Gunships Under Stress

The unending high operations tempo on Air Force Special Operations Command’s AC-130 gunships in Afghanistan and Iraq is evident on these airframes. “We’re flying the wings off them literally,” Capt. James May, an AC-130 maintenance officer, told the CBS Evening News in a report that ran March 12. May said cracks are already starting to show on the wings, which will have to be replaced five years ahead of schedule; further, for every hour of flying, a gunship requires 14 hours of maintenance. “These airframes are getting so old that we’ve got stuff breaking on them that has never broken before,” May said. Lt. Col. Mark Clawson, an AC-130 pilot, said the gunships are flying at four times the rate that anyone anticipated when the aircraft was designed. “We are the number one aircraft for percentage of combat time and total time over the course of the year,” Clawson said. AFSOC and US Special Operations Command are trying to address the issue. Recapitalizing the gunships, along with AFSOC’s modified C-130s that are used as tankers and covert insertion aircraft, remains SOCOM’s “number one pure acquisition need,” Navy Adm. Eric Olson, SOCOM commander, told the House Armed Services terrorism, unconventional threats, and capabilities subcommittee March 5. “We’re reaching the point where investing in upgrading those airplanes or sustaining those airplanes makes less sense than replacing them.” But since it might not be possible to have a successor gunship available before the middle of next decade, AFSOC is exploring a “Gunship Light” concept built around the smaller C-27 airframe (see below).