Friday, June 18, 2010
SOCOM seeking stealth transport
Despite U.S. Special Operations Command's push to replace its decades-old aircraft fleet with new versions of old designs, clandestine operations likely will require a new airframe to perform covert infiltrations in the face of 21st century air defenses.
To this end, top special operations officials are starting to flesh out what such a craft will look like. While the current fleet of special ops airframes is derived from venerable troop transport planes and helicopters designed in the mid- to late 20th century, such as the C-130 Hercules and CH-47 Chinook, a custom-designed aircraft built for delivering troops on clandestine missions may become necessary, said Michael Vickers, U.S. assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said earlier this year.
The reason, he said, is the rise in advanced air defense systems being developed and sold by Russia and China to nations throughout the world. These systems are capable of defeating all but the latest in stealth technology.
The Pentagon's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) emphasized expanding the number of special operations ground troops, and the 2010 QDR called for a corresponding buildup in special ops airlifters. However, the 2006 document only focused on replacing the decades-old MC-130E and P fleet of airlifters with the new J-model MC-130 to fly under enemy radar and deliver special operations troops to clandestine location.
While these planes feature terrain-following radar and advanced countermeasures, they have a fundamentally unstealthy design dating to the 1950s. The Pentagon will likely look "pretty hard" at this issue in the 2014 QDR, according to Vickers, who acknowledged that such an aircraft would be expensive.
One expert, however, said the command will have a difficult time securing the massive funding needed to develop a special ops-specific stealth airlifter.
SOCOM "is purchasing smaller aircraft to fly low and stealthy, and unless they get a whole lot of development cash for an all-new airplane, that's probably the way to go," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with Teal Group, Fairfax, Va. "In terms of actually buying some super-secret, penetrating, stealth transport, that's where the budget just runs out."
The command historically has relied on existing technology, both military and civilian, and investing in high-tech modifications to customize it for demanding missions, rather than pouring millions or billions of dollars into developing special ops-specific aircraft.
SOCOM has "never been able to fund their own SOCOM-specific airplane," Aboulafia said. "The idea of starting with something that would be extremely expensive to develop, that's unlikely."
Aboulafia pointed out that in the past few years, Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), the U.S. Air Force's contribution to SOCOM, has begun investing heavily in small single- and twin-engine planes, sometimes painted in civilian livery such as the Pilatus PC-12. These aircraft are being purchased to deliver special operations troops around the world without drawing the attention that the four-engine C-130 would garner.
In many cases, these aircraft, some of which are based on old Soviet designs such as the Polish-built M28 Skytruck, can be parked on foreign airport ramps without giving away the U.S. presence, according to AFSOC officials. The command has even contemplated buying twin-engine deHavilland Canada Dash-8 turboprops to haul troops around the world.
The Dash-8 style aircraft could be used to transport special ops troops and gear to a main staging area in far-off regions, while the smaller planes could fly the troops on missions into primitive airstrips or through sensitive airspace under what AFSOC officials have described as a hub-and-spoke system.
Using such small aircraft while developing more advanced tactics to evade radars will likely be the key to overcoming enemy defenses while slipping special operations troops into unfriendly countries.
"In the littoral area, that's why we have SEAL delivery systems; inland, well, you'll just have to find ways to fly below the radar or between gaps in coverage," the analyst said.
One possible alternative would be for the command to partner with the Air Force to develop a new generation of stealthy transport aircraft, similar to the way it did with the V-22 Osprey, used by the U.S. Marine Corps and AFSOC, Aboulafia suggested.
Still, "I'm not so sure why the Air Force would pay for that," he added. ■
Posted by Steve Douglass at 5:32 AM