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Socom Refines AC-130J Gunship Plans
This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
U.S. Special Operations Command (Socom) is planning to base its future AC-130J gunship on the modular "Precision Strike Package"that it is quietly and quickly fielding on the MC-130W.
This is a major departure from today's AC-130H/U configuration, which wields the characteristic side-mounted 105-mm. howitzer and a 40-mm. gun. The decision also reflects a shift in the command's approach to purchasing new weapons, indicating a bent toward a rapidly achievable, low-cost program using a joint task force for purchasing.
At one point, Air Force Special Operations Command officials were hoping for a stealthy gunship capable of deploying high-energy weapons. And last year, they were eyeing a C-27J-based gunship, which would have been a smaller cousin to the large C-130 based designs, but that effort was dashed by Congress.
The Quadrennial Defense Review released in February, however, mandates the replacement of eight legacy AC-130H Spectre gunships with eight new AC‑130Js. Another eight will be purchased to grow the fleet, bringing the total new buy to 16. The Air Force will retain the 17 AC-130Us now in operation, so the future gunship fleet will number 33.
Gunships are in very high demand to support ground troops with day/night precision fires in Iraq, Afghanistan and other operations abroad; the increased pace of operations has resulted in high wear and tear on the fleet, prompting the need for additional airframes.
Socom's new approach to a gunship design is part of its attempt to standardize platforms in order to ease procurement, cost of maintenance and logistics, and operations. Today's fleet consists of few numbers of varied platforms.
Officials also hope a modular design will allow for fast addition of new capabilities for precise close air support and upgrades in the future, Socom Deputy Acquisition Director James Geurts tells Aviation Week. "Instead of having a family of airplanes now, think of it as having a family of precision strike capabilities that we can port onto different [Special Operations Forces] platforms,"he says. "I can just pick it up and put it on an [MC-130W], and we are going to put it on the [AC-130]J. So that is a mind-set change from a couple of years ago.”
Socom is in the midst of preparing what it calls the Precision Strike Package, a rapidly reconfigurable collection of sensors, communications and weapons, for fielding soon, Geurts says. A specific date was not provided due to mission security. The package includes electro-optical and infrared targeting systems, the 35-50-lb. Special Operations Precision Guided Munitions (Sopgms) and a side-mounted 30-mm. gun. The Sopgms -- Northrop Grumman's Viper Strike and Raytheon's Griffin weapons -- will be launched through tubes mounted on the MC-130W's ramp. The gun will be bolted to the floor and hang through the side of the fuselage; it will be removable depending on mission requirements.
This configuration differs from the U.S. Marine Corps' palletized, roll-on/roll-off weaponization kit for its KC‑130J refuelers. Testing of this so-called Harvest Hawk system will wrap up this month, and it will deploy to Afghanistan shortly thereafter, according to Maj. J.P. Pellegrino, KC-130 requirements officer for the Marine Corps. The second and third kits are slated for operations in the fall, and nine will be purchased by the service. This kit was developed to provide suppressive fire, while Socom's work is aimed at precision.
Socom's Dragon Spear, the marriage of the MC-130W and the Precision Strike Package, grew out of an urgent requirement passed down by Defense Secretary Robert Gates for the rapid deployment of more armed overwatch assets. The MC-130W Combat Spear is designed to provide covert infiltration and exfiltration of elite forces, and it was selected as the first platform to carry this new precision strike capability.
"It was an existing [Special Operations Forces (SOF)]-modified airplane. We already had crews for it and it had a number of the capabilities needed -- air-to-air refueling and some of the SOF communications -- so it was then just a matter of taking the pieces of this Precision Strike Package and rehosting it on the MC-130W,"Geurts says.
To field the system quickly, Socom quietly established in June its first Joint Acquisition Task Force, a small group of specialized designers and acquisition experts. The group will continue its work until the Dragon Spear is "deployed and stabilized,"Geurts says. Command officials are considering the use of this approach in the future for fast development and fielding of technologies.
Socom hopes to avoid a lengthy and expensive integration project for the forthcoming AC-130J gunships. The Dragon Spear configuration will be the departure point for the new gunship design.
"We expect a large portion of it will port over, and then we just integrate it to the specifics of the [AC-130]J that are different from the MC-130W,"Geurts says. "We can take that same package and pick it up and adapt it and put it onto the C-130J so that way we get speed to battle. We get reduced technical risk, reduced operational risk and reduced planning."
The Precision Strike Package software was developed and is owned by the government, reducing the need to procure expensive data rights from a major contractor. This is also attractive for the AC-130J, Geurts says, to keep the door open for a different suite of weapons. However, he says the Sopgm is likely to be included, though existing H and U models do not employ it.
"The software is modular in the sense that it is not limited to one gun,"says Col. Duke Richardson, Socom program executive officer for fixed-wing aircraft. "It is written in such a way that we can add a second gun pretty easily."Geurts says the Precision Strike Package was designed to be scalable and could be added to other platforms, including rotary wing aircraft, in the future.
Building from this software will limit the opportunities for industry to compete and design programs for the gunship.
Specific requirements for the AC‑130J are not yet firm. Advanced procurement funding of $9.9 million is included in the Fiscal 2011 spending request for the first airframe. Geurts says the first significant funding will come in Fiscal 2012.
Lockheed Martin is continuing work on the first of 37 MC-130Js in Marietta, Ga., that are needed to replace MC-130E/P aircraft from the Vietnam War era.
While the C-27J gunship proposal has been shuttered for now, it could eventually re-emerge. "The U models are 20-some-odd years old themselves and at some point we will look to recap them as well,"Richardson says. "I wouldn't say it is dead necessarily, but for now the decision has been made to go with the 130.”
The smaller twin-engine transport made by Italian manufacturer Alenia Aeronautica was seen as attractive because it could get in and out of smaller airfields, and it was viewed as a lower-profile offensive weapon.