from jamming their GPS navigation systems, as The War Zone reported back in 2018. This reflects wider concerns about the vulnerability of the satellite-based network to physical and electronic attacks.

As well as the Dash 8s, the STAMP program also oversees at least three smaller twin-engine Beechcraft King Air B300s. You can read more about these similarly secretive aircraft here.

It’s hard to say exactly how official the Foxhound name is and, indeed, whether it will be applied more regularly to the Dash 8 STAMP in the future. Up until now, these aircraft and their operations have gone about their activities in a highly covert manner. With that in mind, the appearance of any official news release related to them is of interest and, hopefully, further details of this unique fleet might be revealed in due course.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com