Air Force special operators can load two MQ-1 Predators onto a C-17 and set up a base within four hours of landing, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command says. (Staff Sgt. Suzanne M. Jenkins/Air Force)
Air Force Special Operations Command has taken its rapid-deploy strategy to a new fleet of aircraft: unmanned Predators.
Special operators have recently tested their ability to load two MQ-1 Predators onto a C-17, deploy and set up at an expeditionary base within four hours of landing, said Brig. Gen. Buck Elton, the director of plans, programs, requirements and assessments for Air Force Special Operations Command.
“We are able to rapidly deploy [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] capability to an area that didn’t have the pipes and infrastructure that could support what we wanted to do,” Elton said Monday at the Air Force Association’s Air and Space Conference.
The command has created a “cradle” system to load the Predators onto a C-17, along with a control terminal, maintenance tent and crew.
In a recent deployment, airmen set up a portable hangar in a tent and a wooden taxiway to operate MQ-1s for a six-week period, Elton said. He did not disclose the country that accepted the base, but in February aircrews deployed to Niger to help provide intelligence for a French operation in Mali.
Elton said the command is improving on the process, and looking to be able to forward deploy the larger MQ-9 Reaper in the same way within “a couple years.”
CV-22 upgrades coming
AFSOC also plans to immediately upgrade its CV-22s to keep up with demands on the military’s special operations forces, Elton said.
This year, the service began basing Ospreys at RAF Mildenhall, England, with the movement expected to finalize by 2014. Because the Ospreys had only been based in warmer climes at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and Hurlburt Field, Fla., the service needs to work on ice protection systems for the aircraft.
Also, because the tilt-roter aircraft has flown extensively in warm, dry areas, the command has launched an initiative to address dust-related problems. For example, crews at Cannon recently began spraying landing zones in the training area with a liquid to keep dust down and increase the length of service of the aircraft’s engines.
Elton said the Air Force also is looking at adding weapons systems on the Osprey. Currently, the aircraft has a .50-caliber machine gun on the back ramp, and the command is looking into front-facing weapons.
Last year, the command began modifying its MC-130W Dragon Spear aircraft to become gunships, named the AC-130W Stinger II. Elton said that the upgrade, which has so far provided 14 aircraft that have been deployed to Afghanistan, was needed to replace the aging AC-130H gunship and provide an example for the new AC-130J Ghostrider. Modifications began with crews cutting holes in the plane to make room for weapons, and adding kits and bomb bases for laser-guided munitions, Elton said.
Crews have added a 105-millimeter cannon, 20-inch infrared and electro-optical sensors and the ability to carry 250-pound bombs on the wings. All of this will provide a basis for the new AC-130J replacement, that will begin initial flight testing in December.