When reviewing the year’s happenings, Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold related that about three weeks after taking command of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), he led an off-site meeting with the staff directors and subordinate commanders of the wings and groups. After three days, they emerged with a revised set of command priorities. He said these are the things AFSOC exists to do and they are the guides to all his decisions, including those decisions made each day concerning how to prioritize time and money. He asserted also that they guide his staff directors and all subordinate commands of AFSOC in just the same way. They are:
- Provide combat ready forces;
- Create an environment for airmen and families to thrive;
- Transform training to optimize human performance; and
- Modernize and sustain the force.
At nearly the same time, major events in the world were conspiring to have another major impact on AFSOC, probably the second-most significant event for the command in 2014. This was the emergence of the Islamic State terrorist group, usually referred to by its competing acronyms, ISIS or ISIL, which gained control of much of Syria and Iraq. Orders came quickly thereafter to provide increased deployments of combat-ready aircraft and Air Commandos to the Middle East. Until then, the command had been in the process of drawing down its forces involved in Afghanistan and had already withdrawn from Iraq. Now, in the middle of 2014, it was time to send some of them back.
Also, only 42 J-model aircraft are funded and planned to be in Commando II configuration in the current budgets, short of the number required in the Program of Record.
The change from drawdown to buildup in forward-deployed combat locations coincided with the year of planned retirement of the first three AC-130Us, or U-model gunships, and several of the MC-130P aircraft used for mobility and to air refuel helicopters and CV-22s. The first aircraft that was to replace the U-model gunships, an AC-130J, had just arrived at AFSOC for modification but was years from combat-ready status. The MC-130Js will replace all the other MC-130 variants, a total of 57 aircraft including 14 Combat Talon Is, 24 Combat Talon IIs, and 23 Combat Shadows. The MC-130Js have been informally named the Commando II, and Heithold emphasized that “the requirement is for 94 total J-model aircraft, and it will not change,” even though the current program falls 15 MC-130J aircraft short. Adjustments made to comply with the Budget Control Act (known as sequestration) will fund only 79 J-models total, of which 37 will become AC-130J gunships and 42 will become MC-130Js.
The AFSOC change of command therefore occurred when the command found itself in a bit of a straddle, retiring legacy aircraft while bringing on new ones. The new commander reviewed those schedules of aircraft coming and going in light of his newly minted list of priorities. He found the schedules to be incompatible with his four priorities, and he’s ordered his staff to fix the incongruities.
He ordered a pause in the retirement schedule of the U-model gunships, stopping the retirement of those aircraft until the modification and testing of the replacement AC-130Js, which will include more work than originally planned. Instead of only trans-decking the Precision Strike Package (PSP) of the AC-130W, the new aircraft will have the PSP with full cockpit integration, vice federated installs, including into the pilot heads-up displays. It will also include a favorite of AC-130 ground customers – the 105 mm howitzer, which was previously being studied as a possible included capability. These adjustments will prevent, in the words of AFSOC Director of Operations (A3) Maj. Gen. Mark Hicks, “Deploying to combat with replacement aircraft that have less capability than those which we’re retiring.” Heithold explained that the adjusted program, involving three to four years of development time and corresponding delays in U-model retirements, will allow AFSOC to “get it right, not fast,” to maintain current capability while ensuring improvements to that capability in the replacement aircraft.