The AC-130 is an Air Force gunship used by America's secret warriors. A transport plane modified by addition of a 105-mm howitzer and assorted small cannons, its job would be to loiter over a target and spray fire in support of special operations. Special force leaders say they want new AC-130s very much. Yet none have been bought in the last eight years, and more than half the small AC-130 inventory is now at least 20 years old.
This and other US special operations forces are today short of modern equipment, SOF leaders say. They say communications gear is still needed, as are various aircraft - despite the fact that back in 1981 the Reagan administration vowed to make improvement of secret forces a top Pentagon priority.
``The revitalization of SOF ... is still delayed,'' said Gen. James Lindsay, head of the US Special Operations Command, last week.
Key members of Congress, as well as administration officials, for a number of years have been pushing for refurbishment of Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Delta Force, and other special units. These forces are intended for use in fighting terrorists and in other low-intensity conflicts, such as guerrilla war.
High-level dissatisfaction with SOF can be traced back at least to 1980, when the attempt to rescue the US hostages in Iran, code-named ``Desert One,'' ended in a swirl of dust and smashed helicopters.
Improvement of special forces is ``critically important to our national defense,'' a 1986 congressional report judged.
The Reagan administration has devoted large sums of money to this end. Since 1981, $9 billion has been devoted to special force modernization, according to this year's Defense Department Annual Report to Congress. Another $9 billion is scheduled to be spent between now and 1992. The number of major SOF units has increased from 16 to 24.
General Lindsay of Special Forces Command, at a recent breakfast with defense reporters, said, ``We've come a long way since Desert One.''
But he added that despite the money spent, there was still a way to go to modernize his newly enlarged forces. With Congress in no mood to vote increased defense funds, Lindsay said he is worried about reaching that destination.
He said US special forces need 38 Combat Talon transport planes, but at present have only 14. Only 8 of a projected force of 41 Pave Low special forces helicopters have been purchased.
When Lindsay looked at a rough draft of the 1989 budget, he found that programs important to special forces had been slashed 33 percent. After he complained, the cut was reduced to about 1 percent.
There is little money to be saved by cutting special forces deeply, Lindsay said, as they are one of the Pentagon's smaller activities.
``I'm the cheap command,'' he said.
Some members of Congress have long suspected that the US military does not look favorably on special forces. The command Lindsay heads was created by congressional order in 1986 to help ensure that SOF receive priority attention.
Congress also ordered creation of a new post at the Pentagon, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. The job is still unfilled - a delay that has further hurt SOF readiness, congressional sources claim.
The Pentagon's first nominee, Justice Department official Kenneth Bergquist, withdrew after some lawmakers questioned his experience and dedication to the role of special forces. The new nominee, former ambassador Charles Whitehouse, should be better received, says a congressional aide who is following the issue. ``He's got stature,'' the aide says.