Special Operations Command: It Takes Too Long to Get Equipment

By Stew Magnuson

Special Operations“The bottom line for us is: we need planes,” said Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster, who heads the Air Force Special Operations Command.

In addition to airplanes, the U.S. Special Operations Command will be needing a vast array of new equipment, senior leaders said. They noted that the demand for hardware will grow as SOCOM continues to expand.

Plans call for the addition of five Army Special Forces battalions, four Ranger companies, 300 more Navy SEALs and the 2,500 members of the new Marine Special Operations Command. SOCOM’s overall numbers are increasing by 41 percent from 2004 through 2013.

Furthermore, the demand for the command’s services is not expected to slacken. Even if regular forces draw down in Iraq, special operators are expected to remain, said Adm. Eric T. Olson, SOCOM commander.

“As conventional forces decrease in Iraq, there is no similar decrease in demand for SOF,” he told the National Defense Industrial Association special operations/low intensity conflict conference.

Lt. Gen. Robert Wagner, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, agreed. “When the conventional forces pull out, we’re not pulling out. We’ll be left there and become more visible and [have] a more difficult task,” he said.

To carry out their mission in Iraq and other hotspots, special operators will need better sensors to find the enemy. They will need more and better aircraft to replace SOCOM’s aging fleet. The command’s fleet of tactical trucks also will need to be replenished and increased, officials said.

It’s a long shopping list at a time when budgets could shrink in the not too distant future.

“Right now, we are existing on the war-emergency supplement,” said Wagner. The command has used war appropriations to buy equipment that was habitually under-funded, he said. “When the supplement goes away, we’ll lose that. We can’t revert back to an under-funded situation.”

At the Air Force Special Operations Command, the recapitalization of aircraft is lagging, Wurster said.

AFSOC is slated to begin operations with the tilt-rotary wing V-22 Osprey before the end of the spring. Wurster said the command has four aircraft, and they are performing as advertised, but deliveries are “too few and too slow.” AFSOC will have only seven aircraft by fiscal year 2009, he said. Meanwhile, the fleet of 35 MH-53 helicopters will all be retired by that time. That will leave the seven V-22s as the only long-range vertical take off and landing aircraft in the AFSOC inventory.

Olson identified the replacement of the aging MC-130E Talon fleet as the command’s top recapitalization priority. The fixed-wing, long-range transport aircraft provides airdrop capabilities — sometimes deep into enemy territory.

Wurster said the aging MC-130s — some now almost 40 years old — have seen a 56 percent increase in unscheduled maintenance time since 2001.

AFSOC’s fleet of 25 gunships — the AC-130H Spectres and AC-130U Spookies — continues to face similar maintenance problems with center-wing boxes. The attachment points that link the aircraft wings above the fuselage are wearing quicker than expected, he said. The gunships are in constant demand in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the two variants’ airframes date back to the 1960s and 1970s.

Wurster said last year that there were no plans on the drawing board to replace the vaunted gunships. Now there is at least a concept, he said.

“We want to get in the ‘little airplane’ business so we can carry a half dozen guys discretely,” Wurster said.

AFSOC would also like to equip the C-27 cargo aircraft with a small cannon.

The Army and the Air Force chose the C-27J Spartan last year as its new medium-lift fixed wing aircraft. AFSOC’s vision is to create the AC-27B, which would serve a variety of roles including transport, medical evacuation and surveillance, and also serve as a small gunship that could take the operational pressure off the AC-130s.

Wurster said a Bushmaster 30 mm cannon could be fixed to a C-27 “fairly quickly.” The idea is to send one into combat to prove its mettle. But for the time being, the AC-27B is still on the wish list, he said.

SOCOM’s ground operators, meanwhile, are seeking new and improved tactical vehicles.

Col. Keith Lawless, assistant chief of staff, G-2, Marine Corps Special Operations Command, said that mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles will not be a long-term solution because of their size and weight. The MRAPs are heavy and difficult to transport, Lawless said.

“We’re never going to get to the point where there is one right vehicle. We need a family of vehicles. We have different environments and different threats,” said Wagner.

The SEALs are eyeing a new version of their Mark 5 special operations craft jet-powered boats, which infiltrate and ex-filtrate commandos, said Read Adm. Garry Bonelli, deputy commander of Naval Special Warfare Command.

The Office of Naval Research unveiled a prototype of a new Mark 5 in January. The 82-foot mark 5.1 has a composite hull designed to make rides smoother for SEAL teams, according to its manufacturer, Hogdon Yachts Inc. The current version has been criticized for delivering a bumpy ride that causes injuries.

However, it might be another 18 months before the command moves forward with a new Mark 5, Bonelli added.

As for the equipment special operators carry into the field, Wagner complained that they don’t receive enough of it in a timely manner.

Part of this is due to the slow pace of manufacturing. For example, when a new night-vision goggle is issued, the command must decide who receives the new items first. “You’re not going to have enough to give to everybody,” he lamented.

High on the special equipment wish list are intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sensors, said Kalev Sepp, deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations capabilities.

“We need to be able to find the enemy, locate, tag and track individuals and articles,” he said.

Despite some equipment shortfalls, SOCOM still has a reputation for rapidly developing technologies.

Richard Chandler, director of the command’s advanced technology directorate, said it can do this by using its “80-percent” rule of thumb. If a piece of equipment meets 80 percent of the requirements, the directorate can proceed with fielding. The remaining 20 percent of capability needed can be added later.

One contractor at the conference expressed frustration with this rule because of the gray areas involved. When should vendors be expected to meet the 80 percent of requirement? In the prototype phase, delivery phase or when testing? he asked.

“I’ve heard it for 20 years. That appears to be some type of policy expression, but we’ve never seen anything in writing,” he said. “Put some substance behind it,” he insisted. “It has no meaning for us out here in the contract world.”

Chandler admitted that the 80-percent rule “has been somewhat of a cliché over the years.”

But he hinted that there may be more discipline in adhering to requirements in the future. As SOCOM has grown, there has been increased scrutiny from the Pentagon into the command’s acquisition process, he said.

“We have to get our house in order and start trying to adhere on a more strict basis with the requirements,” Chandler said.

Please email your comments to SMagnuson@ndia.org

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, SOF Weapons Systems

Comments (0)

Retype the CAPTCHA code from the image
Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Please enter the text displayed in the image.