By Emelie Rutherford

U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is seeking funding to quickly convert up to a dozen MC-130W Combat Spear support-and-tanker planes to gunships partly because of the need for more precision firepower in Afghanistan, a senior official told lawmakers last week.

SOCOM Commander Adm. Eric Olson told a House panel on Thursday that an effort to convert the Lockheed Martin [LMT]-built MC-130Ws also grew out of its unmet need to recapitalize its AC-130 gunships.

“The recent level of activity in Afghanistan is causing us to understand again how important precision firepower is in that tactical environment,” Olson said. “We are understanding clearly that our capacity is insufficient, and that other substitute platforms simply don’t bring the same response to troops in contact that an AC-130 does.”

However, he added: “AC-130 is not a precision fire platform; it’s actually an area fire weapon that’s extremely accurate with its sensors and guns.”

So to augment the AC-130 fleet, Olson said, “what we are seeking to do immediately is modify our MC-130W fleet to serve as a platform for a standoff position guided munition as a primary weapon and a 30 millimeter gun as a secondary weapon, all proven systems.”

Doing this, he said, is “simply a matter of integrating them in a platform that hasn’t been used for that purpose before.”

Olson’s explanation came in response to questioning from Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) about a special-operations gunship shortfall during a House Armed Services Terrorism and Unconventional Threats and Capabilities subcommittee hearing.

The Pentagon’s official fiscal year 2010 budget request seeks $31.6 million to add some gunship capability to six MC-130Ws, according to FY ’10 budget-justification documents.

“This modification fulfills an urgent combat requirement to rapidly arm and field multi-mission precision strike platforms,” the SOCOM documents state. “(It) provides an armed over-watch capability including sensors, communication systems, precision guided munitions, and a single medium-caliber gun.”

An interim kit is being fielded and funded in FY ’09, the current fiscal year, under a Combat Mission Needs Statement, it adds.

SOCOM’s list of unfunded-priorities not covered in the Pentagon’s budget proposal also lists, in the No. 1 spot, $85 million to modify four additional MC-130Ws “into day/night capable precision strike platforms with mobility capability.” This funding would give Air Force Special Operations Command a total of 12 of the aircraft, according to the unfunded-priorities letter sent last month to Congress.