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AFSOC AC-130 Gunships


“Depending on the weapon, PGMs also give a significant stand-off capability that you don’t get with guns,” he added. “So, each weapon type provides a different capability, a different ‘arrow in the quiver’ as it were, for the gunship suite.”

Along with enhanced stand-off capabilities, the planned incorporation of SDB-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.

All of the Precision Strike Packages are currently equipped with 20-inch sensors that have both electro-optic and infrared capability and are capable of target designation.

Current plans call for the acquisition of 37 Ghostrider gunships as one-for-one replacements for the current legacy fleet.

Lane said that, in addition to the optics of weapon suites on both the legacy gunships and the new platforms, the gunships have a number of defensive systems designed to address a range of battlefield threats.


AC-130J Ghostrider

As noted earlier, the Precision Strike Package on the AC-130W Stinger II will also be carried on the AFSOC “objective” gunship solution. The AC-130J Ghostrider will bring myriad benefits from the new C-130J airplane platform.

“The AC-130J will be much more sustainable for a number of reasons,” Lane said. “For example, with the legacy platforms we’re having vanishing vendors and difficulty keeping those airplanes flying at a high availability rate. The AC-J is also a more capable platform in terms of performance – flying higher, faster, and capable of carrying more weight. And that’s also a big benefit for gunships, because the legacy platforms were pretty much maxed out gross weight-wise. So it was difficult to add anything to the weapon systems, without adding weight that degraded the performance of the aircraft.”

“Also, the AC-130J is the same basic platform as our MC-130J [Commando II], so a lot of the base green aircraft systems are common,” he added. “And that will really help us logistics-wise in terms of spares and so forth. Instead of having three or four different models of C-130s with completely different systems, we really have a large fleet of C-130Js with common systems that are much easier to sustain logistically.”

Other benefits come from reduced crew sizes, from the current 13-man crew on the AC-130U to a nine-man end state size on the AC-130J.

Current plans call for the acquisition of 37 Ghostrider gunships as one-for-one replacements for the current legacy fleet.

Lane said that AFSOC is slated to receive two aircraft per year “for the first couple of years,” with an anticipated AC-130J fleet size of 11 aircraft by 2018.

The AC-130J Ghostrider will provide close air support, special operations armed airborne reconnaissance, and ordnance delivery to precise targets in support of ground forces. Courtesy photo

The AC-130J Ghostrider will provide close air support, special operations armed airborne reconnaissance, and ordnance delivery to precise targets in support of ground forces. Courtesy photo

“After that we’re going to field about four per year,” he added. “Now, that could change. It could go up about one or two, but current plan is about four per year. So, we’re really looking at into the early and mid ’20s before we have all 37 AC-Js fielded.”

One glimpse of potential future upgrades to the gunship fleet emerged during Heithold’s panel participation noted earlier. Asked to identify areas where industry technologies could help AFSOC over the next few years, he offered, “… You’re going to find this hard to believe, but we don’t want to kill everybody we have in our sights. There are times, actually, where we would like to have non-lethal means to force them to stop what they’re doing. Things like microwave energy guns. It would be real nice someday, since we have the room on an AC-130, perhaps we should be looking at a microwave energy gun that makes people stop what they’re doing without having to kill them. Then, secondly, a high-energy laser in place of the 105 [mm] on an AC-130J. I’ve got my aircraft in a ‘block build’ configuration, where we spirally develop them. And these are things that are out there in a ‘Block 40/Block 50’ configuration someday as we look to the future. [If] we just want to take a comm[unications] node out in the middle of the night, nobody sees anything; nobody hears anything, because we burn a hole in it.”

“Lasers are coming,” echoed Lane. “There’s no doubt about that. Technology has progressed to the point that I think we’ll probably see lasers on some aircraft for some missions or target sets at least within a decade, in my opinion. And, you know, depending on what you’re using them for, I think there will be some policy issues with a laser – it gets people as opposed to, I guess, material targets because it is a burning weapon.”

Referencing his own extensive history and participation in the gunship arena, Lane identified correlations between conflict cycles, aircraft designs, and changing tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs).

“Over the past 25 or 30 years, we’ve had periods where we’ve been in active conflicts or just come out of active conflicts,” he began. “And, during those time periods, you have a fairly rapid development in TTPs and systems that you field on the airplanes – many times to counter what the enemy is doing. So, for the past decade since we have been in active conflict, we’ve seen a lot of changes: upgrades to sensors, upgrades to weapons, and so forth. In the time periods where we haven’t had or it’s been a number of years since we’ve had active conflict, you tend to not have the rapid development but the long-range plan – maybe next airplane. Take the AC-130U, for example. When it came on board, we hadn’t been in active conflict for a while, so it was a deliberate longer-range plan. We’d field these airplanes with a weapon suite that didn’t change. It was fairly static for a while. Conversely, in periods of time when you’re in active conflict like we’ve seen for the last decade, we’ve upgraded the sensors even on the legacy platforms and we’ve upgraded some of the weapons. We’ve certainly seen that on the AC-130W and now on the AC-130J, where you end up fielding new capability almost every year.”

Lane offered a closing reflection on the transformation of the gunship platform and the men who fly it.

“A lot of good things have happened and a lot of new capabilities have been added,” he said. “I think one of the things that amazes me the most is how much more and how much better the crew members are than I was when I was young. They seem to be so much better and able to handle more in the way of complex tasks, situational awareness, what’s going on on the battlefield now than it seemed like the crews could back in the day when I flew. I think that’s a testament to how great the troops are, but also in the technology that’s allowed more information, better information to the crews as they fly the missions.”

This article first appeared in The Year in Special Operations 2015-2016 Edition.

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