USAF's MC-130P Combat Shadow in Mozambique

News and Press Release
Originally published
Late-breaking editor's note: Our mst recent report says that the USAF MC-130P is airborne at this time conducting a reconnaissance mission looking for thesed 20,000 people. Guillaume de Montravel, the UN's senior liaison officer in the area, is said to be abaoard. We will keep you informed.

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USAF's MC-130P Combat Shadow in Mozambique

It is still an open question whether this aircraft spotted 20,000 stranded Mozambicans or not. For sure the aircraft is flying today to confirm the reports making the rounds that such a group exists. Also for sure, the Americans have sent their very best equipment to Mozambique to respond to distraught flood victims under the very harshest flight conditions.

March 9, 2000

NCN's initial reporting on the possible US Air Force (USAF) discovery of an estimated 20,000 stranded Mozambicans said that a USAF C-130 aircraft with specially configured sensors (MC-130P shown in the picture above) had spotted the people and filmed them while in the process of reconnoitering the status of a railroad in the northeast of the country. We then followed that report with another that indicated there was some dispute about whether the USAF aircraft and crew had actually spotted these people.

Today's reporting does not provide full clarity, but the following is a summary based on what has been seen thus far by NCN:

  • A French priest, Father Jean Pierre Le Scour, initially told officials that he saw roughly 20,000 flood-displaced people moving toward the Mabalane area. The priest arrived in Maputo on March 7 and passed on the report as part of his overall effort to seek help for people in that region.
  • On March 8, Father Le Scour told UPI that some 8,000 of these people had already arrived in the Mabalane area two weeks previous.
  • A USAF C-130, which NCN believes is the specially configured MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft (picture shown above), was then employed to conduct a reconnaissance flight over the area on March 9 to verify the priest's report.
  • Mike Cohen, reporting for AP, and Buchizya Mseteka, reporting for Reuters, have indicated, however, that the Combat Shadow aircraft was flying over this region on March 8 and actually spotted the 20,000 people. But then Cohen quoted USAF Captain Alex Carothers saying that a group of 2,000 displaced people were spotted in the Save River delta, which is far to the northeast, between Beira and Imhambane on the coast. Carothers, who inspected the area on the March 8 mission, was quoted saying these 2,000 people were "within five to seven miles off the coast, there must have been 2,000 displaced people -- and those were only the ones we could see." So, it appears the USAF only spotted 2,000, not 20,000, and the people were spotted along the Save River delta.
  • Cohen reported that the mission task for the March 8 flight was to inspect a dam on the Limpopo River near the town of Massingir close to the South African border. The dam's water levels had been a cause of major concern. Mseteka also reported that the USAF C-130 spotted 20,000 stranded Mozambicans on its March 8 mission, but indicated the people were spotted when the C-130 was inspecting a railway in the northeast. Mseteka said the mission filmed the stranded people, but then said that a UN official had indicated the news was broken by the French priest. Mseteka also reported that aid agency people knew nothing of the report of the USAF filming the 20,000 people and would have to verify it. Another aid worker, who declined to be named, cast doubt on the report, saying the figure was too high for the people to have gone unnoticed by South African Air Force rescue missions operating for the past three weeks since floods hit the country.
  • In a separate report, Mseteka said that a UN aid coordinator, Rosa Malango said, "We have contradictory reports from the people who originated this story on the 20,000. They are now not sure whether they saw 20,000 or they didn't see 20,000. The Americans are denying they ever told anyone they had seen 20,000 people on the march." The American task force commander, Major General Werhle, was quoted saying, "We don't want to get ahead of ourselves at this point.... There is evidence of people and sheltering. I cannot confirm numbers."
So, in sum, it appears that a French priest seeking help for people in his region said there were 20,000 displaced people, an American Air Force captain who flew aboard a March 8 mission said there were about 2,000 people spotted along the Save River, and a March 9 C-130 mission has been launched to try to nail all this down. In warfare, this is known as "the fog of war." In this case, it looks like it can be called the "fog of relief operations."

What is important here, from a technical and mission planning standpoint, is that valuable resources are now being tied up to look for these 20,000 people reported by the priest. If the priest's report was accurate, this will be a resource allocation well spent and the priest will be a hero. If his report is inaccurate, part of an effort to focus attention on getting aid to his people, then this might not have been such a good resource allocation. If his reports were very exaggerated, it will turn out to have been a waste of resource allocation, and others might have suffered because the resources were not focused on them. Resource allocation is the dominant issue when conducting any kind of operation, but most especially a military and humanitarian operation.

This is a good opportunity, however, to highlight for readers this special USAF C-130, officially called the MC-130P and nicknamed Combat Shadow. In his Washington press briefing of March 7, Department of Defense spokesman Kenneth Bacon said that the USAF had deployed six C-130 Hercules aircraft, and one MC-130P Combat Shadow aircraft, and NCN is assuming this to be the aircraft being employed to find these stranded people because of the references to special configurations and special sensors.

The Combat Shadow aircraft was designed to fly clandestine or low visibility, single or multi-ship low-level missions intruding politically sensitive or hostile territory to provide air refueling for special operations helicopters. The MC-130P primarily flies missions at night to reduce probability of visual acquisition and intercept by airborne threats. Secondary mission capabilities may include airdrop of small special operations teams, bundles and combat rubber raiding craft, as well as night vision goggles, takeoff and landing procedures and in-flight refueling as a receiver, meaning it refuels other aircraft. The MC-130P has improved navigation, communications, threat detection and countermeasures systems. It has a fully-integrated inertial navigation and global positioning system, and night vision goggle compatible interior and exterior lighting. The aircraft have been going through a period of modification and upgrade, and when fully upgraded will have forward looking infrared, radar and missile warning receivers, chaff and flare dispensers, night vision goggle compatible heads-up displays, satellite and data-burst communications, as well as in-flight refueling capability as a receiver. The Combat Shadow can fly in the day against a reduced threat. The crews fly night low-level, air refueling and formation operations using night vision goggles. To enhance the probability of mission success and survivability near populated areas, employment tactics incorporate no external lighting and no communications to avoid radar and weapons detection.

The MC-130P traces its lineage from the HC-130N/P, which was mainly used as a rescue and recovery aircraft. However, the USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC) caused the aircraft to be redesignated the MC-130P to reflect its special operations role. These aircraft, in one configuration or another, provided critical air refueling to Army and Air Force helicopters during Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989. In 1990, the aircraft deployed to Saudi Arabia and Turkey for Operation Desert Storm and provided air refueling of special operations helicopters over friendly and hostile territory. Since Desert Storm, the MC-130P has been involved in operations Northern and Southern Watch, supporting efforts to keep Iraqi aircraft out of the no-fly zones. Although MC-130P's left Southern Watch in 1993, they have returned periodically to relieve USAF rescue forces. The aircraft also took part in Operation Deny Flight in Yugoslavia in 1993, and Operations Restore Democracy and Uphold Democracy in Haiti in 1994. The MC-130P has been involved in operations Deliberate Force and Joint Endeavor in Bosnia since 1995. Additionally, the MC-130P took part in Operation Assured Response in 1996, providing air refueling for the MH-53 helicopters shuttling evacuees between Liberia and the rear staging area. In March 1997, the MC-130P was diverted from Italy to provide combat search and rescue during the evacuation of non-combatant Americans from Albania. Also in 1997, the MC-130P provided command and control and refueling support during Operation Guardian Retrieval, the evacuation of Americans from Zaire. In July 1997, the aircraft provided aerial refueling for MH-53J's when U.S. forces prepared for possible evacuations of noncombatants from Cambodia. The aircraft also was part of Operation High Flight, the search to locate an American C-141 involved in a mid-air collision with another aircraft off the coast of Angola in September 1997.

The USAF 16th Special Operations Wing (SOW), at Hurlburt Field, Florida is the oldest and most seasoned unit in AFSOC. The 16th SOW is primarily responsible to Central, Atlantic and Southern commands, but also provides augmentation forces to AFSOC groups forward deployed in Europe and the Pacific. It includes the 4th Special Operations Squadron (SOS), which flies the AC-130U gunship; the 6th SOS, which is the wing's combat aviation advisory unit; the 8th SOS, which flies the MC-130E Combat Talon I; the 15th SOS, which flies the MC-130H Combat Talon II; the 16th SOS, which flies the AC-130H gunship; and the 20th SOS, which flies the MH-53J/M Pave Low helicopter. One squadron, the 9th SOS, is located on nearby Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and flies the MC-130P Combat Shadow.

Both the Combat Shadow MC-130P and the MH-53J/M Pave Low helicopter have been deployed to Mozambique, so the Americans, in this instance, have sent their very best equipment to assist in the flood rescue and relief operation.

Why send such aircraft? There are several reasons.

  • First, the combination of the MC-130P and the Pave Low helicopters in theory can provide more extended search and rescue operations, because the MC-130Ps can air-to-air refuel the helicopters. The American thinking as the emergency situation took form was that there would be a requirement to conduct longer-range missions to more remote areas where the South Africans and Malawians, perhaps, had not been able to reach in their initial rescue endeavors.
  • Second, the sensors aboard the aircraft can see at night and through foul weather. At the time of deployment, there were concerns about Cyclone Gloria and continued rainy weather, so operations during foul weather are a big plus. Being able to operate at nights simply means you can operate longer to help a greater number of people.
  • Third, these are aircraft designed for rough, bare-bones operating conditions. The crews are trained to fly at night, in very bad weather, without radar and air traffic control and without communications contact. All these conditions were expected in Mozambique. In short, they would offer search, rescue and relief operations decision-makers with a maximum capability to serve Mozambique's most distraught people under the most tough flight conditions.
There is one more point worth noting about the American efforts now underway in Mozambique, and this has to do with the relationship between military forces, government officials and non-government organizations during a humanitarian emergency. In the old days, for example in post war Germany and Japan, generals came in to take charge, General Eisenhower in Germany, and General MacArthur in Japan. These generals set up their military staffs to run the affairs, civil and military, and brought in civilians only when absolutely essential. Those days have changed.

In situations such as the one in Mozambique, for the American effort, the American ambassador to Maputo is in charge. He is a civilian, and exercises civilian control of on-scene American activities, including the military. The ambassador does this through the embassy's "country team." The country team consists of the immediate embassy staff of diplomats, and any other US agency people sent to the region. For example, a country team could have CIA intelligence agents, FBI law enforcement agents, US Agency for International Development (USAID) experts, US Department of Commerce commercial attachés, and even representatives of the American business community in the region, etc.

It has been recognized for some time by American emergency planning people that these organizations have to learn to work together in these kinds of crises, and many exercises practicing how best to do that have been conducted. There have been many lessons learned, which ought to be the topic of a later report.

Because there are so many non-government organizations (NGOs) in Africa, NGOs have to be part of the country team. It is particularly noteworthy that the American military has had to learn how to operate and interoperate with the NGOs. This is noteworthy for many reasons, one of which is a "human nature" kind of reason --- as a broad generalization, military combat forces and their generals are far different kinds of people than NGO aid workers and their directors. So bringing these two entities together to operate in a cooperative and mutually supportive mode is no easy chore, but is, obviously mission essential in these kinds of circumstances and in many other scenarios that have developed or could develop in places such as Africa. Learning how to interoperate for both entities is a relatively new phenomenon.

There are reports about the current Mozambique situation, for example, that indicate the USAF is receiving its "targeting" direction from aid agencies most probably through the country team. In a combat operation, the target directive to bomb a factory would come from a military command center. But in a humanitarian operation such as this, the instructions to deliver certain aid to a certain location at a certain time comes from the aid agencies through the country team; the directive to search a certain area for survivors might also come through this same mechanism.

During war, a bombing run might be conducted as tasked by the military command center. The aircrew would recover at its home base and debrief a military intelligence unit. Photo runs would be made to assess the results of the bombing attack, and decisions would be made whether to repeat the attack or go on to another target. However in this humanitarian case, the military would conduct its mission, as tasked, and report its results back to the country team as the tasking authority. In the case of the search for these reported stranded Mozambicans, the aircrew would conduct the mission and most likely report by radio whether survivors had been located, the aircrew would image the area to help assess the scope of the situation, it would also image the geography to help identify potential landing and drop zones, and then await further instructions. In the case of the MC-130P, it also appears that some members of the aircrew could be dropped into the immediate area to either lend immediate help to survivors on the ground or set up a ground-based command center to vector in newly arriving rescue and aid aircraft. Or, the MC-130P aircrew might remain on station and direct the helicopters in to conduct rescue and delivery operations from the air.

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