Most people, if they know what a C-130 is, simply look and see a C-130 in the air. Others see an annoying military plane that buzzes treetops and looks like a bumblebee lumbering through the sky. Did you know that Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has its own variety called MC-130? The Combat Shadows and Talon IIs of AFSOC pave the way for special operations around the world.



The C-130 Hercules is the absolute workhorse of the U.S. Air Force. The basic C-130, released into the wild in 1956, has been improved on and modified extensively throughout the years. The C-130J Super Hercules has hit the mainstream and is now parked on nearly every active C-130 ramp in the Air Force. The venerable Hercules is owned and operated by the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Navy, and the Air National Guard. It fills roles unique to each organization.


Special Mission Hercs

Air Force Special Operations Command operates the MC-130 variants of the Herc. The “M” denotes special mission. During the Vietnam War, USAF officials determined a need for an aircraft that could perform low-level clandestine penetration operations. The C-130E was ultimately chosen for the honor, and four aircraft were assigned to become test-beds for unconventional warfare.

MC-130 Combat Talon II
Combat Talon II taxies at RAF Machrihanish, Scotland. (Courtesy of author)

These C-130Es were the precursor of the special operation variants we know and love/hate today. Project Thin Slice was a USAF program to modify existing aircraft to act in special operation roles. The original aircraft, the C-123B Provider, was not up to the tasks demanded by Military Airlift Command Vietnam-Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG), and the C-130E slipped into the role.

The aircraft were modified by Lockheed Air Services. The engineers tried every modification they thought would work on the aircraft. Some C-130s were outfitted with the Fulton Surface-To-Air Recovery Systems (STARS). STARS aircraft had a large scissor-like yoke mounted on their nose. Operators on the ground would inflate large helium balloons to raise a lift cable, and the C-130 would fly in and snag the cable, pulling personnel and/or cargo from the ground. Due to the nature of the system, very little unclassified information about its operational use exists, but it was used from the mid-60s to 1982.


Putting a Name to the Face

The C-130Es outfitted for SOG use were broken into three designations: “Clamp”, “Yank”, and “Swap.” Clamp C-130s had upgraded avionics packages, infrared and electronic countermeasures suites, and terrain following/terrain avoidance (TF/TA) radar sets. Yanks were the original C-130s that continued to undergo clandestine modifications. Swaps were those that had been de-modified to return to regular service. The Swaps, however, could be called back to SOG service and re-outfitted.



Collectively, the SOF C-130 variants became known as Combat Talon, and were designated MC-130 in 1977. In 1984, they became known as Combat Talon I when authorization was given to modify the new C-130H to the Combat Talon II designation. These Talon IIs had the same basic mission and functionality as the Talon I, but with upgraded avionics and communications. Talon IIs have integrated avionics suites, replacing analog instrumentation with computers and screens; a “glass” cockpit.

The Talon IIs entered service in 1992 at Hurlburt Field. Since then, they have flown in numerous regions, filling myriad roles in humanitarian and combat operations. MC-130s delivered U.S. Army Rangers into Afghanistan in 2001 during the famous Operation Rhino. A Combat Talon II landed at Baghdad International Airport in 2003, the first U.S. aircraft to land there, kicking off Operation Iraqi Freedom.



MC-130P Combat Shadow
MC-130P Combat Shadow preps for taxi in Bamako, Mali. (Courtesy of Author)

The Combat Shadow is the other iteration of the AFSOC MC-130 family. Initially designated the HC-130P, “H” for search and rescue, the Shadow was re-designated with the “M” for special mission in 1996. The MC-130P Combat Shadow is AFSOC’s premier refueling aircraft, providing refuel operations for rotary-winged aircraft. Shadows are capable of low-level, clandestine operations. They primarily operate at night to avoid detection. In addition to refueling operations, the Shadow conducts psychological operations such as leaflet drops. It also conducts boat drops, small-team insertion and extraction, and resupply.

Both Talon and Shadow crews are NVG qualified, meaning they operate with little or no internal or external lighting. Although they are two different aircraft, their capabilities are designed to overlap. While the Shadow is primarily a refueler, it has the capability to perform many of the same operations as the Talon II. The Talon II operates the same way, being able to perform refueling operations as well.

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MC-130H Combat Talon II
A MC-130H Combat Talon II flies above Hurlburt Field after takeoff. The MC-130H Combat Talon II provides infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of special operations forces and equipment in hostile territory. (Photo by Senior Airman Christopher Callaway/USAF)


What Makes It So Special?

One of the biggest differences between the two aircraft is the radar system. The Shadow operates the APN-59 radar set, a “basic” weather radar with a few extra capabilities. The Talon, on the other hand, operates the AN/APQ-170 radar set with terrain following/terrain avoidance abilities. This radar set allows the Talon II to fly at “officially” 250 ft in adverse weather. This radar set is what gives the Talon II its distinctive nose. A strengthened tail section allows the Talon II to come in low and fast for airdrops. With the advanced radar and integrated avionics, the Talon II can execute airdrops and landings day or night, in almost any environment.

Both aircraft sport forward-looking infrared and robust electronic countermeasures. Chaff and flare systems protect the birds from both radar-guided and heat-seeking missile threats. Satellite communications suites allow the SOF C-130s to remain in contact and provide real-world information flow wherever they are in the world. Refueling abilities allow these 130s to become force multipliers, providing capabilities in areas other refuelers may not be able to operate in. Low-level and NVG capabilities, coupled with crew training and proficiency, make the MC-130 fleet the ride of choice for special operations forces all over the world.

MC-130 refuels CV-22 Osprey
MC-130 prepares for an inflight refuel of a CV-22 Osprey over the Atlantic Ocean. (Courtesy of Author)


The MC of the Future

With the advent of the C-130J “Super Hercules”, the MC-130P and H are being phased out. The first MC-130J was delivered to AFSOC in 2011, and 57 total are expected to be delivered by 2025. Rather than a modification of an existing aircraft in the inventory, the MC-130J Commando II rolls from the factory as a special operations platform. The Commando II has more updated avionics, stronger wings, and is lighter than conventional C-130Js. It also has provisions built in for upcoming improvements to electronic countermeasures and radar.

The AC-130, in all its iterations, is another one of AFSOC’s specialized C-130s, but it deserves, and will get, its own write-up. The MC-130 of AFSOC is the workhorse of special operations. The ability to get in and get out with nobody being the wiser is the key to AFSOC’s success. The C-130 may be a slow-flying bumblebee, but these MC-130s are hornets dressed as bumblebees.