Inside The Pentagon
Services spar over a powerful but vulnerable aircraft
U.S. troops fighting to gain control of Fallujah in mid-November complained that one of the most powerful ground-support aircraft — the AC-130 gunship — sat out the fight during daylight hours, returning to battle only after sundown, according to military officials in Iraq. That’s because the special operations commanders who control the gunship — armed with 40 mm and 105 mm guns — believe the large and slow-flying aircraft may be highly vulnerable to shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, air officials say.
But ground commanders maintain that when their troops are taking casualties in close combat — as they did day and night during the assault on the former insurgent stronghold — soldiers should be provided the best air cover available, even if it means elevated risk, as well, for the planes and their 13-member aircrews.
“The AC-130 — what a great platform,” says one Army officer in Iraq. “When it’s flying, the insurgents are killed by the buckets. However, they will not fly during the day … In Fallujah, we had a better time during periods of darkness, and in the day [we] experienced difficulties because of the absence of the AC-130.”
Longtime rules on how the gunship can be used in combat limit the AC-130 to nighttime operations, ground and air officials say. The aircraft’s electro-optical and infrared sensors are optimized for use at night. Human targets on the ground stand out distinctly on screens inside the specially fitted cargo aircraft, with the shadows and clutter of daytime eliminated, according to air officers.
At the same time, the gunship has a large profile, flies in predictable orbits and can only lumber out of harm’s way, according to air officers. While cargo versions of the C-130 routinely fly daytime missions, their pilots try to avoid threat areas rather than linger right over them, these officials say.
In some critical instances, AC-130s actually may be used in Iraq during the day, according to a top CENTCOM official.
“If the situation absolutely required the AC-130 to operate during daylight hours, then it would be used that way,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, CENTCOM’s deputy commander, told Inside the Pentagon this week. “Both the commanders and crews will do whatever is necessary to best support the troops on the ground, given the total complex of systems available.”
Others with AC-130 operational experience agree.
“Obviously they’ve surged aircraft in support of current operations,” says one air officer, who would not offer specific quantities. “There’s … twice as many [in Iraq] as four months ago.”
But the potential threat to the gunships is far graver in the daytime than is commonly discussed, air officials say. In fact, special operators have generally avoided calling attention to AC-130 vulnerabilities in a bid to make the aircraft appear somewhat invincible to adversaries, officials say.
“To effectively employ its weapons … the AC-130 has to fly within the envelope of a number of enemy” man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) and anti-aircraft artillery, “which this enemy has,” says Smith, who participated in one of the first search-and-rescue missions for a downed AC-130 crew during the Vietnam war in 1972. “Contrary to what some on the ground may think, it is very vulnerable during the daytime as it is easy to see and lacks maneuverability.”
Even if it could survive — “a big ‘if,’” Smith says — the gunship “would either constantly be moving out of its orbit to avoid threats, or [it would] incur combat damage resulting in the system being unavailable for long periods of time due to repairs,” according to the deputy commander.
How the gunship is used in Iraq is determined by U.S. Special Operations Command’s air component, in conjunction with U.S. Central Command’s air chief, officials say. The first priority for AC-130s is to support special operators on the ground, who lack the firepower of conventional troops. Excess gunship sorties, when available, can be directed to support conventional Army or Marine Corps troops, officials say.
With more than 609,000 lines of computer code — outnumbering the Space Shuttle’s software — the gunship is loved by ground troops for its precise targeting capability and sustained rate of fire, said one former commander of Air Force special operations forces. But to do that, the gunship is “literally sitting in one place, in one spot” in the air, the officer said.
The AC-130H “Spectre” and AC-130U “Spooky” use a sophisticated sensor, navigation and fire control suite to locate targets. Drawing from an array of onboard weapons, the aircraft can penetrate building walls with a side-firing 105 mm howitzer. Some say the rapid rate of fire of the AC-130’s 40 mm cannon makes it an even more valuable weapon. The smaller gun is an antipersonnel weapon that can pierce thin-skinned vehicles. The “U” version can engage two targets simultaneously.
The Spooky model also boasts enhanced survivability, with increased stand-off range, armor protection and electronic countermeasures, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
But during the day, other war planes like the A-10 attack aircraft or F-16 fighter — using nose guns and air-to-ground munitions — offer comparable capability with greater agility, some sources say. Combat helicopters like the Army Apache or Marine Corps Cobra also can provide quick-maneuvering air support in urban terrain, military officials say.
Unlike the other attack aircraft, the AC-130 is in very short supply. The Air Force maintains just eight “H” models and 13 “U” models, though four more of the advanced Spooky versions are in production and expected by 2006, said Capt. Denise Boyd, a spokeswoman for the Hurlburt Field, FL-based Air Force Special Operations Command, or AFSOC.
The service does not want to put these so-called “high-demand/low-density” or HD/LD assets at undue risk, according to the former commander of Air Force special operations forces, interviewed last week.
But some ground grunts aren’t buying the explanation. They ask why AFSOC is husbanding the AC-130s for unknown future operations when they are badly needed in the here and now.
“Instead of sticking it out and supporting the Marines [and] soldiers in the day with the best ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and air strike platform, they leave the area,” said one Army officer. “As a result, our troops fighting in very complex and difficult terrain are left to less efficient and less agile air platforms.”
Air and ground officers alike tend to blame commanders, rather than AC-130 pilots or crews, for the decision to withhold these assets during the daytime fight in Fallujah. Some AC-130 pilots agree the threat from MANPADs in Iraq is fairly low, given the altitudes at which the gunships typically fly, officials say.
“It’s not the captains and the majors flying these missions. They’re the bravest of the brave,” says retired Army Col. David Hunt, a former Green Beret and airborne Ranger. “The generals are making a statement: ‘We’ll tell you how best to use our airplanes.’”
“The problem is AFSOC’s [standard operating procedures], routine and legacy of not flying during the day,” says one officer in Iraq. “They are frankly ignoring the intelligence and actual capabilities of the insurgent.”
Not only do the Russian-style surface-to-air missiles found in Iraq top out in range below the AC-130’s normal operating altitude, but “these insurgents [also] are operating with old, worn-out equipment,” this officer said.
“I’ve seen these MANPADs and I have not found one that was in very good working order,” said this source, adding few insurgents appear to have been trained in operating the systems. “All these factors make the risk well within the margins to fly during the day.”
“The Air Force is still trying to protect [the gunships] from the rocket-propelled grenades and the SA-7s,” Hunt said last week in an interview. “The truth is the Air Force will care more about their flying platforms than the infantry and special forces and Marines on the ground. If a guy on the ground says they want the AC-130, they should get it — now.”
Even some air leaders agree the special operations commanders may be exercising undue caution when ground troops say they need more effective support.
“These are critical assets — HD/LD — that are not easily replaced,” says one senior Air Force officer, speaking with ITP last week on condition of anonymity. “But given the other risks we are taking there with folks on the ground, if the AC-130s can provide a unique capability with persistence and precision, why wouldn’t we use them?”
Some Russian-style SA-7s, -9s, -14s and -16s have been confiscated from insurgents in Iraq, military officials say. But these systems may not have proliferated sufficiently or may not be used often enough to justify the level of American caution, some ground and air officials say.
“If the bad guys lost 1,600 people in Fallujah, then would they really hold some capability in reserve?” asked one officer.
“You cannot exactly predict what threat will be present,” counters one Air Force officer with air-ground experience. Special operators have taken “huge risks” with the AC-130s to date in Iraq and Afghanistan, contends this officer, declining to provide details.
This is not the first time such a debate over the gunship’s use has bubbled up between the ground and air components. Ever since 13 AC-130 crew members were lost in a shootdown near Khafji, Saudi Arabia, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War — just as the aircraft was exiting the battle area at sunrise — Air Force special operators have been particularly queasy about committing the gunship to daytime battles, officials say.
“It’s always painted that they’re chicken,” said one Air Force officer with AC-130 operational experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the wariness reflects “a valid lesson learned” from Operation Desert Storm.
More recently, in March 2002, Army officers criticized the Air Force for withdrawing an AC-130 from Roberts Ridge during Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, after an overnight battle in which friendly troops were under intense fire. Air officers say a low fuel tank was the driving factor, but they acknowledge a backup gunship was not sent in because of the daytime prohibition.
Later in the same battle, the AC-130s “would prove invaluable … as they provided continuous support during hours of darkness,” Army Maj. Mark Davis wrote in a graduate thesis on Operation Anaconda last June (ITP, July 29, p1).
“There are certainly times when they can fly in the daytime,” said the former Air Force special operations forces commander interviewed last week. “It’s just that when [the threat] catches up with you, it can be disastrous.”
A threat always seems “most intense to the guys in the foxhole,” this source said. Soldiers tend to get attached to a particular platform, several officers noted.
Taking stock of the bigger picture, commanders can provide capability around the clock “for a sustained period of time by taking advantage of all the strengths of all the weapon systems available and employing them accordingly,” Smith said.
Other air officers say there may yet be other aircraft mixes that could serve the ground forces.
“We are talking about troops employed on the ground right now,” said one such officer, who specializes in air-ground operations. “So we do have to figure out the best way to defend them.”
—Elaine M. Grossman