U.S. SOCOM Increases Investment in Weaponized Fixed-Wing Aircraft

By Sandra I. Erwin

U.S. Special Operations Command nearly tripled its investment in the C-130J aircraft fleet between 2012 and 2014.

Special-mission C-130s — including MC-130 customized cargo planes and AC-130 gunships — are among SOCOM's largest procurement programs. Spending on new aircraft and add-on equipment will increase substantially, from $89 million in 2012 to $232 million in 2014, according to new estimates by Frost & Sullivan, a market intelligence firm.

About $124 million will be spent in 2014 on new aircraft, and  $108 million on a "precision strike package" for the AC-130 gunship that includes sensors, a 30 mm gun, standoff precision-guided munitions, a mission operator console, a communications suite and flight deck hardware.

SOCOM purchases of C-130J aircraft and high-tech add-ons are expected to continue in the coming years, said Brad Curran, senior analyst at Frost & Sullivan aerospace and defense practice. C-130J manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. is currently SOCOM's largest contractor, capturing 18 percent of the command's $2.6 billion modernization budget in 2013.

The command intends to buy 94 MC-130Js of which 37 will be converted to AC-130J gunships. So far, 27 MC-130Js are on contract, and an additional 17 have “advanced procurement funding against them,” an Air Force spokesman told National Defense.

Twenty new MC-130Js already have been delivered to Air Force Special Operations Command, and 15 additional deliveries are scheduled through December 2015. Of those 15 aircraft, four will be converted to AC-130J models. Only the AC-130Js will get the precision-strike package.

The Air Force Special Operations Command, which operates the C-130 fleet, in on a path to downsize the inventory of 200-plus planes by more than half in the coming years. Officials said the goal is to save money on maintenance and to spend more on new airframes, high-tech weaponry and sensors.

SOCOM also has increased spending on another fixed-wing aircraft, the U-28 Pilatus PC-12. Procurement funds for the U-28 have are projected to rise from $25.5 million in 2012 and $7.5 million in 2013 to $56.2 million in 2014, Frost & Sullivan estimated.

The U-28, operated by AFSOC, is the military version of the Pilatus PC-12 single engine transport. These aircraft are favored by special operations forces because they are small, widely used around the world and can fly largely unnoticed.

Other prominent expenditures in SOCOM's aviation modernization plan, Curran said, include $156.6 million for research and development, $99 million for CV-22 Osprey procurements, and $81.4 million for MH-60 helicopter acquisitions.

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

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