The United States Special Operations Command is focused on competing with close-to-peer power.
To do this, he wants to make sure that he can still use all of his platforms against a sophisticated enemy.
SOCOM is therefore modernizing its largest aircraft, which are necessary to support operators in the field.
During the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, American forces had the decisive advantage of air superiority.
Conventional troops and special operators knew they could almost always call in air strikes or close air support against an enemy force. But that capability might not be available if a conflict with China and Russia breaks out.
In the contested airspace, the AC-130 fighter jet and the MC-130 transport plane – some of the most capable and popular aircraft in the arsenal of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM ) – risk losing their relevance, unable to accomplish their missions amid thickets of Chinese and Russian air defenses.
SOCOM is therefore looking for new ways to use these venerable planes. By equipping the AC-130 with cruise missiles and turning the MC-130 into a seaplane, American commandos might be able to keep them in combat.
An even deadlier plane
For more than six decades, the different variants of the AC-130 have supported conventional and special operations troops, participating in all major and minor conflicts since the Vietnam War.
The AC-130J Ghostrider, the latest version of the gunship, is a deadly machine with an arsenal of 30mm and 105mm cannons, Hellfire and Griffin missiles, and smart ammunition.
The AC-130 is an ideal close air support platform. It can stay over targets for very long periods of time and provide incredible firepower. But this ability to stay stationed for long periods of time is also one of the aircraft’s main drawbacks, as it is relatively slow and vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.
Historically, the AC-130 has operated almost exclusively at night to bolster its strengths and compensate for its vulnerabilities.
Now, SOCOM wants to develop a “ranged precision guided weapon” that the AC-130 can fire at long range, allowing it to strike targets while staying out of range of enemy fire.
According to a recent solicitation, the command is looking for a cruise missile with a range of at least 230 miles and up to 460 miles with a warhead of at least 13 pounds but potentially up to 37 pounds.
Cruise missiles are subsonic munitions that fly at low altitudes, making them more difficult to detect, but SOCOM also wants to have electronic systems that allow it to acquire and reacquire targets after they are fired.
Some within the Air Force Special Operations Command, which is part of SOCOM, are skeptical of the weapon.
“Regardless of the threat, air-to-air or air-to-ground, having a precision guided cruise missile just improves the performance and capabilities of the AC-130, but I don’t think that equipping a stand-off The precisely guided cruise will make it more relevant, due to the capabilities and limitations of the aircraft, ”BA, a former AC-130 gunner, told Insider.
“Other aircraft platforms would be a better choice for this type of weapon system. The AC-130 was designed to sit in the sky, fly counterclockwise. in a circle and engage whoever actively engages the good guys. Precision missiles wouldn’t. hurt, but let’s not accessorize “Call of Duty” to our AC-130s! ” BA added.
A special operations seaplane
Combat helicopters are not the only ones seeking to remain relevant in an era of competition between great powers. SOCOM is also working on modifying the MC-130J Commando II transport aircraft to expand its utility in meeting the challenges of peer-to-peer warfare.
AFSOC deploys approximately 60 MC-130s, and the aircraft is the backbone of AFSOC’s fixed-wing fleet.
The MC-130J Commando II, the latest version, specializes in infiltration, exfiltration, transport and resupply of special operations units in semi-permissive or non-permissive environments. It can also perform aerial refueling of special operations helicopters and conduct psychological operations by broadcasting messages and dropping leaflets.
MC-130s can land almost anywhere in the world, including beaches, deserts, and highways. They can’t land on water, but that could change by 2023.
AFSOC is working with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s strategic development planning and experimentation on an amphibious capability for the aircraft that would also allow it to land on water.
The program is developing a modification of the removable amphibious float to allow the MC-130J to land and take off on water if necessary.
The first digital renderings of the amphibious aircraft show a pair of runners attached under the fuselage. SOCOM uses a rapid prototyping schedule that it says will allow a demonstration of operational capability in 17 months.
“This is very good news, and it also makes perfect sense,” a former MC-130 pilot told Insider. “China is our main adversary now and in the future. If, as a community, we are to conduct effective expeditionary operations in this part of the world, we must have an amphibious option.”
The MC-130J Commando II amphibious capability, as the program is known, “is vital for future success as it will allow the dispersal of resources within a joint operations area,” said Maj. AFSOC’s technology transition arm, in a press release, adding that the dispersal of MC-130 amphibians would make it much more difficult for an enemy to target them.
The Air Force has worked on a number of concepts to make its planes more difficult to target.
Under the Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept, for example, F-35 fighter jets could operate in small numbers from small Pacific islands, increasing their survivability and expanding their operational potential, especially in a vast area like the Pacific where the Chinese army extends its reach.
New capabilities will help the military adjust to competition from the great powers, but this new era also requires a change in mindset. The US military has grown accustomed to operating in freedom and with little loss, but conflict with a close peer threat will certainly require more risk and, most importantly, more sacrifice.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a veteran of the Hellenic Army (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
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