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AFSOC AC-130 Gunships


As part of the fleet expansion, Lane said that a new Precision Strike Package “was developed as the ‘next-generation gunship weapon suite,’ if you will, and the thought all along was that it would go into whatever platform the next-generation gunship was.”

… another likely future element in the Precision Strike Package would be the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM).

“At the time, back in 2009, they were also looking at the potential of an AC-27, a smaller two-engine gunship,” he continued. “That was eventually abandoned, and the C-130J was chosen as the next gunship platform. But the Precision Strike Package that is on the ‘Whiskey’ [AC-130W] is really what has been developed and is the same package that is going in the AC-130J.”


Precision Strike Package

Air Force descriptions characterize the Precision Strike Package as “designed to provide ground forces with an expeditionary, persistent direct fires platform capable of delivering precision low-yield munitions suited for urban operations,” adding that “it took less than 18 months from the first flight of a prototype modified aircraft to deployment to Operation New Dawn” and that the AC-130W gunships “have since been employed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.”

AC-130W Stinger II

An AC-130W Stinger II, 73rd Special Operations Squadron (73rd SOS), taxis down the flight line at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, July 12, 2012. Stinger IIs are MC-130Ws reconfigured as gunships. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ericka Engblom

Lane highlighted the package as “a modular capability” of both guns and precision-guided munitions [PGMs], but also one in which AFSOC is attempting to develop “a standard configuration of armaments.”

“For example, the Precision Strike Package currently has a 30 mm gun,” he explained. “That won’t change. It will be on all the aircraft. It could be removed, because it is modular, but I wouldn’t expect that that would happen for any of the missions. We’re just now testing the 105 [mm] gun that we’re adding to the Precision Strike Package … and we expect that all of the airplanes will have the 105 gun capability. But it is also modular and could be removed.”

In terms of PGMs, Lane said that all of the Precision Strike Package aircraft feature a launch system on the rear ramp “in the back that has 10 tubes; common launch tubes for smaller precision-guided munitions. Currently we shoot the [AGM-176] Griffin missile out of the door and it can hold 10 at a time with additional [missiles] stored in the airplane. And it can be reloaded in flight. So all of the airplanes will have that.”

In addition to Griffin, Lane said that the package will integrate the Boeing GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb-I (SDB-I) and follow-on Raytheon GBU-53/B SDB-II weapons.

“And both of those munitions would come off a rail on the out-board pylon of the wing of an AC-130,” he said.

Other weapon load possibilities include AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

Lane said that the specific load will be “mission dependent,” explaining that current rack designs allow the aircraft to carry four of the larger PGMs under each wing.

“You potentially could have a mission where you would carry four Hellfires on one wing and four SDB-Is or SDB-IIs on another wing,” he said. “Some of that will be mission dependent on the munitions they want to carry for a specific mission. But both Hellfires and Small Diameter Bombs will be deployed from the wing pylons.”

Harvest Hawk tubes

A Marine straps down a rack that can contain up to 10 Griffin missiles on the loading ramp of a “Harvest Hawk” KC-130J. The common launch tube component of the Precision Strike Package is mounted similarly on the ramp of some AFSOC AC-130s. DOD photo by Lance Cpl. Scott L. Tomaszycki

He acknowledged that another likely future element in the Precision Strike Package would be the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM). “We view JAGM as a follow-on or replacement for the Hellfire; a more advanced Hellfire version – same class, size, type missile. And when that’s fielded, we would look to incorporate it,” he said.

Along with enhanced stand-off capabilities, the planned incorporation of Small Diameter Bomb-II will include integration of a data link that could allow the weapon to be retargeted in flight, expanding the PGM target set to moving and maritime targets.

With a half-century of proven accurate and lethal firepower, some might wonder why gunships would benefit from the introduction of PGMs.

Lane said that the addition of PGMs in the Precision Strike Package addresses “a gap that’s been in the gunships for a long time.”

“You get certain things from guns that you don’t get from PGMs and vice-versa,” he said, adding that each brings its own benefits based on target type and troop situations on the ground.

“For example, with guns you get rapid re-attack and you can increase the amount of weapons or fire on target over a short period of time that you generally don’t get with PGMs,” he explained. “Alternately, you’ll shoot a PGM at a target and hopefully the PGM destroys the target. If it doesn’t, then you could look to re-engage again with another PGM. But that usually means minutes between engagements unless you launch multiple PGMs at one target at the same time. With guns it’s a little different. When you shoot a 105 or another gun, the time from when you shoot to actual engagement of the target is seconds. So you get a damage assessment or an assessment immediately of the effect on target and then have the ability to rapidly re-engage within seconds. You really don’t get that with PGMs because you may have to reposition the airplane for another attack run and so forth. So, with guns and troops in contact you have the ability to do suppressive fire with guns. You generally don’t do that with PGMs. You either destroy the target or you miss it and you have to re-engage, where with guns even close is good sometimes if you’re stopping the enemy from firing at the friendlies.”

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Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...