The Air Force's “Spooky” Gunships Have Flown Overseas for the Last Time

The flying arsenal is being replaced by the new AC-130J Ghostrider.

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U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Blake Wiles

The Air Force’s famous AC-130U “Spooky” gunship is on the verge of retirement with the heavily armed cargo plane returning on Monday from its last scheduled overseas mission. The Spooky is being replaced with a newer gunship, the AC-130J Ghostrider, which boasts greater precision firepower, as well as the new ability to carry laser-guided missiles and bombs.

The gunship concept dates to the Vietnam War, when World War II-era C-47 transports were fitted with side-firing Gatling guns to provide close air support for remote outposts, as well as rain bullets on enemy convoys navigating the Ho Chi Minh trail. The concept proved so popular the Air Force modified C-130 Hercules transports to take over the role. Various types of gunships have served since, including in the 1989 invasion of Panama, 1991 Gulf War, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The AC-130U “Spooky” first entered service in 1995 and is a third-generation gunship. The aircraft was fitted with multispectral television sensors, high-definition infrared sensors, and radar, allowing the 13-man crew to pinpoint enemy forces and engage them with autocannons and a 105-millimeter howitzer.

The AC-130J “Ghostrider” is based on the newer, more powerful C-130J Super Hercules transport. The Ghostrider features improved navigation and sensors and mounts one GAU-23/A 30-millimeter autocannon, the same gun mounted on the Navy’s Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers and the Army’s Stryker Dragoon infantry carriers, and a 105-millimeter howitzer firing in direct fire mode.

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Airmen manning the AC-130U’s 105-millimeter howitzer.
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph Pick

In a first for Air Force gunships, the AC-130J is also equipped to fire Hellfire anti-tank missiles and drop the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb. The Hellfire will be able to engage targets such as tanks, armored vehicles, and fortifications at ranges up to 5 miles, while the Small Diameter Bomb has a range of up to 40 miles.

This will vastly increase the Ghostrider’s ability to provide coverage to ground forces, particularly while staying out of range of enemy air defenses. While air defense fire wasn’t a problem with the Taliban or Iraqi insurgents, modern armies will have weapon systems such as the Pantsir S-1 short range and Buk M2 medium range air defense systems protecting them.

The Air Force will eventually install lasers on the AC-130J. In 2015, the Air Force challenged industry to put a 150-kilowatt laser on an AC-130 by 2020. That isn’t going to happen, but the appeal of lasers, which travel at the speed of light, endures. It’s only a matter of time before gunships get them, and the technology, forever "just around the corner", is close enough that the AC-130J will eventually get them.

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A water cordon greets a AC-130U returning from its final scheduled overseas mission, Hurlburt Field, Florida.
U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Joseph Pick

The AC-130U Spooky gunships will still be available for deployment, in case of emergencies, until the AC-130J takes over. The Air Force plans to buy 37 AC-130Js.

Source: Military.com

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