May 1, 2012  

The case for a stealthy airlifter

Current aircraft can’t handle the toughest SOF missions

As the Defense Department anticipates the changing face of warfare over the next several decades, the special operations community must ask itself what single event could surface that would require special operations forces (SOF) to conduct a no-fail mission — a mission so critical that failure would change our nation or damage our reputation as a superpower.

Could U.S. forces stop a nuclear-armed adversary bent on our destruction, interdict a rogue terrorist organization attempting to employ chemical weapons against a major U.S. city, or capture the next Osama bin Laden before a catastrophic attack? These are the questions our nation often looks to SOF to answer, and it is these worst-case scenarios SOF must be prepared and equipped to face.

That begs another question: Not whether or when these circumstances will arise, but rather, will SOF be able to execute such high-risk missions on extremely short timelines in increasingly hostile or denied airspace?

Complicated threats and political conditions yield a variety of demanding environments where SOF might have to execute long-range interdiction missions. Potential conflicts are foreseen by the 2011 National Military Strategy, which suggests that while the U.S. remains the world’s pre-eminent power, we are challenged by the influence of rogue states, nonstate actors and rising powers in Asia and the Middle East.

The subsequent 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance listed six types of missions as vital to our national interests: deterring and defeating aggression by adversaries, including those seeking to deny our power projection; operating in cyberspace, space and across all domains; maintaining a safe and effective nuclear deterrent; protecting the homeland; defeating al-Qaida and its affiliates and succeeding in current conflicts; and countering weapons of mass destruction. SOF supports all six missions, and has a principal role in the latter two.

Our national counterterrorism efforts have eliminated much of the senior al-Qaida leadership, but the organization and its affiliates remain active in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia, while broader violent extremists continue to operate in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, according to the Defense Strategic Guidance. Though special operations missions in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade took place in tactically hostile but strategically available airspace, future counterterrorism missions will likely occur in denied airspace. The evolving nature of counterterrorism operations was illustrated by the recent Osama bin Laden raid, which took a SOF team through the airspace of a country with active air defenses.

The most sensitive SOF activities occur when the counter-weapons of mass destruction and counterterrorism missions are linked. Though U.S. policy-makers take diplomatic steps to lessen the strategic threat by state actors, rogue states such as Iran and North Korea continue to pursue paths of international isolation, leaving them less subject to the monitoring processes available through international engagement. Unaccountable programs risk transfer of critical technology or weapons to bad actors, which might require interdiction by the U.S. or our allies. Typically, long-range interdiction targets exist deep within enemy territory, often protected by sophisticated air defenses.


Our success will hinge on our ability to penetrate and operate within denied airspace, but all indications are that it will become harder to do so.

“Prudence demands that the Department prepare for possible future adversaries likely to possess and employ some degree of anti-access capability — the ability to blunt or deny U.S. power projection — across all domains,” said the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review. “Given the proliferation of sophisticated weapons and technology, smaller states and some non-state actors may be able to acquire and employ longer-range and more precise weapons. Future adversaries will likely possess sophisticated capabilities designed to contest or deny command of the air, sea, space, and cyberspace domains.”

Two recent Air Force Title 10 war games explored this future battlefield in more detail. In both, SOF was called upon to penetrate enemy air defense systems, conduct critical mobility and ISR missions beyond the capabilities of general-purpose forces, and recover upon completion of those missions. The final report from both war games suggested that current SOF mobility forces would be challenged to meet these requirements.

SOF aviators have long achieved tactical surprise in high-risk missions through the “magic” of innovative techniques, tactics, and procedures and capabilities unique to Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). Aircrews use detailed intelligence to conduct meticulous mission analyses and route planning, using every detail to their advantage. In the air, they fly low to avoid threats and use terrain to hide their radar and acoustic signatures. But these techniques will not prevent detection by the integrated air defense systems of the future.

That’s because the aircraft currently used to transport SOF personnel — highly modified Air Force MC-130 aircraft, CV-22 tilt-rotors and Army MH-60 and MH-47 helicopters — will be unable to handle these toughest of missions.

Flights into low- and medium-threat environments will still be possible, thanks in part to the new MC-130Js, a new incarnation of one of the most remarkable and versatile aircraft in Air Force history. Yet the venerable Hercules simply cannot penetrate and operate in high-threat environments. The day we ask our special operators to use the MC-130 to execute our nation’s most strategically important missions in such an environment is the day we incur the greatest risk of failure.

Even though the CV-22 Osprey — twice as fast as a helicopter and nearly as fast as an MC-130 — has transformed the SOF approach to many missions, the tilt-rotor was designed for more permissive environments.

“CV-22s cannot insert small teams deep into territory where integrated air defenses exist,” then-AFSOC Commander Lt. Gen. Donny Wurster said at the Air Force Association symposium last year.

Retired Col. William Saier summed up the problem in a 2005 article in Air & Space Power Journal: “While AFSOC continues to modify its Combat Talon [MC-130] aircraft with enhancement to increase mission effectiveness and survivability; it just won’t be able to make the radar detectability of such a huge aircraft with a large radar cross section any better. Couple that with the fact that aircraft and aircrew can’t fly any lower or any faster, night can’t become any darker, adverse weather isn’t something one can conjure up when needed; there are areas in the world where AFSOC may need to go where there is no terrain to hide in; and one quickly comes to the conclusion that AFSOC needs a new LO [low observable] aircraft to remain relevant in the future.”

For the past several years, AFSOC has studied airlift platforms with stealth characteristics as alternatives for the next-generation mobility aircraft. To ensure maximum flexibility and agility, it should be able to take off vertically or within an ultra-short distance, then cruise at least as fast as a C-130. In an era of fewer overseas bases and increased anti-access/area denial strategies, it should have long range. Yet its principal performance parameter will remain operational relevance in the anti-access environment. This aircraft will have to defeat sophisticated air defense systems with low observable or stealth technology and carry advanced defensive systems and electronic countermeasures for survivability.

It is a tough order. As Wurster said, “There are inherent challenges to moving fast, landing, and taking off with low visibility.”

Currently, the prevailing thought is to modify a future airlifter, such as the Joint Future Theater Lift concept. Other options include a personnel-carrying variation of the Long Range Strike Bomber concept. Either might be able to meet SOF requirements after substantial modifications.

But as Defense Under Secretary for Intelligence Michael Vickers told Defense News in 2010: “Today’s special forces airlifters are generally upgraded versions of military airlifters, but the idea of taking a transport aircraft that moves GPFs [general-purpose forces] around and then modifying them may be coming to an end. We can no longer think that we can take a C-130 aircraft and make it stealthy.”

Ultimately, AFSOC may simply need a new aircraft designed especially for its purposes.


The security threat to the U.S. from peer competitors, rogue nations and nonstate actors will only increase, and the challenge of the no-fail mission will not recede. The projections and requirements of the National Military Strategy, Defense Strategic Guidance and QDR all suggest that U.S. defense planners must seek new SOF mobility capabilities to penetrate future enemy anti-access environments — the new magic SOF needs to execute our nation’s most critical operations.

Moreover, a platform that could clandestinely reach strategic targets beyond the capability of the MC-130J and the CV-22 could reduce or eliminate the need to roll back enemy integrated air defense systems with conventional forces. A successful penetration by SOF offers U.S. response options that might prevent escalation into major combat.

The tough fiscal environment notwithstanding, we must address this issue of strategic national importance in the 2014 QDR. To delay could place our nation’s security in peril.

Col. Lewis E. Jordan Jr. is the deputy director for plans, programs, requirements and assessments at Headquarters, Air Force Special Operations Command. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Air Force or Department of Defense.