- Since the mid-1960s, the Air Force has used the MC-130 to support special-operations missions all over the world.
- The Air Force is now rolling out the MC-130J model, and it will remain important as special operators adapt to new challenges.
- “The MC-130 is a very versatile and flexible aircraft,” a former Air Force officer and Combat Talon pilot told Insider.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
The US military has thousands of aircraft that can launch attacks and support conventional operations, from the futuristic F-35 and F-22 fighters to the venerable A-10 and AC-130 close air support planes.
When it comes to supporting special-operations units, the MC-130 has an essential if little-known role.
MC-130 variants have participated in every major and minor US military campaign since the Vietnam War, backing up special-operations units in some of the biggest commando missions.
The first versions of the aircraft flew in the Son Tay prisoner rescue in North Vietnam in 1970. Ten years later, MC-130s participated in Operation Eagle Claw, the failed mission to rescue American hostages held in Iran.
MC-130s were also part of the first major Delta Force and Ranger mission in Afghanistan in 2001, and an MC-130 was the first aircraft to land at Baghdad International Airport after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
From the jungles of Vietnam
During the Vietnam War, the Air Force began experimenting with using a large transport aircraft to support large commando operations. Helicopters could only lift so much and fly so far.
Military Assistance Command Vietnam-Studies and Observation (MACV-SOG), a secretive force that conducted missions behind enemy lines, specifically needed the capability to support its recon teams that went across the fence.
Composed of Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Recon Marines, and Air Commandos, SOG conducted covert operations in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and North Vietnam, where US troops weren’t supposed to be.
The introduction of the MC-130 allowed SOG to be more effective in its covert war in Southeast Asia. The Air Commandos who flew the aircraft received the Presidential Unit Citation for their performance, which paved the way for a mission that is still going nearly 70 years later.
A special-operations workhorse
The MC-130 fleet of about 60 planes is the backbone of Air Force Special Operations Command’s fixed-wing force.
The latest iteration, the MC-130J Commando II, specializes in the infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of special-operations units in semi- or non-permissive areas.
It can also support psychological operations — dropping leaflets and broadcasting messages — and provide aerial refueling for special-operations helicopters.
Each Commando II costs $114 million and is operated by a crew of five Air Commandos. It can haul up to 164,000 pounds as far as 3,000 miles without refueling. It also has significant external and internal upgrades over previous versions.
It has new engines that are 25% more powerful than those on the previous model, which is known as the Combat Talon. Internally, the Commando II has state-of-the-art digital electronic and navigation systems that can be used by the same operator, meaning it needs fewer crew than earlier MC-130 variants.
The MC-130 can fly as low as 250 feet in adverse weather conditions using its potent terrain-following, terrain-avoidance radar system, the AN/APQ-187 Silent Knight. This means that in capable hands, the aircraft can fly nap- of-the-air routes to avoid detection from enemy radars and anti-aircraft systems.
“The MC-130 is a very versatile and flexible aircraft that can accomplish a wide range of special-operations missions,” a former Air Force officer and Combat Talon pilot told Insider.
“You will seldom, if ever, see or hear about the aircraft and the men who fly it. We aren’t as sexy as our AC-130 [gunship] colleagues, whom your audience might be well aware of,” the former officer said.
“Nevertheless, we fulfill an important mission — transporting and resupplying special operations forces anywhere in the world. We don’t kick in any doors, but we enable the special operators on the ground to kick them.”
Adapting for the future
The Air Force has begun retiring the -E, -H, and -P versions of the MC-130 fleet and plans to completely replace them with the MC-130J by 2025. The “Combat Talon” designation, active since 1977, will also be retiring.
But the MC-130 will remain an important asset as US special operators adapt to new challenges. One key role for the Commando II will be as a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP).
During FARP operations, an MC-130 can refuel and rearm special-operations aircraft, such as AH/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles while using austere or improvised airfields in semi- or non-permissive areas.
The MC-130’s FARP capability isn’t limited to special-operations aircraft. The Air Force has been experimenting with using MC-130 refuel some of its more advanced fighter jets, such as the F-22 Raptor, from impromptu airfields.
The US military, the Air Force in particular, is looking to counter the growing size and reach of China’s military by dispersing its forces across the Indo-Pacific region, often using dilapidated or under-developed bases.
A more robust FARP capability could therefore be invaluable in a conflict with China, especially if paired with the Marine Corps’ F-35B fighter jet, which has a short-take-off-and-vertical-landing capability that makes it suitable for very austere environments.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.