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Aug. 18, 2008—In what appears to be a significant departure from previously announced intentions, Air Force Special Operations Command now eyes the AC-27J, a weaponized version of the C-27J transport, as its next gunship. (See Daily Report: “Stinger” Will Fill Critical Need)

Opting for this path resulted from the recently completed analysis of alternatives, according to the command’s requirements chief, Brig. Gen. Brad Heithold. During an interview on Aug. 11, Heithold said AFSOC now sees the AC-27J as the solution to fulfill the requirements that the command had defined under the notional AC-XX concept that it envisioned as a replacement for the aging and extensively used AC-130s.

“The analysis of alternatives has pointed us to the C-27 as the most appropriate aircraft to use for this,” he said.

AFSOC currently has 17 AC-130U Spooky and eight AC-130H Spectre gunships in service.

In prior years, AFSOC officials said the command was interested in a future gunship capability—potentially a system of unmanned and manned platforms—that would represent a radical improvement over the AC-130s. For example, then-AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Michael Wooley, told reporters in Washington, D.C., in May 2007 that he wanted to make a “technological leap” from the AC-130s to the new gunships.

Indeed, at the time, Wooley said AFSOC was working with Air Combat Command to identify synergies between the future gunship and ACC’s next-generation bomber that is anticipated to be in service around 2018. Therefore, Wooley said he was not inclined at that time to pursue nearer term options such as procuring a modified variant of the C-130J to serve as the next gunship. (Already AFSOC is procuring specialized C-130Js to replace its aging fleet of MC-130 Combat Talon covert infiltration/exfiltration platforms.)

We don’t have insights into the 2018 bomber program, which has been pursued to date under black-world budgets and classified activities kept out of the public eye. Perhaps there are promising solutions in it applicable to a more revolutionary gunship capability down the road. AFSOC isn’t saying.

For now, Heithold said acquiring the AC-27J, which AFSOC is dubbing the “Stinger” as a homage to the Vietnam-era AC-119K gunship, is seen as the path ahead. And, as a result of the AOA, the Air Force has programmed funds in its Fiscal 2010 program objective memorandum to obtain C-27 airframes to weaponize them to the gunship configuration.

The AC-27J will be a multi-mission platform, equipped with full-motion video cameras and capable of covert infil/exfil as well as armed support from above, Heithold said. The urgency of the AC-27J program is a direct result of the large number of AC-130s in AFSOC’s fleet that need new centerline wing boxes because they have been flown at four times the anticipated utilization rate, he said.

They also need new avionics because current components are becoming unsupportable.

Heithold said about five aircraft at a time could be grounded getting the new wing boxes installed and/or the new avionics. The Air Force has earmarked funding in its Fiscal 2010 POM to start the process of upgrading the avionics on the AC-130s as part of the broader C-130 avionics modernization program. (The service returned the gunships to the AMP program after taking them out in 2007 due to service-wide funding shortages and a reprioritization.)

“When you take that collective action, you’re going to have a lot of airplanes sitting somewhere getting those mods done,” Heithold said. Accordingly, “that’s why we need a replacement gunship sooner rather than later.”

The Office of the Secretary of Defense has recognized the urgent need. While the program of record as built into the Fiscal 2010 POM calls for nine aircraft, with the first to be purchased in FY 2011, and two each year between Fiscal 2012 and Fiscal 2015, OSD seeks to expand the program to 16 and accelerate their delivery, he said.

Heithold also noted that the “gunship light” concept that has been circulating in Air Force circles is, like AC-XX, now considered to be synonymous with the AC-27J.


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