Special Operations: The SOCOM Air Force Rebuilds

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January 23, 2014:   For the last five years U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has been devoting the largest chunk of its procurement budget to aircraft and most of that is going for one type of aircraft; the C-130J. SOCOM plans to buy about a hundred C-130Js and use them as commando transports (MC-130J) or gunships (AC-130J). In addition several hundred million dollars is being spent on sensors and weapons that can be quickly installed in MC-130Js to turn them into temporary gunships.

All this spending on aircraft is because the SOCOM air force has been worked hard since September 11, 2001 and has been constantly short of aircraft and qualified pilots. Back in 2009 SOCOM looked at their air force (some 300 MC-130s MH-53s AC-130s MH-6s MH-60s CV-22s and a few other types) and drew up a plan to shrink and update this overworked and aging collection of transports and helicopters. Having fewer, but more capable aircraft was seen as the only way out of the chronic shortages of aircraft and pilots. But the there was also the problem of aircraft worn out from heavy use and combat losses. So in addition to replacing the elderly C-130s SOCOM also sought to take the 31 MH-47Ds and Es (which have additional navigation gear) and upgraded them to MH-47F standards while the fleet was expanded to 61 helicopters. Most other SOCOM aircraft were also to be upgraded or refurbished.

Meanwhile the expansion and refurbishment program could not keep up with the demand in Afghanistan. Worse, there was never been enough logistics support to service all the jobs SOCOM is called on to do. In response, SOCOM improvised as much as they could. They borrowed aircraft and logistics support from other units. SOCOM is a high priority outfit, and can often get some of what they need. When SOCOM is providing specialized support for the combat units they borrow resources from they don't have a problem.

However when it's a pure SOCOM mission the army and air force are not as eager to part with scarce resources. What it means is that troops are operating at less than peak efficiency because they don't have all the tools they need to get the job done. Missions get cancelled, and opportunities are lost. SOCOM is a flexible outfit, and adaptations are often made. More commando operations were carried out using ground transportation. More troops, and equipment, were parachuted in. SOCOM is even obtained UAVs that can carry supplies. SOCOM is all about innovation, and a helicopter shortage is just seen as another opportunity to be creative. But there was always an ultimate solution for a lot of the air transportation and it was the new C-130J.

Back in 2011 SOCOM began receiving its first MC-130J. This was part of a larger U.S. Air Force effort to replace 200 worn out C-130Es. The C-130J transport proved to be more than just another model in the fifty year old C-130 design. This is mainly because it's cheaper and easier to use. Like most new commercial transports, the C-130J emphasizes saving money. The new engines generate 29 percent more thrust while using 15 percent less fuel. Increased automation reduced crew size from four to three. The rear ramp door can now be opened in flight when the aircraft is going as fast as 450 kilometers an hour, versus the current 270 kilometers an hour.

The SOCOM MC-130s are all-weather aircraft used for everything from moving SOCOM personnel and equipment around the combat zone, to parachuting supplies, refueling helicopters in the air, dropping bombs and propaganda leaflets, or loading a pallet or two of electronic gear for special reconnaissance or psychological warfare missions. MC-130s are particularly useful because they have terrain following radar that enables them to fly at low altitude, especially at night or during bad weather. MC-130s have several additional navigation and communication systems, which allow them to fly in all weather, especially low enough to avoid radar detection.

The C-130J is more reliable and easier to maintain. So far, C-130Js have cost nearly twenty percent less per hour than previous models. The most common version of the C-130 still in service is the C-130H. It has a range of 8,368 kilometers, a top speed of 601 kilometers per hour, and can carry up to 18 tons of cargo, 92 troops, or 64 paratroopers. The latest version, the C-130J, has a top speed of 644 kilometers, 40 percent more range than the C-130H, and can carry 20 tons of cargo. The stretched C-130J-30 can carry more bulky cargo, and goes for about $100 million each. The C-130J has a top speed of 644 kilometers, 40 percent more range than the C130H. The C-130 has been in service for over half a century, and has been flying for over 50 countries.

Meanwhile SOCOM is also working trying to expand the special pilots it needs for all these special aircraft. For example the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (which contains most of the special helicopters SOCOM uses) has only 75 percent of the pilots it is supposed to have. SOCOM is struggling to fix that.

Pilots who can meet SOCOM standards are hard to find. So the 160th is seeking to recruit another 300 helicopter pilots from among existing army pilots (the main source of SOCOM helicopter pilots). This has proved difficult because there has been a chronic shortage of army helicopter pilots since September 11, 2001. Helicopters, especially SOCOMs, have been in high demand in Iraq and Afghanistan. With operations in Iraq over and Afghanistan winding down there are more opportunities for SOCOM recruiters.

The 160th hopes to get its 300 additional pilots by 2016 and be at 90 percent of authorized strength. Applicants must pass a week of screening tests, then six months of learning how to fly SOCOM type operations. SOCOM is offering cash bonuses and other incentives to attract pilots to the 160th, and keep the ones it has.  This is essential if SOCOM is to keep up its high tempo of operations. But that “high tempo” is what burns out a lot of SOCOM pilots, and it is worse when there is a shortage of pilots.

When there are not enough SOCOM helicopters available, army helicopters can be used, but these lack the additional navigation and communications gear of SOCOM choppers and the army pilots are not as experienced or as well trained as their SOCOM counterparts. This limits what SOCOM troops can do. Future success depends on getting the needed SOCOM pilots and new aircraft.

 

 


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