The Advanced Special Operations Air Mobility Platform (M-X): The Time Is Now

By Saier, William E. | Air & Space Power Journal, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The Advanced Special Operations Air Mobility Platform (M-X): The Time Is Now


Saier, William E., Air & Space Power Journal


NOW IN ITS fifth decade of operational use, Air Force Special Operations Command's (AFSOC) MC-130E Combat Talon I aircraft still answers the call to provide clandestine infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply missions. This remarkable warbird and its younger sibling, the MC-13OH Combat Talon II (which is only in its second decade of use), continue to prove themselves in combat in both Afghanistan and Iraq. However, with each passing year the time when these two aircraft will no longer be able to clandestinely penetrate and survive hostile airspace draws closer and closer. The most recent publication of AFSOC's Way Ahead predicts future threats that will bring about this development and their significance:

Threats to Aircraft. The next 25 years will see the proliferation of infrared (IR), radarguided, and directed energy (DE) threats that will render many existing aircraft obsolete by the end of this period. Between DE and radar-guided threats current AFSOF [Air Force special operations forces] aircraft will have survivability challenges in the years 2016 and beyond. This evolving threat has the potential to significantly challenge the capability for Special Operations Forces (SOF) to achieve tactical surprise through clandestine air mobility due to the increasing technological capability of passive aircraft detection at further distances.

Infrared. IR man-portable surface-to-air missiles, already a significant hazard to AFSOC aircraft, will be an increasingly dangerous threat as more capable missile systems with advanced counter-countermeasures proliferate. Furthermore, the traditional AFSOC tactic of avoiding MANPADS [man-portable air defense system] by operating mostly at night will become less effective as our enemies acquire more night vision devices.

Radar Guided. Emerging as a serious threat to AFSOF aircraft, the technology in radarguided missiles is rapidly improving. Systems like the SA-10, SA-11, SA-12, and SA-20 (formerly SA-10C) are formidable systems capable of engaging targets at long ranges and at low altitudes. Recent articles in military journals describe the next generation of Russian-designed missile systems having ranges of over 240 nautical miles, altitude capability down to 1-meter above the ground level at those distances, and the capability of outmaneuvering most aircraft. Many of today's missiles and most future radar missiles will incorporate various types of anti-jamming technologies, which make them difficult to defeat.

Directed Energy. High-energy lasers will transform the battlefield in the far term. Lasers capable of shooting down aircraft have already been fielded by some nations. As a result, by the 2020 time frame, detection may become synonymous with instant aircraft destruction in some parts of the world. Proliferation of laser technology is expected to become worldwide in the next 30 years.1

Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere

Our enemies are elusive, but we will find them-They are swift, but we will catch them-Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere!

-Gen Paul Hester, USAF

Former AFSOC Commander

For General Hester's words to remain true-for AFSOC in the future to be able to truly go "anytime, anyplace, anywhere" at our choosing-AFSOC and the Air Force need to begin a serious effort to replace the aging Combat Talon I and II aircraft with a "next generation" of low-observable (LO) aircraft. An advanced LO aircraft with enhanced agility in the objective area is a "must have" to counter a future adversary's antiaccess and area-denial strategies.

The Past

The raison d'être of AFSOC's Combat Talon aircraft has been the clandestine penetration of enemy territory, most often for the purpose of achieving "tactical surprise" by United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) ground and maritime forces. Military forces, for thousands of years, have known the importance of achieving tactical surprise over the enemy. As an example of how far back military commanders have used the concept of achieving "tactical surprise," consider the following:

Thutmose III (1504-1450 B. …

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