Socom Refines AC-130J Gunship Plans
U.S. Special Operations Command (Socom) is planning to base its future AC-130J gunship on the modular â€œPrecision Strike Packageâ€ that it is quietly and quickly fielding on the MC-130W.
This is a major departure from todayâ€™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 commandâ€™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.
Socomâ€™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. Todayâ€™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. â€œInstead 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,â€ he says. â€œI 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.â€
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 Sopgmsâ€”Northrop Grummanâ€™s Viper Strike and Raytheonâ€™s Griffin weaponsâ€”will be launched through tubes mounted on the MC-130Wâ€™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 Corpsâ€™ 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 Socomâ€™s work is aimed at precision.
Socomâ€™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.