US Special Operations Command wants to transform its biggest planes to gain an advantage against China

An AC-130J Ghostrider gunship. Air Force/Courtesy Photo
The US Special Operations Command has shifted its focus to competition with a peer power.

It wants to make sure it can use all of its platforms against sophisticated enemies in order to do so.

SOCOM is currently upgrading its largest planes in order to better support field operators.

The decisive advantage that the US had over other nations was air superiority during the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Special operators and conventional troops knew that they could almost always call for airstrikes or close-air support against an enemy force. However, this capability may not be possible if there is a conflict between China and Russia.

The AC-130 gunship and MC-130 transportation aircraft - two of the most loved and capable aircraft in US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), will be in danger. They won't be able to perform their missions in contested airspace due to the dense Chinese and Russian air defenses.

SOCOM is now looking for ways to make use of these venerable aircraft. The US commandos might be able keep the aircraft in combat by equipping AC-130s with cruise missiles, and making the MC-130 a float-plane.

An even deadlier aircraft

An AC-130U gunship's crew loaded a 105mm howitzer front and a 40mm Bofors cannon rear during an exercise on September 22, 2003. US Air Force/Staff Sergeant. Greg Davis

The different AC-130 variants have supported conventional and special-operations troops for over 60 years. They have seen action in every major conflict since the Vietnam War.

The AC-130J Ghostrider is the most recent iteration. It's a deadly machine that boasts a range of cannons of 30 mm, 105 mm, Hellfire, Griffin missiles and smart munitions.

The AC-130 makes a great platform for close-air-support. It is able to stay above targets for long periods of time and can fire off incredible amounts of firepower. Its inability to stay stationary for extended periods of time is one of its main disadvantages. The aircraft is slow and susceptible to anti-aircraft fire.

The AC-130 operated almost exclusively at night in order to maximize its strengths and mitigate its weaknesses.

SOCOM is now working on a "Stand-Off Precision Guided Warfare" to allow the AC-130 to fire at long distances and strike targets without being in danger.

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An AC-130 fires its Rotary cannon on a March 1, 1988, flight near Hurlburt Field, Florida. Tech. US Air Force. Sgt. Lee Schading

A recent solicitation stated that the command is seeking a cruise missile with a range between 230 and 460 miles, with a warhead of at minimum 13 pounds but possibly up to 37 pounds.

Cruise missiles, subsonic weapons that fly at low altitudes make them difficult to detect. However, SOCOM wants electronic systems to enable it to acquire or reacquire targets once it has been fired.

Air Force Special Operations Command (which is part of SOCOM) is skeptical about the weapon.

"No matter what threat, air-to-air, or air-to-ground," having a precision-guided missile cruise missile just enhances performance and capability of the AC-130, but I don’t believe that equipping a stand-off precision-guided glide will make it more relevant, given the limitations and capabilities of the aircraft," B.A., a former AC-130 gunner told Insider.

"Other aircraft platforms might be a better option for this type of weapon system. The AC-130 was designed to fly in the air, counterclockwise around a circle, engage any good guys, and sit in the skies. While precision missiles are a good idea, we don't want to 'Call of Duty" our AC-130's. B.A. B.A.

Special-operations floatplane

An MC-130P Combat Shadow is top, an MC-130J Commando II is center, and an MC-130H Combat Talon II is off Okinawa's coast, January 26, 2015. US Air Force/Senior Airman Maeson Ilman

In an age of great-power competition, gunships are not the only ones trying to remain relevant. SOCOM is also in the process of modifying the MC-130J Commando II transport aircraft to increase its utility to meet the challenges of a near-peer conflict.

AFSOC has 60 MC-130s. The aircraft is the backbone for AFSOC's fixed-wing fleet.

The MC-130J Commando II is the most recent version. It can infiltrate, exfiltrate, transport and resupply special-operations units in semi-or non-permissive settings. It can also carry out air-to-air refuelling of special-operations helicopters.

MC-130s are capable of landing almost anywhere on the planet, including beaches, deserts and highways. However, they can't land on the water. This could change in 2023.

AFSOC works with the Air Force Research Lab's Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation to develop an amphibious capability that will allow the aircraft to land on water.

A removable amphibious float modification is being developed by the program to enable the MC-130J, if necessary, to land on water and take off.

An illustration of a twin-float amphibious mod to an MC-130J Commando II. US Air Force Special Operations Command

The amphibious aircraft is shown in digital renderings that show two skids under its fuselage. SOCOM has a schedule for rapid prototyping that will enable it to demonstrate operational capability in just 17 months.

Insider was told by a former MC-130 pilot that this is "really great news" and also makes sense. China is our biggest enemy now and in the future. We need an amphibious option if we as a community want to conduct successful expeditionary operations in that region of the globe.

The MC-130J Commando II Amphibious Caability, as it is called, "is vital for future success because it allows for the dispersal assets within a Joint Operations Area," Maj. Kristen Cepak (AFSOC technology transition branch chief) stated in a press release. He added that dispersing amphibious MC-130s will make it harder for an enemy target them.

Air Force has been developing a variety of concepts that will make it more difficult for its aircraft to be targeted.

For example, F-35 fighter-jets could operate in small numbers, from small islands in the Pacific. This would increase their survivability as well as expand their operational potential in an area like the Pacific, where China's military is increasing its reach.

The military will be able to adapt to the challenges of great-power competition with new capabilities, but this new era also requires a change in mindset. While the US military is used to operating without any restrictions and with few casualties over time, a conflict with a close-peer threat will require greater risk and more sacrifice.

Stavros Atlamazoglou, a defense journalist who specializes in special operations, is a Hellenic Army veteran (national duty with the 575th marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a Johns Hopkins University grad.

Business Insider has the original article.