By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2021
“With increasing and evolving, global threats, precise use of power provides security…where failure is not an option…in hostile or denied territory…the C-130J-SOF may be configured to execute armed overwatch, (and) precision strike…to increase effectiveness and lethality.” — Lockheed Martin Corporation, 2017.
Any sports car enthusiast knows the value and sheer excitement of bolt-on, performance modifications to upgrade your vehicle. I owned a 2003 Subaru WRX (only the second year that they were imported) for 15 years and 148,000 miles, one of those small, powerful, turbocharged, all-wheel-drive, muscle cars that draws a lot of unwanted attention from the police. It was Midnight Black, with gold, Subaru STI sport wheels and an STI hood scoop, and it suited my outdoors, adventurous personality perfectly. I was retired from the Air Force by then, and never drove it like a maniac, but I just appreciated its raw power, aggressive styling, taut handling, and heart-pounding performance.
Even though I kept the WRX as stock-looking as possible from the outside, except for the gold wheels, beneath the hood were about $1,800 in simple, bolt-on, do-it-yourself, intake-and-exhaust modifications that boosted overall horsepower by 14 percent. Now that I’m a little older, I’ve switched to a Subaru Forester XT instead, still turbocharged, and just as powerful (262 HP), with a few minor, STI modifications or similar upgrades that increase overall power and turbo-boost pressure by about five percent, but not quite as “boy-racer” in appearance or reputation. It’s more of an understated, “wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing” SUV, in stealthy, Dark-Gray Metallic.
Let’s now apply this very same, bolt-on, performance principle to aircraft sensors and weapons, specifically for the venerable, Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules four-engine, combat-transport series, first entering service in 1956, the longest-serving, continually-produced, military aircraft in the world. The Hercules was designed to carry up to 92 passengers, 72 combat troops, or 64 paratroopers with full gear, in a cavernous, cargo bay 41 feet long by nine feet tall and 10 feet wide. Alternatively, it can carry two Humvee military vehicles, or an M113 armored personnel carrier. The C-130H model, introduced in 1964, remains in widespread service with the U.S. Air Force and many foreign nations, with the updated (1996-onward), C-130J Super Hercules variant still in production today, and delivered to at least 22 countries.
The current list of military, C-130 operators includes 67 nations: Afghanistan, Algeria, Angola, Argentina, Australia (the very first export customer), Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Botswana, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, Chad, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Gabon, Greece, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Netherlands, New Zealand, Niger, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay, Venezuela, and Yemen.
The time-honored, Hercules series has been used for countless, different purposes, including troop-transport/airlift, cargo resupply, medical evacuation, reconnaissance, dropping paratroopers for training and in combat, covert, CIA missions over China and other nations, infiltrating into Iran in 1980, carrier-landing tests in 1963, combat search-and-rescue (CSAR), electronic combat, psychological operations, humanitarian aid, flight testing and evaluation, command-and-control, ice-and-snow operations in the Arctic and Antarctica with skis attached, aerial tanker, aerial spray, Coast Guard counter-smuggling and counter-narcotics operations, weather reconnaissance, special operations, and aerial gunships, among numerous other tasks.
With all of these nations around the globe possessing C-130s, and all of its past and potential uses, the question invariably arises: “What if there’s a serious insurgency, rebellion, or terrorist activity/uprising in our country, and we need an intelligence-collecting aircraft and aerial gunship, but we’re a poor country, and our budget is extremely limited? What if we need a lower-cost, ‘Gunship-Lite’ version?”
For example, in June 2002, the Algerian Air Force actively sought to upgrade four of their existing, ex-British, Hercules transports into TSC-130K (“Tactical Support C-130K”) aerial gunships, each equipped with a FLIR sensor, low-light TV sensor, aiming HUD, fire-control computer, self-protection systems, a GAU-12/U “Equalizer” 25mm Gatling gun, and a GAU-19/A .50-calber Gatling gun. This radical but totally-unclassified proposal came across my desk at the U.S. State Department during my very brief (2.5 months) employment there, before I obtained other employment much closer to my home.
Needless to say, after extensive, telephone coordination with various U.S. agencies, I strongly recommended official, State Department disapproval of this Algerian request, on the grounds of U.S. policy regarding “no offensive weapons” for that nation, the high potential for misuse against pro-democracy, ethnic-Berber insurgents, and disruption of the regional balance of power should Algeria acquire the type of sophisticated, AC-130 aerial gunships that only the United States currently possesses.
The Colombian Air Force operates at least six ordinary, C-130B/H Hercules troop transports, and requires both nocturnal, intelligence-collection aircraft and aerial gunships, but does not use their C-130s for those specialized purposes. Instead, they regularly fly five AC-47T Fantasma (“Ghost”) aerial gunships, actually Basler Turbo BT-67 conversions of the famous DC-3/C-47A, with HiTech FLIR sensors for night attacks against roving, FARC guerillas and drug smugglers, each armed with a pair of fixed, side-firing, three-barrel, GAU-19/AGatling guns in .50-caliber. These predatory aircraft were vividly described in my 2008 book, Tequila Moon, about a two-week-long, border confrontation between Colombia and neighboring Venezuela.
At least one of these gunships, tail number 1658, has been openly photographed mounting a fixed, Nexter M621 20mm cannon in place of the rear Gatling gun, adding another element of surprise from the night skies for the elusive guerillas on the ground.
Many nations would love to have the very latest, highly-advanced, AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, currently operated by the 4th (“Ghostriders”) and 73rd (“War Hawks”) Special Operations Squadrons at Hurlburt Field, Florida, but few can afford the $85-million price tag (now closer to $95+ million due to inflation), and the United States would never agree to export such advanced and deadly technology, as I learned at the State Department.
But, Lockheed Martin has been offering a downgraded, gunship variant called the C-130J-SOF (Special Operations Forces), since the Paris Air Show of June 2017. It’s equipped with FLIR sensors for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions, lower-fuselage armor plating, avionics upgrades, laser-guided, AGM-114R Hellfire II missiles under the wings, and a Northrop Grumman palletized, roll-on/roll-off, electronically trainable, 30x173mm GAU-23/A Bushmaster II cannon, one of the very same weapons used aboard AC-130W Stinger II and AC-130J Ghostrider gunships, Marine Corps KC-130J Harvest HAWK aircraft, and Italian Air Force MC-27JPraetorian special operations aircraft. But with standard, “vanilla” C-130J transports now selling for about $70 million each, the C-130J-SOF version still comes in at a hefty $85 million. Ouch!
Next, let’s examine the Philippine Air Force (PAF) as a case in point. They currently operate one C-130Btransport and two ex-U.S. Navy, C-130Tlogistics-support aircraft (since 2015. A separate, C-130H crashed on July 4, 2021, and was destroyed in the deadliest, aviation accident in PAF history, with 50 of the 104 occupants killed, and 46 injured), and have expressed keen interest, since September 8, 2020, in purchasing two C-130J-30 Super Hercules transports.
U.S. Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) Lloyd J. Austin, III, just visited the Philippines in July 2021 to discuss regional security, arms transfers, defense cooperation, international terrorism (a major issue there) and insurgency, their recent, S-70i (UH-60) Black Hawk helicopter acquisition (five more, of 16 ordered), and specifically, their C-130J-30 interest, and the August 2018 acquisition by the PAF of the Airdyne Aerospace (of Calgary, Alberta, Canada) SABIR (Special AirBorne Installation Response) modular pod system for existing, C-130 Hercules aircraft. We’ll discuss SABIR in great detail later, but for the moment, let’s address the gunship aspect first.
The Filipinos have proven themselves to be very inventive and adaptable when it comes to firearms and gun modifications. One particular example worth noting is on their seven dark-gray, OV-10M Bronco counterinsurgency aircraft, with very cool, shark’s-teeth designs as nose art, and which have all been upgraded and refurbished by Marsh Aviation of Mesa, Arizona. In fact, the “M” in “OV-10M” stands for “Marsh,” not for “modified” or “modernized,” as might be expected.
In addition to the standard quartet of M60C machine guns, the OV-10Ms have been upgraded with homemade, PAF gun pods on their belly stations, each utilizing a Pontiac M39A1 20mm cannon, salvaged from a retired (since 2005) F-5A Freedom Fighter jet, with its barrel shortened, and the entire assembly, including ammunition, mounted inside an empty, aluminum, fuel tank, and painted dark gray, to match the aircraft.
The barrel does not protrude, so it appears externally to be a simple, fuel tank, but if you look very closely, you’ll see that round, 20mm muzzle tucked just inside the nose area. Very clever, discreet, inexpensive, and resourceful, indeed! Marsh Aviation specifically pointed it out to me in an email related to their unique OV-10Ms in 2010.
Gun installations are actually the less-complicated part of this equation, especially if they are fixed in place, bolted to the floor on the left side of the aircraft, and firing out the left side, like the very-costly, AC-130W/J models. In the past decade alone, the Colombian Air Force has successfully employed .50-caliber, GAU-19/A Gatling guns and 20mm M621 cannon in this manner from their AC-47Ts.
In addition, Defense contractor Greystone Ltd. tested dual, side-firing, GAU-21/A (FN M3Ms) heavy machine guns from a CASA 212 (C-41A) aircraft about 10 years ago, and in 2013, the U.S. Air Force briefly experimented with dual, side-firing, GAU-18/A heavy machine guns on a C-145A Combat Coyote special operations aircraft. French Special Forces also employ a hand-fired, hideaway, 20mm Nexter SH 20 door cannon on all of their EC725R2 Caracal helicopters. So, the actual gun aspect is not very difficult. A desperate nation will use whatever is available, should the need for a gunship arise.
At the high end of the gun selection process is the Northrop Grumman (formerly Orbital ATK) 30mm GAU-23/A Palletized Weapon System (PaWS), as used by the U.S. Marine Corps (very infrequently) and the Italian Air Force (also infrequently), featuring the popular and powerful, 30mm cannon from the Stinger II and Ghostrider gunships. The PaWS weapon system was openly advertised and displayed at the February 2018 Singapore Airshow, yet another Asian country very recently visited by SECDEF Austin and Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss regional security and defense cooperation.
PaWS includes the 344-pound, 30mm cannon, its ammunition, a control panel for the operator, a small, electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) aiming module for the gun, and a separate, cockpit display for the pilot. The entire, gun pallet and operator-system pallet may be easily installed or removed by using a standard forklift, in just two to four hours.
Chris Foster, the former, Northrop Grumman senior business development representative for special-mission aircraft, has stated that, “We can put it on and make you a surveillance package, but…if you wanted to have a strike package…we can do that, as well. With PaWS, we can host a variety of sensors, radars, radio, datalink equipment, and EO/IR solutions. It can all be built specific to the mission our customers need to prosecute…It is all open architecture. Whatever plug-and-play aspect of a mission system you want…we can integrate it into this mission-management system.
“The operators can operate sensors, (and) fire weapons, as well as the pilots. But all the action happens right here at our mission-operating system…The (Royal) Australian Air Force…are interested in, for now (February 2019), the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) portion of PaWS, which is the heart of the system, with other capabilities potentially down the road.”
Now we’ll return to the Canadian-made, Airdyne SABIR system for ISR support, in use in various forms since 2007, but primarily for mounting to C-130 Hercules airframes. It’s a fully-modular, self-contained, roll-on/roll-off kit that replaces either the left or right paratrooper door, or both, on virtually any C-130, anywhere in the world. The kit includes a new, scanner door with huge, bubble window, a retractable, electrically-operated arm that can carry a 550-pound (according to Airdyne CEO Peter J. Baxter, M.A., J.D.), payload pod using a standard, BRU-12 ejector rack, which takes only about one minute to fully deploy or retract, an internal equipment rack, and an operator’s work station.
The pod systems can be custom-configured to accept up to 170 different sensor packages, or up to 1,000 different sensors, including electro-optical FLIR turrets, imaging radar, electronic-warfare suites, communications systems, intelligence systems, jamming pods, or other selected hardware, and the basic kit costs about $1.5 million, excluding any sensor payloads. Up to three separate systems may be mounted within the pod, or sensor bay, at the same time. Airdyne states that, “In essence, SABIR pods are similar to smart phones. All you have to do is select a pod and add your sensor application. Because the pod form is already flight-rated, customers save costs and schedule by only having to focus on what goes into the pod.”
Every SABIR door system includes a built-in, breech-loaded, pressure-sealed, AS-22S sonobuoy launch tube, measuring four feet long by seven inches in diameter, which is also capable of launching the 35-pound, AGM-176AGriffin-A laser-guided, miniature glide bomb, or similar, precision-guided munitions. The tube is manually loaded, one round at a time, by the SABIR operator.
This is currently the primary, preferred weapon of the premier, AC-130J Ghostrider gunship (which carries 10 pre-loaded, launch tubes inside the rear, cargo ramp), because it is small, totally silent, stealthy, and deadly-accurate, whereas guns and missiles launched at night are noisy, and betray the gunship’s presence. So, the Griffin-A is a very modern, state-of-the-art munition.
All that is needed for an ordinary, “vanilla” C-130 to become a roving, predatory gunship that can accurately locate, track, and target terrorists under cover of darkness is a SABIR system with a laser-designating, FLIR sensor, such as the Wescam MX-15D or similar model, and a reasonable supply of Griffin-A glide bombs.
SABIR has been in constant use by the U.S. Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, U.S. Navy, U.S.
Marine Corps, and U.S. Special Operations Command, as well as numerous foreign countries, for the past 14 years. The New York Air National Guard even uses it to attach “IcePod,” penetrating-radar pods for flights into and out of Antarctica, to avoid huge crevasses just under the surface of the snow-covered, icy, runways there.
In the Philippines, the 222nd Airlift Squadron’s single C-130B and two C-130Ts at Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan directly support the PAF’s 300th Air Intelligence and Security Wing (300 AISW), providing real-time, ISR support via the C-130 SABIR system (using Wescam MX-15HDi FLIR sensors, although the PAF also owns some laser-designating, MX-15D sensors, and Elta ELM-2022 synthetic-aperture radar), small, MQ-27A ScanEagle drones, and a pair of Cessna 208B ISR aircraft donated by the United States. The PAF has acquired at least two SABIR systems for its C-130Ts, one to replace the left paratrooper door, and one for the right side.
Meanwhile, 721 Squadron of the Royal Danish Air Force at Aalborg Air Base in far, northern Denmark, operates four ordinary, C-130J-30 Super Hercules tactical airlifters, now equipped with SABIR pods and FLIR sensors for maritime patrol duties, search-and-rescue missions, and ISR support.
Even Airdyne Aerospace, the manufacturer of the SABIR system, has already proposed a SABIR-equipped C-130 as a solution for armed-overwatch requirements by various countries. They aptly point out that, “This modular solution is more survivable, more tailorable, provides more comprehensive overwatch and mission support, is self-deployable, and facilitates simple and rapid redeployment. Most importantly, the Airdyne solution also retains all of the C-130 core capabilities, meaning…mission support beyond armed overwatch. Lastly, the SABIR system is already a proven technology, used by multiple services and countries for ISR roles.”
Recently, there have been plans for Airdyne to mount an automatic weapon onto the SABIR door mechanism, presumably through a hole in the door, and the 30mm GAU-23/A cannon has already been type-certified for such airborne usage. The PAF also has a reasonable supply of retired, 20mm M39A1cannon and .50-caliber, M2HB heavy machine guns, any of which could be field-modified and mounted on their C-130s.
Using the Philippines as a sterling example, it’s apparent that almost any nation with plain, ordinary C-130 Hercules transports has the potential to readily convert one or more of them with simple, bolt-on modifications, into a stealthy, “wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing,” “Gunship-Lite,” predatory gunship for just a few million dollars, a modest, reasonable sum these days, employing the very same GAU-23/Acannon and AGM-176A Griffin-A glide bombs as the highly-advanced, AC-130JGhostrider gunship.
The undeniable beauty of these PaWS and SABIR kits is that they are relatively simple, inexpensive, bolt-on, plug-and-play kits that require no permanent modifications to the aircraft, and they may be easily removed and stored away within just a few short hours if the C-130 is needed for an ordinary, troop-transport mission the next day, or if U.N. inspectors are coming to your base to see if you have any “gunships.” With these basic, bolt-on kits, the user can have the best of both worlds, a “vanilla” transport aircraft one day, and a deadly, roving, nocturnal gunship the next evening.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.
Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.