U.S. Special Operations Command’s Equipment Buys Focus on Aviation

By Grace V. Jean
U.S. Special Operations Command has been flying some of the oldest aircraft in the Defense Department’s inventory. There are efforts under way to modernize the fleet, but officials worry that budget cuts would slow down several current programs to replace and upgrade aircraft.

SOCOM depends on the Air Force and Army to develop the basic technologies it uses, such as aircraft. It then purchases and modifies the standard models to fit its unique mission requirements. With congressional leaders poised to chop billions from Pentagon budgets, SOCOM officials are keeping a wary eye on the services.

“We have to watch how their budgets unfold,” said James W. Cluck, SOCOM’s acquisition executive. Half of SOCOM’s $1.8 billion procurement budget is funding aviation programs. It includes in part the recapitalization of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command’s MC-130 cargo airplanes, which falls under a broader Air Force-wide effort to modernize C-130s — the service’s largest program behind the $40 billion replacement program for its aerial refueling tankers. The Air Force has authorized the purchase of 122 HC-130J and MC-130J aircraft, but the funding has not come through yet.

The largest buy that the command intends to make in 2012 is for unconventional warfare aircraft such as light and medium commercial airplanes — the Pilatus PC-12, the M-28 Skytruck and the DO-328.

SOCOM officials plan to work more closely with the larger military services to achieve better synergy in acquisition programs.

“We’re trying to make sure we find ways to synchronize our budget with the service budgets,” said Cluck. Better communication will open up discussion that could help to avert a crisis situation, he added.  

SOCOM’s programs, unlike traditional big-ticket procurements, focus on existing, less-ambitious technologies. The fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft are being replaced with new airframes, but the designs are moderate improvements over existing ones.

This conservative approach to modernization may hurt SOCOM in the long run, said Mark Gunzinger, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based research institute.  

“I think that we’re approaching the point where we can no longer continue to upgrade existing systems and expect that they will be able to perform in the kinds of future operational environments that we see emerging,” he said.

An upgraded C-130-based gunship would not be survivable in a fight against a well-armed enemy such as China, he pointed out. “I’m not throwing stones at the decision to recapitalize the gunship fleet,” he said. “[But] they will need a different mix of capabilities for the future in these non-permissive environments that they may be cast to operate in.”

Cluck acknowledged that more technological innovation will be needed, but one problem for SOCOM is that traditional military research programs take years to reach fruition. Special operators need equipment produced on short notice.

One solution might be for the services to allow SOCOM to take the lead on certain research and development programs, said Cluck. “We would take it the whole way through the testing and development phase. We would put a procurement contract in place,” he said. “That way they could, for a minimal R&D investment, be able to get some of their unique aspects onto our SOF-peculiar system.”

This also would minimize the sustainment costs if the services were using the exact same system as SOCOM, he added.

One program in which this concept might work is in the development of unmanned aircraft with the Navy. “Some areas of UAVs might allow us to do some things and then transfer that over to the service,” said Cluck.

If this proposal garners support in the Pentagon, the command would have to identify a couple programs to pursue. “If we can have small and frequent successes, then it could turn into something more routine. I think we’re in the learning stage of how we’d execute that,” said Cluck.                               

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

Comments (0)

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