Special air delivery: air support for special operations forces (SOF) has so far relied largely on adapting fixed- and rotary-wing manned/unmanned aircraft that were originally developed for other uses. The growing importance of such operations is now producing some aviation assets aimed specifically at this application.

Author:Braybrook, Roy
 
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Following the attacks of 11 September 2001, America's Special Operations Command (Socom) was assigned the lead in the 'Global War on Terrorism'. Socom's procurement spend has subsequently expanded from a modest $ 788 million in FY01 to $1.53 billion in FY06, and is heading toward a peak of $1.83 billion in FY08.

Much of this budget is being spent on SOF-specific modifications to off-the-shelf aircraft. However, Socom now has funding to plan new assets dedicated to its special needs. Projects under consideration include more survivable gunships, light strike aircraft for Coin (Counterinsurgency) operations, tankers to support covert low-level helicopter missions, and lightweight air-to-ground guided weapons to be carried by small drones.

Gunships

The current US Air Force Special Operations Command (Afsoc) gunship inventory consists of eight old Lockheed Martin AC-130H 'Spectres' and 17 newer AC-130U 'Spookies'. The AC-130H is armed with a side-firing 40 mm Bofors gun and 105 mm howitzer, while the AC-130U adds a 25 mm General Dynamics GAU-12/U Gatling. From 2008, the AC-130U is to be equipped with two 30 mm ATK-built Mk 44 Bushmaster II chain guns, replacing the 25 mm and 40 mm weapons. The Mk 44 fires at 200 rd/min and offers a variety of ammunition types, including an airburst round under development for the US Marine Corps.

Beginning in 2009, AC-130Us are to be given new centre-section wing boxes, facilities to improve collaboration with drones and the Lockheed Martin GMS2 multispectral target designation system. Two other near-term upgrades planned for the AC-130 (and the MC-130H tanker/transport) have been cancelled to provide funding for more urgent programmes. Those terminated were Socom's High Power Fiber Optic Towed Decoy and the Common Avionics Architecture for Penetration (Caap) programme, which was to have included a low probability of detection terrain following/avoidance radar. Caap funds were diverted to improving the Northrop Grumman APN-241 weather/navigation radar, adding terrain-following/avoidance.

It may be noted that in January 2007 Socom awarded Raytheon a $135.4 million contract to develop the Silent Knight terrain-following/avoidance radar, which will initially be applied to the Boeing MH-47G, and only much later to the Sikorsky MH-60M, Lockheed Martin MC-130H and Bell Boeing CV-22 Block 30 (though evidently not the AC-130).

PSAS/NGG

Afsoc would like to field a new gunship with significantly better survivability around 2015. The series of designations applied have included Persistent Surface Attack System and more recently Next Generation Gunship (NGG). It will be required to provide faster response than the AC-130, and have variable effects (lethal to non-lethal) and some stealth features such as retractable guns, to make possible day/night, rather than night-only, operations.

The 105 mm gun will be deleted and precision attack is to be emphasised. There are predictions that the NGG will have a 120 mm mortar firing laser-homing projectiles, and a 'very small missile' of around 20 kg, which is the current weight of the laser-guided Northrop Grumman Viper Strike.

In October 2006 Boeing began flight trials with a low-power, solid-state laser mounted in a ventral turret on a C-130H of the US Air Force 46th Test Wing. Using high-resolution imagery the system tracks and 'lases' moving ground targets, paving the way for experiments that will begin around 2010 with a megawatt-class chemical oxygen iodine laser (Coil) weapon. This Boeing Advanced Tactical Laser will provide a lethal range of around 35 km.

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The production laser weapon is expected to be an electrically powered solid-state device that will be operational before 2020. With more than 30 years of experience, Northrop Grumman claims to be the industry leader in solid-state high-energy lasers. In August 2007 the company received a US Army contract for the High Energy Laser-Technology Demonstrator (HEL-TD), a ground vehicle-mounted system to defend against incoming rockets, artillery and mortars.

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Aside from giving terminal effects at the speed of light (eliminating target movement and crosswind aiming problems), a laser weapon has a precisely selectable aim point and beam duration, making possible a graduated strike. Thus, an aircraft attacking a vehicle could burst one of its tyres, or the fuel tank could be exploded.

Other projected directed energy weapons include an Aesa (active electronically-scanned array) radar, producing beams of energy to damage target electronics.

Herc Variants

Aside from using the AC-130 in close air support, convoy escort, air base defence and armed reconnaissance, Afsoc employs several other Hercules variants. The primary role of the HC-130P/N is to act as a tanker for combat search and rescue helicopters. The MC-130E/H Combat Talon I/II is mainly concerned with the insertion, resupply and extraction of special forces. The MC-130P Combat Shadow is a tanker for special operations helicopters, as is the new MC-130W Combat Spear, which will also serve the US Air Force's Bell Boeing CV-22 Osprey.

The MC-130W is a converted C-130H with additional avionics, including the Northrop Grumman APN-241 radar and Raytheon AAQ-17 infrared missile detection system. To refuel helicopters, the MC-130W has two Flight Refuelling Mk 32B-902E underwing pods. It also has a strengthened tail to permit high-speed low-level airdrops, and a Universal Aerial Refueling Receptacle Slipway Installation to allow it to take fuel in flight from a boom system. Deliveries of the MC-130W to the 1st SOW at Hurlburt Field, Florida began in June 2006.

The EC-130H Compass Calls of the US Air Force 41st and 43rd Electronic Combat Squadrons, operating from Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and Ali al Salem in Kuwait, have been employed to transmit anti-IED (improvised explosive device) RF jamming along ground convoy routes. Similar duties are performed by US Navy and Marine Corps Northrop Grumman EA-6Bs.

The US Air Force's 14 EC-130Hs in southwest Asia are supplemented on occasion by deployments of EC-130Js Commando Solos, of which six are operated by the 193rd SOW, an Air National Guard unit based in Middletown, Pennsylvania.

Anti-IED efforts also involve other specially equipped aircraft. Signals intelligence (sigint) duties are performed by the US Air Force Boeing RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, the US Navy Lockheed Martin EP-3E and the US Army RC-12 Guardrail (Beechcraft King Air B200), all 33 of which are now being upgraded by prime contractor Northrop Grumman to RC-12N-1 standard.

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Synthetic aperture radars (Sar) with moving target indication (MTI) facilities are carried by the US Air Force Northrop Grumman E-8C Joint Stars and Air National Guard RC-26B (Fairchild Metro), and by the US Army C-12R Horned Owl and Shorts 360 Constant Hawk.

Herc Plans

For the short term, Afsoc plans for its Hercules fleet include retention of its 25 AC-130s, plus 20...

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