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
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
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.
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 series.
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 universe.
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, DUNE, Battletech, Starcraft, HALO, 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.
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
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".
The DR-4 Viking class Dropship from the Starship Troopers Universe
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 blogpost.
The Carry-All from the DUNE universe
The Y-85 Titan Dropship from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back