The movement of troops, supplies, and vehicles has been one of the challenges of waging wars far from home since the days of the Punic Wars, and it is forgone conclusion that this need will be present with the advent of the warfare on other worlds. One of the key futuristic vehicles developed by sci-fi creators to handle the challenge of space warfare is the dropship. While the concept of the "dropship" is incredibly common in science fiction, how the dropship is projected varies from source to source in the realm of science fiction, and encompass everything from the Pelican from HALO, the retrieval boats from Starship Troopers, to the massive spheroid spaceships fron the Battletech universe, and of course, the UD-4L Cheyenne dropships from ALIENS. But are these fictional space vehicles really "dropships"? Much like the 2012 blogpost on Troop Transports, FWS will try to clear up the confusion about dropships seen in science fiction with our own definition of this staple spacecraft of military science fiction.
What is a Dropship?
Unlike tactical transports, jumpshuttles, gunships, and the aerodyne-APCs, the dropship is designed to ferry larger amounts of infantry, supplies, and armored vehicles from an orbiting starship in orbit (star-side) to the planetary combat zone (dirt-side). These vehicles are not typically designed to ferry troops and/or equipment once the vehicle is within the atmosphere of the planet. Once the troopers, supplies, and vehicles are off-loaded, the dropship is recalled to the mother ship using powerful rocket motors to return to orbit or in some cases, it could be used as a mobile command/supply point for an invasion force. Also unlike most dual atmospheric tropp transports, dropships could be unmanned or remote-piloted from mother ship based operators.
The Difference between Tactical Transports and Dropships
In science fiction, the vast majority of "dropships" seen and described are actually the "tactical transport", due to the manner in which they operate and duties on the future battlefield. These tactical transports are more akin to the modern military helicopter and/or tilt-rotor than say, the NASA Space Shuttle. In these future military organizations, the tactical transport is often the
utility vehicle, serving as a gunship, shuttle, troop transport, med-evac, command & control bird, and rescue craft. In both combat and noncombat roles, the tactical transport is the versatile platform for all types operations and different environmental conditions, such as endo and exo atmospheres.
Unlike the bigger, heavier, and more limited role dropship, the tactical transport is limited in cargo room, passengers, and heavy star-lift capability. While the dropship is technical a dual atmospheric craft, and capable of flight, it is not an aerodyne, and limited on maneuverability, flight-range due to the weight.When it comes to roles, the tactical transport is used as a "battle taxi" to soldiers, smaller mecha, APS wearers, light military vehicles. These elements can be more tactically inserted than with the heavier, larger dropship. The majority of technical dropships, according to the FWS definition, are more designed to delivery large amounts of troops, supplies, and vehicles to the planetary battlesite. One of the most basic design different between these two often confused craft is their look. In science fiction, the tactical transport is more insect or avian in apperance, while the dropship is more geometic, often being depicted as a spheroid or egg-shaped. FWS will be discussing tactical transports in-depth on their own blogpost in the near future.
The Life-Cycle of the Dropship
Deployment to the Front
Far away from the interstellar frontlines of our space war, the dropships of the invasion force are loaded onto the mother ship for transfer to the front. During the entire journey between interstellar locations, the armada of dropships stand idle and most likely, unloaded. Just before the arrival at the final destination, the dropships receive a buzz of activity and attention, loading supplies and war machines. The bitch of the thing with the dropship at this point, is that they are at the mercy of the mother ship. If their transporting vessel is intecepted and destroyed, than the mission of the dropship fails as well. This is similar to the troop transports that were sunk by submarines during World War One and Two.
Orbital injection is one the most dangerous moments of dropship's life cycle. Consider that this vehicle will be subjected temperatures over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and any damage to the thermal protection say during orbital combat, could result in complete loss of the vehicles, crew, and cargo. During atmospheric reentry, there could be a blackout of communications and sensor data, allowing for the dropship to be blind, deaf, and dumb. All of this, makes for the prefect opportunity to strike the invasion force prior to their landing on your world. Or is it? Consider that any dropship on the scale we've been discussion that is more than a simple drop capsules from Starship Troopers,
and not only is reusable, but can be utilized for a number of purposes once on the ground would need a big power sources, and that means nuclear. Also, any dropship that was used as a base-of-operations, would carry fuel to power the vehicles of the invasion force. Destroying the dropship while descending into atmosphere could rain down nuclear debris across the planet or major population center. Could the planetary defenders justify the risk of Fukusima? Once clear of the reentry phase, the defensive armament and countermeasure of the dropship would become critical to fend off incoming drones, AAA, and fighter-interceptors.
If our invading dropships surviving reentry and atmosphere flight, they would touch down in a drop-zone that is either secure by Special Forces Pathfinders or just isolated/distant from the planetary frontlines. During this phase of the dropship life cycle, our brave dropship crew or Cylons would be engaged in off-loading operations, possibly under fire. Depending on the operation, it is likely the large more Battletech
-like dropships would be used as a base-of-operations for the invading force. During the initial phase of planetary operations, the dropship would act as a secure shelter, unlit more of a front was established. This could mean that dropships used in this manner would be armed to defend and support the invasion force. It is 100% possible that the DZ for the invasion force dropships would see some of the heaviest of planet-side combat. Much like a Vietnam War-era firebase, the dropship could rain down fire support, or deploy scouting drones, or drive away attacks until the invasion force was ready. Once the dropship is off-loaded, and the invasion force is out waging combat, the role of the dropship is either to return to the mother ship or to act as a ready-made temporary base that could serve as a field hospital, repair shop, C3 center, and billet for dirt-side troopers.
At some point, no matter how much fun you're having, you have to go home. And just as that applies to us married guys, it also applies to dropships. Once the planetary duty phase of the dropship's life cycle is complete and no longer needed, she will be recalled to the mother ship. Of course, the dropship could be acting as a recovery boat for the invasion force, or even a large medical-evac vehicle if there are a number of causalities. Thus begins the climb out of atmosphere, and one of the real challenges of the reusable dropship space vehicle. Breaking free of the planet's gravity and getting orbit will be solved by Delta-V...plain and simple. Here on Terra, from ground to space is about 100 kilometers or 62 miles, give or take. While you can thrust a small package into space with small rockets, any of the dropships in sci-fi are going to be classified as a heavy lift launch, more than the 118 metric tons of the Saturn V rocket's payload. To solve the issue of getting star-side, future military organizations could field one-shot dropships, which would be more like the cheap one-shot cargo drop-modules from my book Endangered Species
However, most dropships, are able to land and lift-off, seemingly without issue. In reality, space launches are labor-intensive matters with massive amounts of fuel and preparation time that require a space launch facility. Thing would be easier with future-technology, like anti-gravity motors, or nuclear-powered engines. However, even in the Battletech
universe of the 31st century, they mention that spheroid type dropships are completely at the mercy of their own engines. If they fail, the dropship is shit-out-of-luck. There are some advances outside of anti-gravity motors, like Anthony Tate's closed-cycle, gas-core nuclear thermal rocket, or you could say "fuck it!", and use a nuclear-pulse propulsion engine in atmosphere! Greenpeace would not be happy about that! There could be magnetic mass driver launch catapults as well, but they would defeat the idea of a tactical VTOL military vehicle. I do believe that this is one of the central challenges of interstellar combat: getting troops, vehicles, and supplies from orbit-to-ground-to-orbit-again effectively. Even if easy starlift capability is mastered, and we have reusable dropship vehicles, if the planet is not completely secure and air superiority is not achieved, than dropships could be targets on their way up, as they were on the way down.
Modern Military "Dropships"?
At the moment, there is no military organization that is fielding spaceborne dropships to land space marines and/or space tanks to combat-zones on the red deserts of Mars. Pity. While the modern military does sent service personal into space and onboard the ISS, the bulk of the military's presents in space is via military satellites, and is no plans for space dropships. However, some could make the case that the old Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the current Soyuz capsules could be considered a type of space dropship. As I've stated above, the modern military helicopter and the new tilt-rotor are similar to the tactical transports of science fiction, however with the more limited FWS definition of the dropship, what military vehicles are similar?
I think that some modern military vehicles, like the military hovercraft, the cargo transport aircraft, along the old World War II glider are all excellent examples of current day dropships. Consider the military hovercraft (AKA landing craft, air-cushioned or LCAC ), like the USMC's LCAC, the Soviet-era Aist
class LCAC, the British have their own LCAC, and the current heavyweight of military hovercraft, the Russian Zubr
class LCAC. Much like the fictional dropship, the LCAC is transported to the combat zone, via a mother ship or in this case, an amphibious assault ship, and lands troops and vehicles to the beach. After the drop-off at the DZ, the LCAC returns to the amphibious assault ship for another trip.
Around World War II, the Allies and the Axis used the military glider to delivery troops and light military vehicles, and are mostly connected to the Allies' Normandy and Sicily invasions along with Operation: MARKET GARDEN. The Germans, like it it seems with most things in WWII, were the first to field military gliders and use them in combat during the Battle of Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium. The 3rd Reich had planned on constructing large gliders to transport 130 troops for the upcoming invasion of Britain, called the Messerschmidt Me 321. Due to issues with these massive gliders, only 200 ever built and an none saw combat. American and the British would mostly use the Waco CG-4 gliders, and specially trained soldiers, called glider infantry. While military gliders would fall out usage after the 2nd World War, and be replaced with the helicopter, they would not be completely forgotten with appearance in movies like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers
, A Bridge Too Far, the Longest Day,
and in video games, like Brothers in Arms
I personally believed, due to the limited information about military gliders in those dark ages we call pre-internet, that they were developed for the D-Day invasion, and were only used by the Allies. It made sense to me that you would want a silent delivery system on the invasion of Fortress Europa, however that was not the only reason why gliders were used. Given the limitations of cargo aircrafts at the time, air-dropping jeeps, artillery, and supplies were was limited and gliders allow for guided delivery of these items. Unlike paratrooper drops, glider infantry need little in the way of specialized training, and stay together after touchdown to ensure rapid battlefield deployment. Just look at what happened on the D-Day airborne drop.
When it came to ninja-like insertions, the glider ranked above the paratrooper, due to the glider being cut loose from its tow plane many miles from the LZ, and the watchful eye of German AAA. Sadly, the military glider was replaced by the time of the Korean War with the helicopter improvements military cargo planes. Gliders could be similar to low-cost, one-shot dropships that an future military organization would use for a massive planetary invasion that didn't involve recovery operations. Some might make the case for the heavy-lift military cargo planes, like the C-5 Galaxy
being similar to the sci-fi dropship, and I could see a reason for that, especially given their similar to the aerodyne shaped dropships from the Battletech
Dropships and Science Fiction
Because of the lack of conformity with science fiction creators on the usage of the term 'dropship', and how cool and concise the term really is, it is litter throughout science fiction; from comics, games, movies, and books. As stated above, I firmly believe that most of the so-called 'dropships' in science fiction are actually more akin tactical transports, jumpshuttles, gunships, or even the rare aero-APCs, however, with the easy of the term dropship, it became the keyword for all futurisitic dual-atmospheric troop transports. It also helped that some of the popular works in science fiction and military science fiction use the term liberally. Works like: Starship Troopers
as well as any military sci-fi video game or book, you can find the term be used. Why is the term dropship so uniformly used? I believe that all of the attention and impact of the term came be traced back to the Citzen Kane
of all military sci-fi films: ALIENS
. Due to excellence of the film, continued impact, and just plain coolness, that one mislabeled dropship spawned legions of others. In the few works that feature the dropship being used accorded to the FWS defintion, they are used mostly as large heavy lift space vehicles, designed to bring mecha, infantry, and vehicles to the planetary battlefield. Often, these dropship are more utility than flash, firepower, and sexy appear.
The Dropships of the Battletech universe
In the first pages of the 1994 FASA Battletech Technical Readout: 3057
, the Inner Sphere dropships are front and center, and this tells a great deal about the importance of the dropship to the Battletech
universe. In those opening pages, the Technical Readout: 3057
, had one of the better quotes about dropships and their role in Battletech
universe: "Dropships form the first link in the chain of interstellar travel. These venerable craft transport 'mechs, vehicles, troops, and material from orbit to planetary battlefields.
" Dropships eat up the first 80+ pages of the only Battletech Technical Readout
to cover the spaceships of their universe
and between the Inner Sphere and the Clans, there is no less than 40 separate classes of spheroid and aerodyne dropships, most are Inner Sphere, though.
The most familiar dropship from Battletech
is the egg-shaped spheroid dropship that is a prime example of FWS's definition of the term "dropship". They used powerful engines to take-off and land with massive thrust, and are not endo-atmospheric flyers, but can mount some serious firepower to protect their cargo and passengers. Throughout most of non-RPG Battletech
works, the spheroid is the commonly seen. The aerodyne dropship looks more graceful than the spheroid craft, and appear closer to typical military planes or even shuttles and are not bigger than 35,000 tons in mass. These have two central weaknesses, the aerodynes require long runways to land and take-off and they carry less cargo than the egg-shaped dropships. Their design does not simply allow for the steer vertical-thrust production of the spheroid dropships. Unlike many other science fiction works, Battletech
breaks up dropships over five classification: fighter carriers, mech carriers, troop carriers, assault carriers, and finally, the civilian carrier. Each one is different in operation on the interstellar battlefields of the Inner Sphere.
The assault dropship is designed around defensive and offensive firepower, but often less utility as a typical space transport system. Because I've never battled Aerotech
, the concept of a dropship being used as a "pocket warship" and in anti-aerocraft/anti-dropship operations is a little lost on me. Some of the assault dropships, like the Inner Sphere Intruder
class are used for marine boarding operations and covert operations on-planet. The troop and mech carrier-type dropships are better standard, it is worth noting due to the size of the mecha in the Battletech
universe, these spacecraft are giants and carry on many of the roles discussed above, like base-of-operations planet-side. The fighter carrier variant is an interesting dropship. Achieving air-superior on-planet would be a key goal in any combat zone, and these specialized fighter transport craft allow for delivery of fighters from star-side to dirt-side, however they are much more than that.
It seems that in the Battletech
universe, due to the Jumpships, these fighter carrier dropship act as sci-fi aircraft carriers in orbital combat. The civilian variant is used like a cargo hauler or passenger liners, and at times, decommissioned military dropships are converted or even in reverse, which are known as Q-Ships. Even the nearly forgotten Battletech: the Animated Series
from 1994 had the familiar spheroid dropships. In the near future, FWS will discuss this oddball military sci-fi animated series with a military sci-fi oddities
blogpost. Does that mean I have to watch this? The things I do for this blog! Anyway, for me, Battletech
was in the introduction to the concept of the dropship and the prime example of the FWS definition of these futuristic military spacecraft.
The AeroTech ISSCV/APC from Space:Above and Beyond
In the 1995-1996 American TV military sci-fi show, Space: Above and Beyond
), the most common futuristic vehicle used by the USMC during the Chig War is not the SA-43 Hammerhead
space fighter, but the space-going utility vehicle: the ISSCV/APC. The I
arrier is a modular endo-exo transatmospheric transport vehicle constructed by AeroTech Space System, and used by all branches of United States armed forces during the Chig War of 2063-2064, most seen in the series were either Marine or Army. Primarily, the ISSCV/APC functions as a both a spacegoing cargo hauler, delivering supplies to planetary-based units, a space shuttle, and an armed APC/military transport craft for operations in and out of space. Helping the modular nature of the ISSCV/APC is a tilt-rotor type He3 thruster design mounted to the "flight arm" section, along with the swap-able underslung section. in the belly of the beast. The flight arm section mounted a few DEW and KEW systems, with a flight crew of two, while the heart of this space transport system was the middle modular section.
During the run of the show, several ISSCV/APC modular containers were shown. One was a basic trooper hauler (APC) with rows of seats, man-able weapons turrets, sleeping quarters, and lockers. The flight arm portion could drop off the container section on-planet, and the Marines could operate out of their new boxy base-of-operations of a period of weeks (as seen in the pilot episode and "the Dark side of the Sun"). It is believed that these modular sections could be fitted together to construct an basic off-world military outpost, as was seen on the disputed planet Tartarus ("The Enemy"). There could even be a more basic trooper-hauler shuttle variant. Also, fitted under the flight arm section was the "Red Cross" modular container. While only seen in the episode "...Tell Our Moms We Done Our Best", it could have been a med-evac bird or even a mobile MASH unit for a ready-drop field hospital. One of the most rare module sections seen during SAAB
was the cargo vehicle module...as far as I remember, it was only seen in one episode: "Our Enemy".
Most of the ISSCV/APCs seen on the show only existed on computer screens, and were excellent early examples of CGI SFX, and done by Area 51 studios and supervised by artist Glenn Campbell. Most the interior shots during the series were a constructed set on a sound-stage, and some redressing was done from dropship to dropship. The goal of the production crew was to present the interior of the ISSCV/APC as a real military spacecraft with the all of the military spartan interior design elements. The outside shots of the actors working in and around the module sections were possibly a redressed truck cargo container...hard to get solid intel on this show at times. While I cannot verify this, it would not be out of the realm of possibility that the inspiration for the ISSCV/APC could have come from real sea-to-land shipping containers, or even the modular sections seen on the Starcom: the U.S. Space Force
military sci-fi toyline vehicles from Coleco. However, it could be the iconic UD-4L Cheyenne
. The impact of the ISSCV/APC has been seen in other key military sci-fi vehicles, like the Pelican
and the DR-4 Viking
from the 1997 Starship Troopers
The DR-4 Viking class Dropship from the Starship Troopers Universe
When it comes time for the Mobile Infantry to take the fight dirt-side, the Fleet transport legions of the troopers to the battlefield via their Corvette
class transport vessels, and ships the M.I. down the gravity well via a vast number of the DR-4 Viking
class dropship. Much like the Federation's dim view on the rest of their armed, the Viking
is a cheap, lightly armed space bus to get the meat down into the grinder. From the ventral view, the Viking
appears more like a giant ugly seabird with the bulky box-like module stripped to its belly. This is in contrast to the more sleek shuttle-like dorsal portion that houses the flight crew and the forward propulsion engines.
Seemingly sprucing out of the dorsal flight section, is a set of giant legs that hug the ventral cargo box and are tipped with downward thrusters for VTOL. Vikings
are loaded with troopers inside massive lower deck bays on the Corvette
class, and then pushed out into the black via overhead conveyor, then "dropped" from the mother ship by explosive bolts, and they use their own thrusters for atmospheric injection. While the DR-4 is widely used by the branches of the Federation armed forces, there is another similar vehicle: the DR-8 Skyhook
Jumpshuttle. The Skyhook
by the Fleet as a "retrieval boat" for smaller groups of MI troopers in hot LZs, as seen in the film during the Whiskey Outpost battle on Planet-P. The Fleet's own Marine Corps use the sleeker DR-8 for the bulk of their operations, as seen SST:3 Marauder
. When it comes to armaments on the DR-4 class, it is hard to see in the 1997 film, but pictures of the model display an number of small ball cannons mounted on the nose and sides of the little ship. My guess would be that these are used for point-defense turrets or even close-air support, but they are never seen in use. The only weapon that the DR-4s use is during the invasion of Klendathu...but we still don't know what the hell it is or what it was supposed to be.
When the FWS blogpost about troop transport was posted back in 2012, I received several comments on what the very bright discharges are. Some readers said that they were flare launchers, and the lighting in that scene of the film indicated that...but, what purpose would rapid-fire flare launchers be for a 25th century military? While flares are used on modern military vehicles, they are not featured that prominently. Maybe they are a system of marking the M.I. infantry's objectives since the bug homeworld does not have any kind of artificial lights? Could these be some sort of futuristic defense system, like a main battle tank's smoke dischargers? My theory as always been of light artillery fire, to soften up the bugs for the troopers. I think that SFX team used flares for the effects. I decided to see what the SST
script says about the DZ on Klendathu and the dropship. Interestingly enough, the script is that available online says that MI are deployed via space-drop capsule, just like in the 1959 book!
According to the website Starship Modeler
, the original concept was to have the underslung module be drop-off at the LZ, and the flight section of the Viking
return to the mother ship. While this was never seen on-screen in any of the appearance of the DR-4 dropships, the basic design of the model bears witness to it. It is my theory, that the original idea for this came from the ISSCV/APC from SAAB
, and the DR-4s were to have modular containers, also, much like the ISSCV/APC. From close examination of the 1997 film (the things I do for you people), I believe there are three variants: cargo, troop carrier, and medical. Paul Verhoven was said to have been inspirited by the landing craft of D-Day for these vehicles and the overall feel of the invasion of Klendathu.
Interestingly enough, several versions of the SST
dropship and retrivel boat jumpshuttle have been made into toys! Duringthe 1997's "action fleet" line of SST
toys by Galoob. One of these was the DR-8 Skyhook
retrieval boat seen on Planet-P in the film, and came with three micro-figures (one was a medic), and free-fall bombs. The DR-4 Viking
also got its day in plastic, with a motorized remote-controlled toy and more desert-camo schemed paint job. This was much rarer than the retrieval boat toy, and featured a corded conrtoller that operated a dorsal missile launcher, ramp, and moved via wheels instead of VTOL thrusters. Oh, don't worry faithful readers of FWS...I will be covering the SST
toyline in a future Military Sci-Fi Toys
The Carry-All from the DUNE universe
Mining the spice-drug Melange is an extremely risky endeavor on Arrakis. The giant sand worms are able to hone in on rhythmic vibrations of the Harvester machines that mine the spine. This has forced the dunemen to employ ground and aerial monitors to watch for worm sign (many of these were made into toys). Protecting the miners (most were contractors) from being eaten up the old man of the desert is the massive specialized aero-vehicle: the Carry-All. The Carry-All operates using the Holtzman Effect to generate an Suspensor Field. This stable platform allows for the Carry-All to life and lower two Harvesters into positions around the endless deserts of Arrakis. When House Atreides took over from their enemies, House Harkonnen, there was an inventory of about 1,000 Carry-Alls. However, given the reckless attitude of the Harkonnen's toward mining the Spice, more than 1/3 of the Carry-Alls were unable to be fielded.
While the Harvesters get all of the attention for their mining of the Spice, they are only able to do their job via the Carry-All. This vital importance of the Carry-All was not lost on Paul Atreides, after witness an worm attack on a Harvester after the Carry-All failed to arrive in time. During the Fremen insurrection led by Paul Muad'Did, Carry-Alls were targeted to grind Spice production to a halt. The model of the Carry-All for the 1984 sci-fi epic (and box-office bomb) DUNE
was conceptized by director David Lynch from the pages of the original text, and the wedged shaped model was constructed by model-maker Rafael de Maria y Campos in Mexico. In the novel, the Carry-All is an large ornithopter, and House Atreides Mentat, Hawat called the Carry-All an "rescue vehicle". The Carry-All is a unique concept in the realm of science fiction dropships, and one of the only endo-atmospheric dropships in sci-fi. In the 1998 PC real-time strategy game DUNE 2000
by Westwood Games, the Carry-All is re-imagined as a more sleek aerodyne design that appears to be more "bomber" like.
The Y-85 Titan Dropship from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Ever wondered how the hell the Empire got those massive AT-STs onto planet Holt? Wonder no more! Here is the Y-85 Titan
dropship! In the Imperial Army, the Y-85 delivery the massive armored walker AT-STs, the smaller AT-ATs, and pre-fab military bases. Once the Y-85 hit the planetary battlefield, the AT-STs and AT-ATs could be deployed immediately, due to them being stored battle-ready, as was seen during the Battle of Hoth. Due to the size of these dropships, only the larger Imperial Navy warships could carry the Y-85 and the accompanying vehicles. The SW
wiki-article states that the Titan
dropship off-loads the AT-ATs and AT-STs via crane that drops the mecha out of massive ventral doors. That means that the entire weight of the Titan
and its cargo are supported by anti-gravity motors or landing gears. That is impressive. These dropships have never been seen in any SW
game or movie, while the Y-85 was in some books and technical manuals, like the Star Wars: Incredible Cross-Sections.