AC-130J Ghostrider Gunships

Air Force Special Operations Command’s brand-spanking-new AC-130J Ghostrider Gunships.

The AC-130J Ghostrider’s primary missions are close air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance. Close air support missions include troops in contact, convoy escort and point air defense. Air interdiction missions are conducted against preplanned targets or targets of opportunity and include strike coordination and reconnaissance and overwatch mission sets. The AC-130J will provide ground forces an expeditionary, direct-fire platform that is persistent, ideally suited for urban operations and delivers precision low-yield munitions against ground targets.

The AC-130J is a highly modified C-130J aircraft that contains many advanced features.  It contains an advanced two-pilot flight station with fully integrated digital avionics. The aircraft is capable of extremely accurate navigation due to the fully integrated navigation systems with dual inertial navigation systems and global positioning system.  Aircraft defensive systems and color weather radar are integrated as well. The aircraft is capable of air refueling with the Universal Air Refueling Receptacle Slipway Installation system.

It is no secret that the AC-130 fleet is changing. Once defined by their bristling cannons, the new breed of AC-130s are all about guided bombs and a slew of smart weapons, with just a single, direct fire 30mm cannon being fitted. Luckily, sharper minds have prevailed at AFSOC and now the AC-130Js has gotten the massive 105mm cannon they rightfully deserve.

Lt. General Bradley Heithold, the head of the AFSOC, swears by the AC-130’s 105mm howitzer, that it’s both more accurate and way less expensive than the precision guided munitions it was intended to replace. He credits the gun’s precision to its lower explosive yield than even small guided bombs and missiles. The cost differential is also no secret – a 105mm howitzer shell costs hundreds of dollars, while a guided bomb can cost at a minimum tens of thousands of dollars or easily into the hundreds of thousands. Additionally, the AC-130’s big shell can arrive on station in just a few seconds and re-attack rapidly, which is much faster than smart glide weapons or even missiles.

General Heithold’s plan is to slowly retire some of his middle-aged AC-130Us (the Vietnam era AC-130Hs are already on their way out) while awaiting the introduction of his newest gunships, with the third AC-130J receiving the 105mm cannon fresh from the factory. The first two AC-130Js will have to rely on a single bushmaster 30mm cannon, bombs and missiles until they can be upgraded with the new-old big gun. This will leave a fleet of about 26 AC-130s available at any given time going into the future.

Originally, the plan was to shrink the AC-130 fleet as the war in Afghanistan drew down and Iraq was supposedly in the review mirror. That didn’t happen and considering a terror state controls a land mass reaching almost from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, there are few better weapons to take on these threats than the AC-130. In other words, demand may have dipped for the big bristling gunships, but now it is climbing again, with no end in sight.

The AC-130J has two planned increments: the Block 10 configuration includes an internal 30 mm gun, small diameter bombs, and laser-guided missiles launched from the rear cargo door; and Block 20 configuration adds a 105 mm cannon, large aircraft infrared countermeasures, wing-mounted Hellfire missiles, and radio-frequency countermeasures.

The Air Force decided to add a 105 mm cannon to the AC-130J in addition to the 30 mm cannon and smart bombs, the shells being more accurate and cheaper than dropping SDBs. AFSOC is interested in adding a directed-energy weapon to the AC-130J by 2020, similar to the previous Advanced Tactical Laser program. It is to produce a beam of up to 120 kW, or potentially even 180–200 kW, weigh about 5,000 lb (2,300 kg), defensively destroy anti-aircraft missiles, and offensively engage communications towers, boats, cars, and aircraft. However, laser armament may only be installed on a few aircraft rather than the entire AC-130J fleet; the laser will be mounted on the side in place of the 30 mm cannon. Other potential additions include an active denial system to perform airborne crowd control, and small unmanned aerial vehicles from the common launch tubes to provide remote video feed and coordinates to weapons operators through cloud cover. Called the Tactical Off-board Sensor (TOBS), the drones would be expendable and fly along a pre-programmed orbit to verify targets the aircraft can’t see itself because of bad weather or standing off from air defenses. AFSOC will initially utilize the Raytheon Coyote small UAV for the TOBS mission, as it is an off-the-shelf design with a one-hour endurance, but plans to fulfill the role with a new drone capable of a four-hour endurance by 2019.

The Air Force was also interested in acquiring a glide bomb that can be launched from the common launch tubes capable of hitting ground vehicles traveling as fast as 120 km/h (70 mph) while above 10,000 ft (3,000 m). In June 2016, Dynetics was awarded a contract by SOCOM to integrate its tactical munition onto the AC-130. Designated the GBU-69/B Small Glide Munition, the weapon weighs 27 kg (60 lb) and is armed with a 16 kg (35 lb) blast-fragmentation warhead that can detonate by direct impact or at a pre-selected height; despite being smaller, being unpowered allows more volume for its warhead to be heavier than those on the Hellfire and Griffin A missiles, 9 kg (20 lb) and 5.9 kg (13 lb) respectively. Guidance is provided by a GPS receiver with anti-spoofing software and four Distributed Aperture Semi-Active Laser Seeker (DASALS) apertures adapted from the WGU-59/B APKWS for terminal guidance. Approval for fielding occurred in early 2017. Dynetics was awarded a contract to deliver an initial batch of 70 SGMs in June 2017, with plans to buy up to 1,000. The SGM can travel 20 mi (32 km).

The first AC-130J aircraft completed developmental test and evaluation in June 2015.  The first squadron will be located at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., while other locations are to be determined. Initial operational capacity is expected in fiscal 2017 and the last delivery is scheduled for fiscal 2021. The aircraft was officially named Ghostrider in May 2012.

The first AC-130J gunships achieved initial operational capability (IOC) on 30 September 2017.

General Characteristics

Primary Function: Close air support and air interdiction with associated collateral missions

Builder: Lockheed Martin

Power Plant: Four Rolls-Royce AE 2100D3 Turboprops

Thrust: 4,700 shaft horsepower

Wingspan: 132 feet 7 inches (39.7 meters)

Length: 97 feet 9 inches (29.3 meters)

Height: 39 feet 2 inches (11.9 meters)

Speed: 362 knots at 22,000 feet

Ceiling: 28,000 feet with 42,000 lb payload

Maximum Takeoff Weight: 164,000 lbs

Range: 3,000 miles

Crew: Two pilots, two combat systems officers, one sensor operator and four special mission aviators

Armament: Precision Strike Package with 30mm and 105mm cannons and Standoff Precision Guided Munitions (i.e. GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb and AGM-176 Griffin missile)

Date Deployed: TBD

Unit Cost: $115 million

Inventory: Active force, 32 by fiscal 2021

AC-130 Gunship Night Live Fire

1 thought on “AC-130J Ghostrider Gunships

  1. I was an Operations Analyst at LM’s Skunk Works during the development and had a small part in this program. The reason the smaller guns are gone are because of the threat from MANPADS, which forces the Gunship higher, thus making the smaller guns ineffective. At that altitude, not only are the small guns ineffective, keeping them in would put more holes in the side of the aircraft and make pressurization problematic. Thus, only the two large guns with prominent sealing boots (the older gunships were unsealed and could not be pressurized).

    Note that the bottom two pictures are not J-models.


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