Retirement Of MC-130H Speeds Up MC-130J Low-Flying Radar Upgrade

The U.S. Air Force says it has accelerated work to integrate Raytheon’s AN/APQ-187 Silent Knight terrain-following/terrain avoidance radar onto its MC-130J Commando II special operations transport/tanker aircraft. This has come amid the retirement of the Commando II’s predecessor, the MC-130H Combat Talon II, with its highly specialized AN/APQ-170 radar. The Combat Talon II divestment process was slowed down significantly due to concerns about the MC-130J’s terrain-following and terrain avoidance capabilities, which are critical to its core mission sets, with its original radar.

It is unclear how many MC-130Js have received the Silent Knight Radar, or SKR, to date, but Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) told The War Zone that the plan is to eventually integrate it onto each one of its Commando IIs. AFSOC currently has 56 MC-130Js and is planning to acquire a full fleet of 64 of the planes.

An MC-130J with the Silent Knight Radar fitted above its nose. Sierra Nevada Corporation Sierra Nevada Corporation

Currently, the MC-130J is the only C-130-based transport/tanker within AFSOC, at least that we know about. The service divested the last MC-130H earlier this month. Two Combat Talon IIs are now set to go on display, one each at Hurlburt Field in Florida and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico. Air Combat Command (ACC) also operates somewhat similarly configured HH-130J Combat King II combat search and rescue aircraft, which have transport and aerial refueling capabilities.

“AFSOC… has accelerated developmental testing on the Silent Knight Radar,” a spokesperson for the command told The War Zone in a statement.

The MC-130J’s core mission sets include inserting special operations forces into denied areas, as well as extracting them from those kinds of locations. Being able to fly at very low levels and otherwise use terrain to hide from enemy forces, and especially from their air defense radars, and do so in under the cover of darkness and in bad weather, is absolutely essential to the success of these kinds of operations.

An MC-130J Commando II assigned to the 9th Special Operations Squadron taxis during Agile Flag 21-1 at Hurlburt Field, Florida, Oct. 27, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joseph Pick)

Terrain following and terrain avoidance capabilities can also be useful for the MC-130J’s additional aerial refueling mission. Commando IIs can carry a probe-and-drogue refueling pod under each wing to provide fuel in mid-air to V-22 Osprey tilt-rotors, including AFSOC’s CV-22Bs, and helicopters, such as MH-60 Black Hawks and MH-47 Chinooks belonging to the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. These missions also routinely occur at lower altitudes and at night.

The original expectation was that the MC-130J would be able to use a version of the AN/APN-241 multi-function radar found on all standard C-130J Hercules airlifters to provide the necessary terrain-following and terrain avoidance capabilities. This turned out not to be the case, as you can read more about here.

The decision was then made to integrate the proven SKR onto the Commando II. This radar is set to become a common terrain-following/terrain avoidance radar across the U.S. special operations aviation community as a whole, also being integrated into Air Force CV-22B tilt-rotors and Army MH-60M and MH-47G helicopters.

A U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) briefing slide showing Silent Knight Radars installed on Army MH-60M Black Hawk and MH-47G Chinook helicopters. SOCOM

On the MC-130J, the SKR is installed on top of the aircraft’s nose, as a complement to the existing AN/APN-241.

A head-on view of an MC-130J Commando II with the Silent Knight Radar installed. USAF

The limitations of the original radar on the MC-130J prompted AFSOC to significantly alter its plans for retiring the older MC-130Hs. Originally, the Air Force expected to have divested the last of its Combat Talon IIs, which have a distinctive gonzo nose to accommodate the very large AN/APQ-170 radar, by 2012.

An MC-130H Combat Talon II. USAF

The story of the AN/APQ-170 is a saga unto itself, as you can read more about here, and delayed the entry of the MC-130H into service until 1991. Combat Talon IIs arrived too late to take part in the first Gulf War, but did go on to support operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq, among other places.

In the opening phase of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, MC-130Hs carrying U.S. Army Special Forces personnel, or Green Berets, conducted the longest publicly known low-level infiltration sorties since World War II as part of a mission known as Operation Ugly Baby. Turkish authorities had denied the U.S. military the use of the country’s airspace over issues relating to Kurdish groups in northern Iraq.

Without access to Turkish airspace, the Combat Talon IIs launched from Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base in Romania on the night of March 22, 2003. They then had to ingress from the west and fly a convoluted route that took them along most of Iraq’s western and northern borders to try to get safely around the country’s defenses. The route also required stripping down the aircraft as much as possible and leaving behind anything that wasn’t necessary to reduce weight and extend range.

A map showing a portion of the route taken by Air Force MC-130Hs during Operation Ugly Baby, as well as the locations of Iraqi forces. The “Green Line” noted in Northern Iraq reflects a boundary at the time between semi-autonomous Kurdish regions and the rest of the country. U.S. Army

“The planes taking off were staggered, which allowed the Iraqis to adjust fire as each plane flew the route to Bashur and Sulaymaniyah L.Z.s [landing zones]. The last few planes received the most contact from anti-air,” according to an official history of the mission. “Most of the flight had been an average ride until the aircrew started to receive enemy fire. At that point, the airplane initiated evasive maneuvers to avoid taking too much damage. During the rollercoaster of a ride, the pilots had to change elevation throughout the flurry of rounds, sometimes reaching nearly 200 ft off the ground and at near top speeds with as many as 60 Green Berets on board.”

Army Green Berets inside an MC-130H during Operation Ugly Baby. US Army

One of the Combat Talon IIs was so severely damaged as a result that it had to divert into Turkey.

“We passed over a small [Iraqi] convoy, and they started firing everything from shoulder-fired Surface to Air Missile Systems to pistols and everything in between,” Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jefferey Elwell, who as an Operation Detachment Alpha (ODA) team sergeant with the 10th Special Forces Group at the time, said an in an official interview. “The lights came on, and the pilots declared an inflight emergency which would have them divert landing into Incirlik Air Base, Turkey. As the ramp came down, everyone started running as they realized aviation fluid was spilling over the tarmac.”

A picture said to show damage to one of the MC-130Hs that took part in Operation Ugly Baby. U.S. Army

Ultimately, MC-130Hs were able to insert 19 Special Forces ODAs, or A-Teams, as well as four special operations headquarters elements, as part of Ugly Baby. This helped establish a coalition foothold in northern Iraq in coordination with local Kurdish groups.

Operation Ugly Baby underscores the immense importance of extremely low-level flight capabilities to AFSOC’s MC-130 community and the vital need to integrate SKRs onto the Commando IIs as quickly as possible.

AFSOC MC-130Js are also in the process of receiving other upgrades to their communications and data-sharing networking capabilities and their self-protection suite.

The Air Force is exploring the possibility of fielding a subvariant of the MC-130J configured as a float plane. However, AFSOC told The War Zone in February that plans to conduct an actual demonstration of this capability this year have been pushed back, at least until 2024. The Pentagon’s 2024 Fiscal Year budget request does show there remains significant interest in this project, with U.S. Special Operations Command asking for nearly $10.1 million in additional funding. This is a major increase over the $1.6 million that SOCOM received for MAC in Fiscal Year 2023.

A rendering of an MC-130J converted into a floatplane. AFSOC

No matter how AFSOC’s MC-130J fleet continues to evolve, the command “is confident in the ability of the MC-130J to fill the role of the retired MC-130H,” the spokesman told The War Zone. “MC-130J aircrews routinely train in the low-level environment.”

The integration of the Silent Knight Radars across the Commando II fleet will, of course, help ensure that these aircraft can conduct their very demanding missions safely and effectively at very low altitudes.

Contact the author:

Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.