Army Aviation

A Future for Army SOF Fixed Wing

Opinion / By MAJ Nathaniel L. Swann: Under the Army Operational Concept (AOC), the Army is tasked, with the rest of the Joint Force, to “Win in a Complex World.” For the Army to “Win,” we are required to provide “multiple options, integrate the efforts of multiple partners, operate across multiple domains, and present our enemies and adversaries with multiple dilemmas.” Currently there is a potentially underutilized element of Army Special Operations Aviation (ARSOA) that is missing out on a revolutionary opportunity to meet all of these requirements to help the Joint Force win…the C-27Js of the United States Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) Flight Company.

A U.S. Army C-27J Spartan from the United States Army Special Operations Command Flight Company (UFC) banks over Fort Bragg, NC. / USASOC PHOTO BY TED CARLSON

One of the core competencies of the Army is Special Operations (SO). The C-27J has already integrated itself into the SOF world by showing it can support the maneuver of ARSOF Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA), and other SO teams, through supporting HALO/HAHO insertion into training target areas in the United States. This is driven by a current notion that the unit is only tasked to support force generation SOF missions and not participate in any warfighting assignments. However, the Army has only begun to tap into the C-27J’s capabilities. I propose that the development of an M-(Modified) C-27J project be pursued, with the construct of the project being “operational support to the Joint SOF Operator.” The future of ARSOF fixed wing support would revolve around a modular capability, an expeditionary support concept, and a “go anywhere, do anything” mission set.

Multiple Options
Within the AOC, the Army is tasked with providing “multiple options.” The MC-27J can do this through a standardized approach to airframe bolt-on equipment, and a modular approach to cabin packages, which could provide a plethora of capabilities and support to the operator and the operational leadership. The addition of multi-spectrum cameras and antenna systems to the aircraft could provide a dedicated, non-standard and/or fully integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform to support operators pre-, during, post-infil actions. After a successful HALO/HAHO infiltration, the MC-27J could remain on station and support ISR overwatch of the team during all phases of the operation and provide management of other manned and unmanned assets in “the stack,” all without the need of additional collection platforms. In addition, with the proper cabin package, a single aircraft could provide near-continuous active SIGINT/IMINT collect to support the Joint SOF operator forward.

With modular cabin packages, the possibilities for “multiple options” are clearly enhanced. The ability to palletize the current Army Aviation Command and Control Suite (A2C2S), or another like platform, integrated with Link-16 technology, in the back of the MC-27J would allow for a mission command node to be projected as far forward as needed to support nearly any contingency operation. Furthermore, the aircraft could be configured with Link-16 or other Joint/Multi-role digital network capability to help “expand the pipe” of network information flowing across distance. Between retransmitting Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) information, full motion video, intelligence collect, providing the commander the ability to get real-time common operational picture (COP) updates, and/or passing command guidance; the MC-27J has the capability to do all of these things from a single-source, tailorable platform.

Additionally, with the proper modular package, the MC-27J could fill a gap between ARSOF CAS aircraft for the Joint SOF operator. The aircraft would have the ability to not only provide an integrated ISR capability, it could also prosecute targets with precision guided munitions, a 30mm palletized cannon (already designed and could be a COTS purchase), and/or be a Call for Fire platform for other team members of the Joint Force through integrated fire coordination measures and synchronized mission planning. This capability would stretch the current agreement between USASOC and AFSOC for roles and responsibilities, and would likely require agreement between both Services to allow for this possible encroachment of weaponized fixed wing aircraft to remain within USASOC. However, with a basic weight of the aircraft around 45,000 lbs., and a payload capability of nearly 20,000 lbs.; this aircraft could support a much broader mission set than it does presently.

Across Multiple Domains
Within the AOC, the Army is tasked to “operate across multiple domains.” The MC-27J can do this. With the shift to the Pacific, I believe it to be possible to attach the proper floats or skis to the airframe and allow this MC-27J to fly and land in support of either maritime or arctic operations. The ability for the aircraft to take-off and land from short fields is inherent within its design; installing multi-configurable pylon/mounts to the belly and wings of the aircraft would enable it to support landing, delivering, or recovering SOF operators and their equipment in any environment (high, hot, or cold) on the globe (land or sea), carrying forces into theater as required and through the “last tactical mile.”

Additionally, the MC-27J would be capable of supporting other aircraft reach their target, +/- 30 seconds. The MC-27J is a helicopter air-to-air-refueling (HAAR) capable aircraft that only requires the installation of palletized systems to assist in these mission sets. The HAAR capabilities would require installation of the same refuel systems found on MC-130s; however, the integration should not be complicated and provide a dedicated ARSOF HAAR capability. Moreover, with the same aerial refueling modification to the MC-27Js as the MC-/AC-130s one could have a committed refueling aircraft that could partner with any Joint SOF asset and provide aerial, ground, or maritime refuel capability.

One of the many things the MC-27J does for the Joint SOF operator is provide a rapidly deployable strategic lift capability. With an aircraft that can cruise at 315 knots, ferry distance near 3,200 nautical miles without refuel, and a tactical deployment near 1,200 nautical miles, the capability to force project to a standard forward support base (FSB) in central Europe from their current location would be within a normal duty day. Additionally, (pending configuration and Joint Force support) crews and aircraft could meet short-notice alert requirements and project further away from CONUS in support of worldwide contingency operations, potentially as fast as the U.S. Air Force could respond.

The capabilities the MC-27J could bring to the table are vast. All it takes is the right effort, backing, support, and emphasis to ensure this project gets off the ground. The history of SOF fixed wing support is a long one, and one that has its roots in dedicated support to SOF around the world, in the worst conditions, and achieving excellence while making it look easy. The original special warfare aviation detachments inside Special Forces Groups had dedicated fixed wing aircraft to infiltrate, exfiltrate, and provide much needed logistical support to forward deployed Operational Detachment-Alpha (ODA) teams far from friendly support, yet outside the reach of rotary wing assistance. I propose to have the MC-27J take on that same dedicated role again in order to enable the elite forces of the United States to operate with greater range and capability to fight and win our nation’s wars.

MAJ Nathaniel Swann is a student at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, KS. He has 11 years of aviation experience including Army Special Operations Aviation, Joint Special Operations Forces Aviation, and conventional rotary wing and fixed wing assignments.