Special operations aviators gear up for aircraft upgrades.

Author:Jean, Grace V.
Position:SPECIAL OPERATIONS
 
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Boosting the availability of special operations aircraft--whether they are helicopters, fixed-wing, or unmanned--has been called a top priority at U.S. Special Operations Command.

USSOCOM has a series of upgrades in the works, as well as a long list of needs that program officers say will make the missions of pilots and operators easier.

The program executive officer for fixed wing systems, Air Force Col. Duke Richardson, is preparing to recapitalize the special operations forces fleet of C-130 tankers and gunships. A total of 45 legacy C-130 aircraft are programmed for the recap, which will help to standardize the fleet.

The program is replacing all 37 SOF tankers with MC-130J aircraft beginning in fiscal 2011. Eight AC-130H gunships will be replaced by AC-130J models. An additional procurement of eight J-model aircraft will bring the fleet of AC-130J gunships to 16 beginning in fiscal 2015.

The program begins next year on a small scale and includes advanced procurement funding for the first aircraft in fiscal 2012.

Program officials intend to pursue a similar strategy for updating the rest of the gunship fleet, Richardson said. Recap of the 17 AC-130U gunships is not yet planned, but that remains a goal of U.S. Special Operations Command, said Air Force Maj. Denise Boyd, a command spokesperson. Ultimately, the total gunship fleet will increase to 33 gunships, comprising the 16 AC-130JS and the recapped 17 AC-130Us.

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SOCOM needs to increase the availability of surveillance and strike aircraft for units in the field, said James "Hondo" Geurts, deputy director for acquisition. One solution was to retrofit existing C-130 cargo aircraft with new weapons and sensors, to create the MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft. A contract was awarded to L-3 Communications for eight planes, with an option for four more.

Geurts said engineers hung an F-15 weapons rack on the C-130 and outfitted it with small-diameter bombs. One team even went out to the boneyard at Davis-Monthan to pull an old T-43 navigator console from storage. Engineers took out the 1960s-era TV screen, put in a new commercial screen interface and mounted it on the plane.

Government-developed software linked the console to the bomb rack.

The aircraft dropped a live bomb within weeks to prove that the jury-rigged system would work. It was a cheaper alternative to spending $25 million modeling it for two years to prove feasibility before going out to test it, said Geurts.

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