MC-130J Air Commando IIs from the 522nd Special Operations squadron
Special Operations Command is upgrading weapons systems, investing in new technology and modernizing its fleet of aircraft.
Military leaders have said special operations forces will be relied upon heavily in future combat, humanitarian and relief missions as the armed services largely leave war zones. Operators will fan out across the globe to locations, such as Africa, that often lack robust base support.
One of SOCOM’s largest investments will go toward upgrading and sustaining its aircraft, which transport and support operators around the world in remote destinations.
SOCOM is in the process of recapitalizing its C-130 Hercules fleet, said Air Force Col. Michael Schmidt, SOCOM program executive officer for fixed-wing aircraft. The command uses modified C-130s for various missions such as troop resupply, infiltration and exfiltration.
SOF is modifying a number of MC-130J Commando IIs into AC-130J Ghostrider gunships. The first Ghostrider is now completing flight tests at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, he said.
The Ghostrider is slated to give SOCOM better close-air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance. SOF will modify 32 MC-130Js at a cost of $2.4 billion over the coming years.
Additionally, SOF in 2013 purchased 19 MC-130Js to replace its aging MC-130H Combat Talon II and MC-130P Combat Shadow fleets.
The command uses a suite of missiles, high-caliber guns and bombs to target enemies from its aircraft. It plans to purchase new, advanced precision strike weapons to integrate with the recapitalized C-130 fleet, Schmidt said at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.
One new missile that will be outfitted onto some C-130s is the Raytheon-built Griffin system. The Griffin is a forward-firing missile that can be launched from air, ground and maritime platforms. The command is looking to acquire other types of missiles, but has so far seen little innovation from industry that balances capability with cost, Schmidt said.
“We have common launch tubes in the back [of the aircraft], so we can launch anything out of there that you can bring to us. I keep asking for people to bring innovative ideas to put in that tube and I haven’t seen a lot, frankly,” Schmidt said.
“The Griffin is a tremendous missile and it is doing well for us in combat. It has continued to improve. If you want to compete with Griffin, give me something less than $50,000 that does the same thing,” he said.
SOCOM has requested $146 million in fiscal year 2015 for precision strike weapons. The AC-130Js will be outfitted with laser small diameter bombs, missiles and high-caliber guns.
The aircraft needs cutting edge weapons as well as better situational awareness, said Lt. Col. Todd Darrah, program manager for the AC-130J.
“[We’re] looking for any situational awareness capabilities that we can bring to the airplane. The days of grease pencil on the side of the window are over, and we need to have the ability for the pilots to be able to see where we’re shooting all those guns,” Darrah said.
In general, SOCOM is looking for a slew of improvements to its precision strike packages, particularly for the modified AC-130Js, he said.
“We’re always looking for ways to roll in better sensors, better guns, better weapons, those kind of things on the aircraft,” Darrah said.
Erich Borgstede, program manager for SOCOM’s precision strike program, said other priorities include “enhanced lethality, more capability with moving targets, all weather, all terrain … and I want you to do all of these things and make it affordable.”
In the Defense Department fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, SOCOM was allocated $7.7 billion, a 10 percent boost over fiscal year 2014. The budget hike will allow an increase in personnel from 67,000 to 69,700.
In addition, funding for SOCOM procurement went up about $65 million over fiscal year 2014’s total enacted funding, according to budget documents, which will fund some modernization and sustainment projects.
SOCOM is also investing in helicopter upgrades, said Col. John Vannoy, PEO for the rotary wing program office.
In fiscal year 2015, the command will continue upgrading the MH-60 Seahawk, which SOCOM uses for overt and covert infiltration, exfiltration and resupply of troops. The Defense Department’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget slated $3 million for modernization of the maritime helicopter, which would include performance upgrades, Vannoy said.
The A/MH-6M Little Bird fleet is currently going through a sustainment program. The Block 3 upgrade will maintain the Little Bird’s airframe through 2025, Vannoy said.
A Block 2.2 upgrade will address ongoing safety issues associated with seats onboard the Little Bird. They are being replaced after a number of operators were injured, Vannoy said.
“Over about a three year period, we had over 50 SOF aviators … grounded because of back injuries,” he said.
SOCOM also allotted $22.2 million for MH-47 Chinook procurement in fiscal year 2015. There will be eight new builds of the MH-47G variation over the upcoming fiscal year.
“That program is going quite well. We’re going to roll it out on Sept. 26 of this year, first flight out, so it’s right on track,” Vannoy said.
The MH-47G will include digital automated flight controls and safer, higher performing airframes, Vannoy said.
SOCOM will also outfit a number of its rotary wing aircraft with new electronics and equipment such as processor upgrades that will refresh aging computers systems, secure real-time video and a next generation FLIR camera that includes a multispectral sensor, Vannoy said.
Overall procurement for SOF helicopters will be on a downward trend over the next several years, he said.
SOCOM is also moving forward with a $560 million contract with General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems to produce the command’s ground mobility 1.1 vehicle. Earlier this year, GD rival AM General protested the award. In April, a U.S. Federal Claims Court rejected the company’s suit, paving the way for production.
Once procured, the vehicle will be able to maneuver in challenging terrain and could be transported by some SOF rotary wing aircraft.
SOCOM’s sensitive site exploitation department, which will also be investing in new technology, collects biometric and forensic intelligence, said Program Manager Mike Fitz.
The office is looking primarily for commercial-off-the-shelf items, but is open to investing some developmental money for the right projects, Fitz said. The program has been allocated about $15 million for fiscal year 2015. For the next several years, he expects the office will spend about $10 million to $12 million per year on procurement.
Special operators urgently need better processing devices than can rapidly analyze DNA, Fitz said.
“Unfortunately, right now we get a [DNA] swab and have to mail it back to a lab somewhere,” he said. They need a product that can quickly process DNA in the field, he said.
The program is currently experimenting with three different DNA identification technologies: LGC Forensic’s ParaDNA; NetBio’s Accelerated Nuclear DNA Equipment; and integenX’s RapidHit 200. Comparison testing has been completed and the office hopes to field a product this fiscal year, he said. It should be lightweight and easy to use.
“We’ve been putting money into rapid DNA devices for several years now and it’s finally starting to bear some fruit,” Fitz said. “We tested three different products from three different companies … and, lo and behold, all three of them did pretty well. We are in the process now of pushing some of those devices out into the field so … [we] can see how they perform in real conditions and what kind of actual value they provide us.”
The office is also searching for a replacement for its Cross Match SEEK II device, which collects biometric information, such as fingerprints and iris images. While it is an effective tool, it is eight years old and in need of replacement, Fitz said.
“Ideally, we find that we might go with an app [to] get your fingerprint, your iris and your face [scanned]. We’re not quite there yet. But something smaller than a shoe box would certainly be of big value to us,” he said.
The office put out a request for information this March and hopes to select a device by next summer.
Special operators also want a better way to collect latent fingerprints without dusting, Fitz said.
“Dustless latent print is kind of our nirvana. … [If] we can go into a place and find and capture latent prints without ever leaving evidence that we were there, that would be a game changer for us,” he said. “We don’t always want the guys to know that we’ve been there.”
A new method to identify hidden chambers in buildings would also be useful, he said. Program officials want “anything that can make us into Superman with X-ray vision,” Fitz said.
Better language programs for special operators are also needed, particularly as SOF expands its reach globally, command leaders said.
Special operators over the past decade have worked alongside tribes and local communities in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries building relationships. It required them to become fluent in Farsi, Urdu and other local languages, said Chief Master Sgt. Greg Smith, with Special Operations Command Europe. But now operators need to rapidly learn a variety of other languages. In Europe, there are 24 core languages, not including dialects, Smith said.
“There has been such a focus on Farsi, Dari [and] Urdu,” Smith said. As special operators go back to their theater commands — which include regions such as Africa, South America and Europe — leaders have found “a tremendous atrophy of some core languages.”
Smith called on industry to develop new technologies that can help operators learn languages rapidly. “There is a tremendous market out there,” he said.
In Asia, where the U.S. military is focusing its attention, there are more than 3,000 dialects, said Command Sgt. Maj. Tony Pettengill Sr., of Special Operations Command Pacific
Currently, personnel stationed in Pacific nations use a combination of language institutes, open-source language tools and videos to practice, Pettengill said. There is a need for cost effective tools because paying thousands of dollars for translators is unfeasible. “We just can’t afford to do that,” he said.
Fluency in languages is key to effective communication with partner nations and developing strong relationships, said Command Sgt. Maj. Dave Gibbs of Special Operations Command Africa.
“Language … adds to our effectiveness with our interagency partners. Often times, that’s the first thing a country team is going to ask: ‘Do we have a language ability?’” he said.
These language programs must be affordable, said Chief Master Sgt. Matt Caruso, from Air Force Special Operations Command.
“Do not price yourself out of the ability to give to the components,” Caruso said. “Money is an issue now. Some of this technology advances very quickly, [and] it becomes pricier and pricier.” Photo Credit: Air Force, Defense Dept.