Appearing on the “Major Command Priorities” panel at the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in February 2015, Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), addressed the balance between ongoing platform recapitalization and the acquisition of new special operations platforms.
Heithold emphasized that current operational environments do not allow AFSOC to “take a knee and recapitalize” but rather require “maintain[ing] a level of capability and readiness today with my legacy force as we go through this recap effort.”
The AC-130J Ghostrider will bring myriad benefits from the new C-130J airplane platform.
Turning to the command’s gunships, he said he was “pretty pleased right now with what I’m seeing on the recap efforts of the AC-130.”
“Most of you know that we’re moving to the AC-130J,” he said. “I call it the ‘ultimate battle plane,’ because I’m going to have a ‘dial a bomb’ capability and I’m going to have guns on it. We’re ‘upgunning’ the aircraft with a 105 [mm]. It will be an ultimate night CAS [close air support] airplane for special operations.”
The AC-130J “Ghostrider” traces its lineage back to the original AC-47D (initially designated FC-47D), a gunship conversion of a Douglas C-47D Dakota that carried three 7.62 mm “miniguns” firing through two rear windows and the cargo door on the port side. Heithold’s praise for the latest model came just over 50 years after the first test use of an AC-47 in combat, in December 1964.
The Air Force eventually converted 53 C-47s to gunships during the Vietnam War, and lessons learned from the program fed into improved gunship models based on converted Fairchild C-119s and Lockheed C-130s.
Fast forward a few decades to the Global War on Terrorism, when AFSOC entered the 21st century with a mixed fleet of eight AC-130H “Spectre” gunships and 13 AC-130U “Spooky” gunships. The AC-130H, first deployed in 1972, carries both a 40 mm and 105 mm cannon (20 mm guns that were also carried for a number of years were removed). The AC-130U, first deployed in 1995, carries the 40 mm gun, 105 mm gun, and an additional 25 mm Gatling gun, along with other system improvements.
According to Bill Lane, chief of strike and ISR requirements for Air Force Special Operations Command, AFSOC’s gunship fleet is currently assigned to two bases – Hurlburt Field, Florida, and Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico – although deployment information and specific gunship models or quantities at each location are not publicly discussed.
Primary missions for the fleet include close air support (including troops in contact, convoy escort, and urban operations), air interdiction (against both pre-planned targets and targets of opportunity), and force protection (including both air base and facilities defense).
Lane noted that current activities surrounding the AC-130H/AC-130U “legacy fleet” of gunships include ongoing retirement of the AC-130H Spectre component. Four of those aircraft were retired in FY 2014 and the remaining aircraft are slated for retirement by the end of FY 2015.
Interim Capability Enhancements
In parallel with legacy fleet retirement planning, AFSOC has also acquired a dozen AC-130W “Stinger II” platforms.
“That is our latest evolution of the gunship, even though the airframe itself is the same age as the AC-130U,” Lane said. “The airframes are between 1987 and 1989 models, but they were just modified again to gunships beginning in 2009.”
The aircraft were originally configured as MC-130W “Combat Spear” refuelers, but were reconfigured for gunship duties, renamed “Dragon Spear,” and later redesignated as the AC-130W Stinger II in May 2012.
Noting that the Stinger II carries a Precision Strike Package that includes a “mix of guns and precision munitions,” Lane described the aircraft an “an interim build for gunships” prompted by operational mandates prior to availability of the future objective AC-130J platforms.
“When Adm. [Eric T.] Olson was the USSOCOM [U.S. Special Operations] commander, he decided to convert the MC-130W, which was a mobility platform, into a gunship, because we needed more [gunships] on the battlefield at the time in the conflicts that we were fighting,” he explained.