When it comes to nighttime close air support, there is probably no better friend to American special operators, and no worse foe to their enemies, than the AC-130 gunship.
For nearly 60 years, the many different variants of the AC-130 have supported special operations and conventional troops in almost every battlefield that the U.S. military has found itself in.
As the Air Force is gearing up for the realities of near-peer competition with China and Russia and the potential conflicts of the future, the AC-130 finds itself once more at the center of attention.
Everything began in the jungles of Indochina
The AC-130 gunship community can trace its roots back to the jungles of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. There, the initial variants of the aircraft, the AC-130E Spectre and the AC-47, nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” saw action for the first time during the Vietnam War, supporting conventional and special operations troops.
Even then, the aircraft’s nighttime capabilities made the difference, saving many an infantry platoon and special operations recon teams from getting wiped out by larger North Vietnamese or Vietcong forces. The two versions of the gunship are credited with destroying more than 10,000 enemy vehicles throughout the conflict.
Following the Vietnam War, the AC-130 continued to serve, having shown its deadly effectiveness and unmatched nighttime close air support capabilities. To this day, there have been six versions of the aircraft (AC-130A, AC-130E, AC-130H, AC-130U, AC130W, and AC-130J).
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A Special Operations Powerhouse
The AC-130 has three primary mission sets (air interdiction, armed reconnaissance, and close air support) and three secondary mission sets (combat search and rescue, forward air control, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance).
Put simply, the AC-130 is an aerial gunnery platform that uses the “pylon turn” technique—flying in a wide circle above the target area—to produce a steady volume of fire on a target. Although this technique makes the aircraft so deadly, it also restricts it in nighttime operations as it would otherwise be a very easy target to hit.
The aircraft’s powerful arsenal and sensors truly make the AC-130 a versatile platform that can dish out a rain of fire one moment, and then send back vital intelligence to troops on the ground the next. The AC-130J Ghostrider, which is the latest version of the gunship, is armed with 30mm and 105mm cannons and can deploy smart munitions, including the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, GBU-69 Small Glide Munition, AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and AGM-176 Griffin missile.
With so many weapon systems onboard, it can be tough to choose a favorite. So, it usually comes down to the operational requirements, and you will often hear “it depends” from current and former AC-130 gunners.
“This will answer will definitely be my opinion. During my experience with the AC-130U, I only have had the pleasure to know the 25mm GAU, 40mm Bofors, and the 105mm Howitzer,” said a former AC-130 gunner who spoke to Sandboxx News under the pseudonym, B.A.
“Newer models and weapon systems have been developed since my separation… but my answer would be the 105mm, which is still active to this day. There are many different capabilities the 105mm rounds have with providing ground troops with the maximum amount of enemy damage. It has a psychological effectiveness as well as a physical effectiveness. Most importantly, it was the most fun to load, lock, shoot, and unload.”
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The most modern AC-130s have a top speed of more than 415 miles per hour and a range of about 3,000 miles plus the ability to refuel mid-air.
When it comes to close air support, the more an aircraft can loiter and stay on station, the better. For that reason, Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACs) have a sweet spot for rotary-wing aircraft, such as the AH-64 Apache or AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters, and for the AC-130 gunship which can stay on station for many hours because of its ability to refuel mid-air. An F-16, on the other hand, no only carries less firepower, but can usually remain on station for only about 30 minutes before having to depart to refuel.
At the end of the day, the AC-130 is there for one reason and one reason only—to support the warfighter on the ground with accurate, often close, air support. For the AC-130 crews, supporting America’s elite special operations units on the ground in the middle of the night thousands of miles away from home is a unique and moving experience.
“There isn’t enough room in this email to explain what it was like so I’ll try to keep it short. Waking up from a deep sleep in the middle of the day, getting our flight suits on, grabbing our gear, getting the plane spun up and taking off in under an hour was a very stressful task,” B.A. told Sandboxx News.
“Especially knowing that we were responding to a TIC (troops in contact) and that every minute we weren’t on station was a minute that an American or coalition force could lose their life.”
“After arriving on station we jumped right into engaging the enemy. [An] hour or so later [and] (100) 105mm rounds and (256) 40mm rounds later, we rearmed back at Bagram. This was probably the biggest adrenaline dump I have ever experienced. We got the good guys out of a jam, but not everyone went home.”
“So what is it like? Exhilarating, rewarding, and guilt struck,” the former Air Commando added.
Related: FROM CARGO SHIP TO GUNSHIP, THE EVOLUTION OF THE C-130
AC-130 Gunship: Flying Into the Future
Going into the future, one of the primary concerns around aircraft such as the AC-130 gunship is if they can survive and operate in an environment in which the U.S. and its allies don’t enjoy the complete air superiority they have been accustomed to for the past 20 years.
“I believe the AC-130 would still be an effective weapon even though we would share the sky with a formidable foe,” B.A. told Sandboxx News.
“If engaged with a fast moving enemy aircraft, the AC-130 most likely wouldn’t stand a chance, so the situation would most likely replicate WW2, where multiple fast moving aircraft would be assigned to cover and protect slow moving bombers.”
The Air Force Special Operations Command understands the limitations of its special operations aircraft in an operational environment in which the enemy gets a vote with his advanced aircraft and anti-aircraft systems. Efforts are underway to develop weapons that can offset some of the AC-130’s vulnerability in contested airspace.
For example, AFSOC is currently working on a cruise missile that could be deployed from the AC-130 and the MC-130 Commando II, the gunship’s transport sibling. Should the cruise missile become operational, it would vastly increase the effective range of the AC-130 and would allow the gunship to engage targets from outside any enemy anti-aircraft umbrella, thereby increasing its survivability and keeping the AC-130 in the fight.
Because when there are troops in contact on the ground, shrouded in darkness and encountering overwhelming odds, there aren’t many friendlier sights than the mighty AC-130 with a 105mm cannon hanging out of the fuselage.
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