TAMPA, Fla. — More options and less strain on humans are key to modernizing fixed-wing systems for U.S. Special Operations Command, according to the program executive officer in charge of the effort.
Those themes extend to both piloted and uncrewed airframes, such as MC-130J Commando II and AC-130J Ghostrider aircraft as well as MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones, Air Force Col. Ken Kuebler told an audience Tuesday at the SOF Week conference in Florida.
Additionally, Kuebler noted, secure data transfer and communications are critical in these platforms. “Cybersecurity has to be burnt in from the beginning, and it goes across everything we’re doing,” he said.
In terms of drones, Kuebler said he’s focused on reducing the need for human support. Despite the “unmanned” aspect of drone technology, it is a “manpower-intensive platform,” he explained. For example, a single MQ-9 requires up to 200 personnel when accounting for all support from maintenance to flying.
Finding technology to help with that is paramount, he said.
And given the gunships that have served the special operations community for decades are still in demand, they’ve got their own challenges. Special Operations Command saw the last AC-130W retire in 2022, and the organization is nearly done upgrading older AC-130Js across the 30 currently in the fleet, he said.
The next steps include making the “gunship the premier platform for U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command,” Kuebler said, which requires finding ways to make the aircraft runway-independent and amphibious.
“It’s a really hard engineering problem,” he added.
The command is currently studying the impact of operating at sea on maintenance and support equipment, including the effect of water on airframes and how to incorporate floating support for aircraft.
Kuebler anticipates a float capability demonstration will take place within the next two to three years.
And like the drone family, the colonel wants more remote gunship autonomy in the platform, meaning automated systems to take care of extraneous tasks and watch the skies so crew members can focus on more essential mission requirements.
Kuebler’s office awarded a contract for the Armed Overwatch program in August 2022, Defense News previously reported, with the organization selecting L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor as the winners for the plane portion, once called the AT-802U Sky Warden but later renamed the OA-1K.
That contract could produce as many as 75 Sky Warden single-engine turboprop planes in a deal worth up to $3 billion. The program adds a strike capability and gives the plane intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets as it replaces the legacy U-28A Draco and MC-12W Liberty aircraft, Defense News reported.
For the strike portion, the command saw BAE Systems’ Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System undergo testing.
The OA-1K’s armament will include 2.75-inch laser-guided rockets as part of the precision kill weapon system, AGM-114 missiles and the GBU-12 Paveway bomb, according to slides Kuebler showed.
The turboprop plane’s ISR assets will include full-motion video and Link 16 communications, among other features.
The key is for the plane to have a modular design; Kuebler wants to have the ability to swap out new tech in the same size package for a variety of missions, from close air support to sensing and electronic warfare.
Right now, Special Operations Command has 16 on contract and expects delivery of the first planes in October, he said. (Those won’t enter the field at that point, but rather begin initial operational capability testing.)
That combination compresses those features into a smaller aircraft that can fly low and support small teams in more austere and remote locations such as Africa, which lacks the robust logistical footprint on which special operators depended during recent wars in U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility.
Looking over the modernization horizon, Special Operations Command has teamed with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on the X-Plane program, which aims to give fixed-wing platforms a vertical-takeoff-and-landing capability and the ability to exceed 400 knots (460 mph).
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.