Why Special Ops Prefer C-130s for Many Missions

By Harold Kennedy

The venerable C-130 Hercules air transport turned up almost everywhere in the special-operations war in Afghanistan, with different versions of it performing a variety of gritty functions. For example:

C-130s—with a design that dates back four decades—are popular with the U.S. Special Operations Command, because “they can fly low, slow and long distances,” said Peter Simmons, a spokesman for the plane’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company, of Marietta, Ga.

Unlike larger transports, such as the mammoth C-17s and C-5s, the Hercules—named for the mythical Greek hero renowned for his great strength—can land on unimproved dirt runways. In fact, when the Marines seized an isolated airfield, which they called Camp Rhino, the first fixed-wing aircraft to land there were C-130s.

The 16th Special Operations Wing of the Air Force Special Operations Command, headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Fla., used C-130s to ferry special operators all over Afghanistan.

The aircraft’s design enables it to be configured for many different special-operations missions, Simmons said. It can carry troops, vehicles and armaments into battle. It can drop paratroopers and supplies from the sky. It can refuel both airborne and ground platforms. If necessary, it can be fitted with skis, instead of wheels, for taking off and landing in heavy snow.

Much of the special-mission equipment can be quickly removed, allowing the “Herk,” as it is nicknamed, to revert back to its cargo-delivery role, if desired. Also, the C-130 can be reconfigured rapidly to accept a wide range of cargo, including palletized equipment, floor-loaded material, airdrop platforms, container-delivery system bundles and combat vehicles, including the Army’s new interim armored vehicle. The transport can accommodate 92 combat troops or 64 fully equipped paratroops on side-facing seats. For medical evacuations, it can carry up to 74 litter patients.

The Air Force first deployed the C-130 in 1955. The aircraft played a key role in Vietnam, where the gunship version destroyed more than 10,000 enemy trucks.

Marine Commandant Gen. James Jones credits one with saving his life during the 1968 siege of Khe Sanh. At the time, he told a group of defense reporters, he was commander of a rifle company that had been assaulted by a North Vietnamese battalion. To fend them off took “every firing battery we had ... and what we used to call the Spooky gunship for most of the night.”

During the 100-hour ground campaign of Desert Storm, C-130s flew more than 500 sorties a day. In the 1990s, C-130s transported indicted war criminals from Bosnia to the International War Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia in the Hague, Netherlands.

In Afghanistan, the AC-130 gunships were particularly deadly, officials said. In the battle for the al Qaeda cave complex at Tora Bora, Rumsfeld said, the gunships “fired [more than] 200 105 [mm] howitzer rounds [and] thousands of lower caliber ordnance—the 25 mm and the 40 mm.”

In one case, Rumsfeld added, the gunships hit caves and tunnels filled with ordnance. The strikes were so successful, he said, that the smoke plume caused by the explosion covered more than two kilometers.

“The AC-130 gunship is a very precise weapon system, and they have been effective,” Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters,

The AC-130’s sensor package includes television, infrared and radar components, which allow the aircraft to identify targets and friendly forces any time, any place, he said. Navigational devices include inertial navigation and global positioning systems.

EC-130 Commando Solo aircraft produced two five-hour broadcasts per day of news, music and information in the various languages of the country. “We have no wish to hurt you, the innocent people of Afghanistan,” said one broadcast. “Stay away from military installations, government buildings, terrorist camps, roads, factories or bridges.”

The EC-130s—flown by the 193rd Special Operations Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, based in Harrisburg, Pa.—have been converted from cargo planes to flying radio and television stations. They can preempt an area’s regular programming and replace it with any message chose by U.S. forces, a spokesman explained.

The messages are developed by the U.S. Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group (Airborne), which is headquartered at Fort Bragg, N.C., and broadcast by a linguist, often live, in the language of the target audience. Each Commando Solo is equipped with cassette and reel-to-reel audio recorders, a video recorder, television monitors, receivers, noise modulators, transmitters and a live microphone. To help audiences find the broadcasts on their radios, U.S. forces drop leaflets revealing the frequency being used.

In all, approximately 20 million leaflets have been dropped, noted Rumsfeld. In addition to offering rewards for terrorist leaders, the leaflets urge Afghans to “stop fighting for the Taliban and live.”

The Herk’s record in the war was marred in January by the crash of a KC-130 tanker, which killed seven Marines.

Overall, however, Pentagon officials are said to be pleased with the C-130s performance in Afghanistan. The Air Force has been directed to expand its fleet of gunships, and the Marine Corps is considering acquiring some to bolster fire support for its expeditionary units. The Pennsylvania National Guard is scheduled, early this year, to receive the first of a new generation of Commando Solos—the EC-130J—featuring more powerful engines, with increased fuel efficiency, and advanced avionics.


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