One of the busiest squadrons in the Air Force is flying some of the oldest aircraft in the fleet. Their mission is called “special operations low level, version two,” or SOLL II, and they get their orders directly from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The nature of what they do is classified, part of the hidden world of special operations. What they fly is not: the venerable C-141 “Starlifter” transport aircraft.
As one former commander of the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command put it, the Starlifter, which first flew in 1963, “was designed in the 1950s, built in the 1960s, stretched and made air refuelable in the 1970s, and flown hard from the very beginning.”
Until the C-17 Globemaster III began arriving in early 1995, modernization of the Air Force’s strategic transport aircraft had been largely neglected. Current plans call for 120 C-17s to enter the strategic airlift force through 2004. By then, all C-141s will have been retired from the active duty force, except for those flying the Air Mobility Command’s SOLL II missions supporting our special operations forces.
Special operations forces support major military contingencies, peacekeeping operations, and other missions countering terrorism, international crime and drug cartels. On an average day, there are around 1,500 special operations soldiers deployed to anywhere between 45 and 60 countries, according to the commanding general of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Command. The more visible deployments are in support of operations like the peacekeeping mission to Bosnia, but they have also been involved in peacekeeping in Africa, counter-drug operations in Latin America, and in training the Kuwaiti armed forces to provide forward-deployed close air support.
The SOLL II aircraft provide the means to get to these places and to get out. According to public documents, SOLL II aircrews “rapidly deploy and insert special operations ground forces into blacked-out, austere airfields/drop zones and extract those ground forces upon mission completion.”
These flights take place at night at low level to avoid detection, and they are dangerous. The C-141 was never designed for this kind of demanding mission. It was meant to fly cargo at 35,000 feet, safely out of range of small arms fire and rockets. Over the years, some modifications were made to accommodate the special operations mission, like adding a head-up display (HUD) that could be read using night vision goggles, Global Positioning System equipment, a radar warning receiver and chaff system to protect against missile attacks, and forward-looking infrared radar.
By contrast, the C-17 was designed from the outset for routine low-level flight. It has a damage-tolerant structure with extensive redundancy and separation of critical flight systems. For instance, each of its four engines drives separate hydraulic and electrical power systems. Also, its 29 separate flight control surfaces are powered by different combinations of hydraulic systems, ensuring that the C-17 can maintain control for a safe landing with any one system operating. And a mechanical backup is provided for the quadruple-redundant electronic flight control system.
The C-17’s engines are made for rapid acceleration and deceleration before and after an airdrop. It can land on short, austere runways throughout the world, and its ability to back up and turn around, combined with a cargo system that allows quick offloading, ensures limited exposure while on the ground.
The Air Force’s Air Mobility Command has identified a requirement for 15 C-17s to replace the squadron of aging C-141s now used by the 16th Airlift Squadron operating out of Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina. That is the first step before seeking funding. But
finding funding will not be easy. According to the House National Security Committee, over the next five years the defense budget is $54 billion short of even keeping pace with today’s low inflation.
The Air Force is not alone in its desire to get C-17s for the special operations role.
According to U.S. Transportation Command chief Gen. Walter Kross, the Joint Chiefs of Staff agree that the SOLL II C-141s should be replaced with the C-17 sooner rather than later, and they are prepared to voice their support for the idea to Congress during the next budget cycle.
The Air Force should request funding for C-17 SOLL II aircraft and Congress should approve it. Just because the aircrews supporting special operations cannot talk about how they put their lives on the line each day does not mean their needs can be ignored. It’s time to trade in last of the C-141 workhorses they have been ridden too hard, and a better solution is now available.
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