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The US Wants to Upgrade Its Biggest Planes With Cruise Missiles

To keep up with China and Russia.

The US Wants to Upgrade Its Biggest Planes With Cruise Missiles
An AC-130U Gunship jettisoning flares. Senior Airman Julianne Showalter / US Air Force / Wikimedia 

The future of warfare builds on previous successes.

And throughout conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, the U.S. military possessed an unrivaled advantage in air superiority. But all things change, and to face the possibility of conflict with new and advanced weapons and aircraft from Russia or China, the Special Operations Command (SOCOM) wants to upgrade some of its largest aircraft with cruise missiles, according to a recent solicitation shared on a government website.

Specifically, SOCOM's plans call for equipping AC-130s with cruise missiles, in addition to transforming the MC-130 into a "float plane", strengthening the architecture of U.S. military assets.

SOCOM wants a 'Stand-Off Precision Guided Weapon'

This will be crucial for conventional troops and special operators on the ground, who have often relied on the ability to call in airstrikes and other forms of close air support against enemy forces. Especially in light of the rapid advancement in weapons and aircraft technology seen in Russia and China, the relations between whom and the United States have of late become increasingly tense. But in a real battle or contested airspace, the MC-130 transport and AC-130 gunship, which are two of the most capable assets in the SOCOM arsenal, could find themselves outclassed and outgunned by China and Russia's air defenses.

This is why SOCOM wants to upgrade both aircraft. Beyond contemporary geopolitics, this is significant because the AC-130 aircraft have provided critical backup to conventional and special operations troops who've seen deployments in major and minor conflicts since the Vietnam War. The latest version of the gunship, called the AC-130J Ghostrider, is a dangerous machine that carries 105 mm and 30 mm cannons, Griffin and Hellfire missiles, and even smart munitions, according to a report from Insider. The AC-130 is an optimal close-range air-support platform, since it can remain above targets for a long time, and continue to pummel targets with heavy firepower.

However, this capacity to stay in close proximity to a target over long periods is also one of the aircraft's most significant vulnerabilities, since it's comparably slow, and thus a relatively easy target for anti-aircraft fire. In the past, the AC-130 has flown operations almost exclusively in the darkness of night, to lower its risks. But now, SOCOM has ambitions for a "Stand-Off Precision Guided Weapon" that will enable the AC-130 to fire from uncommonly long distances, which will put targets in striking distance without endangering the aircraft itself. The solicitation documents SOCOM's desire for a cruise missile with a range of at least 230 miles and a maximum of 460 miles, carrying a warhead that weighs at least 13 lbs, 37 lbs at most.

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Equipping AC-130s with cruise missiles could prove superfluous

Unlike the hypersonic missiles that major powers are developing like a second arms race, cruise missiles are a kind of munitions that move at subsonic speeds and fly at low altitudes, increasing the difficulty of detection for enemy forces. But SOCOM also wants the cruise missiles to possess electronic systems that will help them acquire and reacquire targets after being fired from the aircraft. But not everyone at Air Force Operations Command, a subunit of SOCOM, is optimistic about the order. "No matter the threat, air-to-air or air-to-ground, having a precision-guided cruise missile just enhances the performance and capability the AC-130 already has, but I don't believe that equipping a stand-off precision-guided cruise missile will make it any more relevant, due to capabilities and limitations of the aircraft," said former AC-130 Gunner B.A., in the Insider report.

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"Other aircraft platforms would be a better choice for that type of weapon system," added B.A. in the report. "The AC-130 was made to sit in the sky, fly counterclockwise in a circle, and engage anyone who is actively engaging the good guys. Precision missiles wouldn't hurt, but let's not 'Call of Duty' accessorize our AC-130s!" he added, in reference to a highly customizable video game that simulates various military combat scenarios. But while B.A. could be right that the new upgrades wouldn't make a substantial difference in combat capabilities, the government only recently invested more money in increasing the United States' combat readiness against potential adversaries, with plans that could take decades to reach fruition. This means that, in the meantime, some may argue that the U.S. should seize every advantage it can, while there's still time.

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