Air Force Commandos Will Have Fewer Aircraft, More Firepower
The Air Force Special Operations Command’s fleet of more than 200 customized C-130 cargo planes will shrink by more than half in the coming years. Shedding older aircraft will allow AFSOC to save money on maintenance and to spend more on high-tech weaponry and sensors for its future fleet, said Maj. Gen. Kenneth D. Merchant, director of global reach programs at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
Merchant, who just took the job last month, oversees $52 billion worth of programs.
The Air Force is buying 94 brand-new C-130J aircraft from Lockheed Martin Corp. for special operations forces. Fifty-seven will be converted to MC-130J — used by special operations forces for transporting cargo and troops, and for aerial refueling. The other 37 will become AC-130W Stinger II gunships.
Sixteen AC-130Js are scheduled to be delivered by 2015, according to Lockheed Martin.
New MC-130Js and AC-130Ws already are in production and will be sent to AFSOC units based at Hurlburt Field, Fla., over the next several years, Merchant said at a recent industry conference in Arlington, Va.
One of the most anticipated pieces of equipment is a “precision strike package” for the Stinger II gunship, he said. “What we were able to do is ‘eye watering,’” he said. The strike package includes sensors, a 30 mm gun, standoff precision-guided munitions, a mission operator console, a communications suite and flight deck hardware. One of the Air Force’s newest satellite and laser-guided weapons, the small diameter bomb also will be launched from the gunship.
In its fiscal year 2014 budget request, the Air Force seeks $1.6 billion for special operations programs. Included is procurement of four MC-130J aircraft and five AC-130J gunships.
Also requested in the 2014 budget are three CV-22 Osprey for AFSOC. A total of 50 CV-22 aircraft are scheduled to be delivered by 2016. Two of the $74 million aircraft were lost in recent years to training and combat mishaps. Merchant said Congress has approved funds for one replacement aircraft. Osprey manufacturer Bell-Boeing expects to shut down the CV-22 production line after the aircraft that are currently on order are completed.
The CV-22 is a variant of the Marine Corps’ Osprey, which is a helicopter-fixed wing hybrid. The first CV-22 was delivered to AFSOC in January 2007. It completed its third combat deployment in 2012.
The aircraft has seen its share of maintenance and reliability problems, Merchant said. Its engine, made by Rolls-Royce has had trouble operating in desert climates, he said. “The dusty environment is chewing these engines up.” Rolls-Royce is currently working on the problem and will modify the engine, said Merchant.
An Air Force fact sheet noted that AFSOC airmen flew 14,761 combat sorties for over 51,221 combat hours last year. They moved 15.6 million pounds of cargo, transported 33,500 passengers and fired 16,600 rounds of ammunition.
Military analysts, meanwhile, are calling for the Pentagon to invest in more advanced technologies for special operations forces.A new study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said AFSOC’s reliance on a C-130 based aviation fleet ignores the combat environment that the U.S. military will face in the future.
Special operations forces need a “stealthy air transport,” the study said. “AFSOC’s venerable C-130 variants have remained relevant through constant upgrades, sophisticated countermeasures, and advanced tactics. In the future, however, the inherently high signatures of the C-130 platform will render it extremely vulnerable” to enemy air defenses, said CSBA. U.S. Special Operations Command and the Air Force will need to “develop a mix of stealthy airlifters and non-standard clandestine aircraft capable of ‘hiding in plain sight,’” the study said.
CSBA also suggested AFSOC needs a “next-generation gunship." By 2018, AC-130 gunships will have been providing close air support to special operations for 50 years, the study said. Gunships have received constant upgrades to their weaponry, sensor packages, and countermeasures. “Nevertheless, their high signatures and low airspeeds make AC-130s extremely vulnerable in anything other than extremely permissive environments,” said CBSA. Possible alternatives could be a mix of low-cost “disposable” unmanned and stealthy strike aircraft.
Chris Dougherty, a former Army Ranger and one of the authors of the CSBA study, said that the use of C-130s for troop insertion and extraction “probably isn't going to cut it” in combat zones where enemies are well armed. “The [radar/heat] signature is going to be too high,” he said May 10. “The bigger near-term concern for SOF is the proliferation of guided rockets, artillery, mortars and missiles, particularly advanced man portable air defense systems,” he said. “When you are flying around in an aircraft with a radar cross section the size of a small building, having those capabilities out there is of concern.”
Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin