AC-130 Gunship: The Ghostrider

The AC-130 gunship is a ground attack aircraft used by the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). Since its development and fielding in the 1960s, the AC-130 has showcased its diverse utility in an array of 21st-century conflicts.

1. History of the AC-130

Historically speaking, the AC-130 gunship is a modern aircraft. Although six decades have passed since its initial development, it continues to serve the nation, and is a testament to modern technological advancement in avionic and defense technology.

1.1 Korea and the Lockheed C-130 Hercules

By and large, the early history of the AC-130 begins with the Korean War (1950-1953). During the war, the Air Force Tactical Air Command realized a weakness in its fleet. Specifically, the lack of an efficient medium-cargo tactical transport aircraft. (source)

In 1951, the Air Force drafted its first design for the C-130. Lockheed Martin produced the first physical aircraft, called the C-130A Hercules which embarked on its maiden flight on the 23rd of August 1954.

HC-130 Hercules
Elizabeth City, NC (July 9)–The HC-130 Hercules is a long-range surveillance and transport, fixed-wing aircraft that is used to perform search and rescue, enforcement of laws and treaties including illegal drug interdiction, marine environmental protection, military readiness, and International Ice Patrol missions, as well as cargo and personnel transport. USCG photo by BROWN, TELFAIR H. PA1

C-130A technical specifications:

The technical specifications of the first C-130 are (source):

  • Fuselage Length: 97ft. 9in
  • Wingspan: 132ft. 7in
  • Height: 38ft. 3in
  • Empty weight: 76,780 lbs
  • Max Takeoff Weight: 155,000 lbs
  • Power Plant: 4 Allison T56-A-A15 turboprop engines
  • Range: 2,050 miles
  • Cruise Speed: 336 mph
  • Max. Speed: 379 mph
  • Ceiling: 33,000 ft

In addition, the aircraft can fit a crew of 4-6. In the most basic form, that breaks down to 2 pilots, 1 flight engineer, and 1 loadmaster. The additional two spots are open and sometimes filled by a navigator or additional loadmaster.

Moreover, the aircraft can transport either 92 passengers or 64 airborne troops. If it needs to be used for medical purposes, it can carry 74 litter patients and two medical personnel.

With all this in mind, it must be noted that at this point, the C-130 was not a gunship. It functioned as a transport aircraft that could conduct landings and takeoffs on short runways and carry a hefty load. To circle back, that is exactly what the Air Force designed it to do, in response to lessons learned from Korea.

The C-130’s transformation from being a pure transport plane to revered air support asset did not begin until the Vietnam War.

1.1 Vietnam and the development of the AC-130 Gunship

The AC-130 is not the first gunship to be developed by the U.S. Instead, it is an element of an upgrade progression that begun in the Vietnam War.  

1.1.1 Project Gunship I

Project Gunship I is the title of a Vietnam War era experimental avionics program. Different from fighter jets, the program intended on outfitting a heavy aircraft with side mounted armaments.

In 1964, the Air Force completed the first experiment, using the Douglas C-47D: a World War II era cargo aircraft. Furthermore, the designator “AC” for “Attack Cargo” was assigned, christening the aircraft into the AC-47D, also known as the “AC-47 Spooky”.

The AC-47 crew comprised eight personnel (source):
  • Aircraft commander (pilot)
  • Co-pilot
  • Loadmaster
  • Flight mechanic
  • Navigator
  • Gunners (two total)
  • Vietnamese Air Force observer (not always included)
In terms of mission, the AC-47 tasking statements were (source):
  • Defense of ground positions
  • Escort and patrol
  • Pre-planned strikes against suitable targets
  • Forward air controlling for fighter strikes
For armaments, the AC-47 was outfitted with:
  • Three SUU-11A 7.62mm mini-guns (6,000 round per minute rate of fire)
  • 16,500 rounds of ammunition (standard load)
  • 48 MK-24 flares

And finally, to conduct combat operations, the AC-47 followed a well-structured aerial scheme of maneuver.

First, the aircraft had to be straight and level in flight. Also, the assigned target had to be outside and forward of the left prop dome. (source)

Second, as the aircraft passed over the target, with the target placement underneath the engine cowling, the pilot rolled the gunship to conduct a 30 degree bank turn.

Third, when the target fell in place on the aircraft weapons’ sights, the gunner team began firing in 3-7 second bursts.

Once the target left the frame of the sights, the gunship ceased fire. The pilot would then reposition the aircraft to prepare for further firing cycles. (source)

In essence, Project Gunship I found success in operations. However, that success did not come without after-action analysis detailing its flaws. The aircraft was vulnerable to enemy attack, which transpired in the loss of fifteen AC-47’s between 1965 and 1969.

Given that, the Air Force continued its experimentation with aerial gunships, leading to Project Gunship II and the inception of the AC-130.

AC-47 Spooky gunship
AC-47 Spooky gunship (source)

1.1.2 Project Gunship II: Advent of the AC-130 Gunship

Project Gunship II is the second iteration of the Air Force gunship program. Moreover, the program’s goal was to convert an aircraft into a gunship that was larger than the AC-47. In effect, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules began its transformation into the venerable AC-130 gunship.

Using the C-130 Hercules as the base gave engineers an advantage. Because of its size, larger weapons and more sophisticated equipment could be armed on the aircraft in contrast to its smaller predecessor.

Notable upgrades included (source):
  • Four MXU-470 7.62mm miniguns
  • Four M61A1 20mm cannons
  • Night Observation Device
  • Forward Looking InfraRed
  • Side looking radar
  • Beacon tracking radar
  • Fire control computer system
  • 20 kilowatt illuminator
  • Flare launcher

Modifications of the C-130 Hercules began in Spring 1967, on the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. Furthermore, the AC-130 prototype deployed to Vietnam in September of that year, where it began a three-month testing program.  

Following its arrival in Vietnam, the AC-130 gunship quickly began taking part in combat operations while maintaining its test aircraft status.

The AC-130 area of operation consisted of South Vietnam, specifically the Mekong River delta. In due time, as the test program cycled forward, that area expanded to the Ho Chi Minh trail.

Compared to the AC-47, the AC-130 performed exceptionally well during its live trials. Moreover, the aircraft showed prowess in interdiction operations, troops in contact scenarios, close air support, and reconnaissance flights. (source)

In due time, the AC-130 concluded its test phase. Upon departure from Vietnam in December 1967, the aircraft underwent further tweaks and modifications, only to be redeployed in theater the following year for a second test.

As a result, the AC-130 continued to prove its worth to U.S. commanders. So much so that the Air Force began forming squadrons of them. Thus came the beginning of the AC-130’s prolific lifespan, that continues on to the present day.

AC-130 Spectre gunship, the byproduct of Project Gunship II (source)

1.2 The AC-130 Gunship post-Vietnam

The successful testing and implementation of the AC-130 gunship in Vietnam solidified its place in the Air Force fleet. In the years following the conclusion of the Vietnam War, the aircraft continued to receive modifications and was further incorporated into the U.S. war-fighting apparatus.

Following Vietnam, the AC-130 has been a component of virtually every major U.S. combat operation, as well as a monumental asset to special operations units and the unconventional warfare sphere.

While not being all-encompassing, here is a brief survey of notable AC-130 deployments post-Vietnam:

Operation Urgent Fury

Operation Urgent Fury occurred between 25-29 October 1983 in the South American nation of Grenada. Furthermore, the AC-130 played a major support role for on the ground forces. Key use of the aircraft included enemy suppression, disabling enemy air defense systems, and assaulting enemy ground elements. (source)

Operation Just Cause

Operation Just Cause occurred between December 1989 and January 1990 in the South American nation of Panama. The AC-130’s deployed to support this operation once again played a significant role in its outcome. Notable uses of the aircraft in Operation Just Cause included offensive strikes on key targets, the most prominent being the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s military headquarters. (source)

The Gulf War

Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield, also known as the Gulf War, were a military operation taking place in Iraq between August 1990 and January 1991. Moreover, the AC-130 played a pivotal role in the moments leading up to the main operation. In the early stages of the war, the U.S. used gunships in conjunction with allied forces to push Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his forces out of Kuwait. Then, in the Desert Storm operation, the AC-130 continued to build upon its reputation as a powerful air asset, attacking ground targets and supporting conventional troops from above.

Global War on Terror

The most recent heavy use of the AC-130 took place during the now ceased Global War on Terror. In the two decades of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and beyond, the AC-130 further established itself as the prime aircraft in the U.S. fleet. Military historians could write volumes about the numerous accounts of AC-130 use during the GWOT, for both special operations and conventional troops.

2. Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures of the AC-130 Gunship

The AC-130 gunship has gone through many technological changes over its lifespan. However, the tactics, techniques, and procedures that contribute to its lethality have stayed relatively the same to date.

One of the gunship’s trademark tactics is using the pylon turn in order to maintain a high volume of fire on target as the aircraft maneuvers in a circular fashion instead of a more traditional strafing pattern. In tandem with the pylon turn, the AC-130 has a longer than average loitering period, which further amplifies the effects on target. (source)

Furthermore, the AC-130 possesses an array of capabilities, including onboard systems that allow for detailed aerial reconnaissance and target detection during adverse conditions. Due to the latter, the aircraft is an asset in virtually any scenario, in contrast to other conventional aircraft that require the right conditions to operate.

3. AC-130J Ghostrider: The Current Version

Lockheed Martin manufacturers the current fifth generation gunship, also known as the AC-130J Ghostrider. The first AC-130J squadron (known as the 73rd Special Operations Squadron) was activated on the 23rd of February 2018 at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The new version will continue to phase into service until the final planned delivery in 2024.

AC-130J Ghostrider gunship
An AC-130J Ghostrider prepares to land at Kadena Air Base on March 29, 2021. Regularly stationed at Hurlburt Field, Florida, this is the first time the updated J model of the AC-130 has landed or operated in Japan. (source)

3.1 Characteristics of the AC-130J Ghostrider

General characteristics of the AC-130J come courtesy of the U.S. Air Force (source):

  • Primary Function: Close air support and air interdiction with associated collateral missions
  • Contractor: Lockheed Martin
  • Power Plant: Four Rolls-Royce AE 2100D3 Turboprop engines
  • Thrust: 4,700 shaft horsepower per engine
  • Speed: 362 knots
  • Ceiling: 28,000 feet
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight: 164,000 lbs
  • Range: 3,000 miles; limited by crew duty day with air refueling
  • Wingspan: 132 feet 7 inches (39.7 meters)
  • Length: 97 feet 9 inches (29.3 meters)
  • Height: 39 feet 2 inches (11.9 meters)
  • Crew: Two pilots, one combat systems officer, one weapon system operator, one sensor operator, four special mission aviators
  • Armament: Precision Strike Package with 30mm and 105mm cannons and Standoff Precision-guided Munitions (GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, GBU-69 Small Glide Munition, AGM-114 Hellfire missile, AGM-176 Griffin missile)
  • Unit Cost: $165 million
  • Inventory: Active duty, 37 by fiscal year 2024

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