The AC-130 gunship is a devastating display of force and firepower. Through the years, the aircraft has been equipped with an array of side-fired canons, howitzers, mini-guns, wing-mounted missiles and bombs, and laser guided-missiles launched from the rear cargo door, earning it the moniker the “Angel of Death.”
The primary missions of the gunship are close air support, air interdiction, and armed reconnaissance.
The heavily armed aircraft is outfitted with sophisticated sensor, navigation, and fire control systems, allowing it to track and target multiple targets using multiple munitions with surgical precision.
Another strength of the gunship is the ability to loiter in the air for extended periods of time, providing aerial protection at night and during adverse weather.
The AC-130 relies heavily on visual targeting at low altitudes and punishes enemy targets while performing pylon turns around a fixed point on the ground during attack.
The Air Force is the only operator of the AC-130 and the gunship has been providing close air support for special operators for the last 50 years.
Development and Design
During the Vietnam War, the C-130 Hercules airframe was selected to replace the original gunship, the Douglas AC-47 Spooky (Project Gunship I). The Hercules cargo airframe was converted into AC-130A (Project Gunship II) because it could fly faster, longer, higher, and with increased munitions load capabilities.
The gunship’s AC identifier stands for attack-cargo.
The aircraft is powered by four turboprop engines and has a flight speed of 300 mph and a flight range of 1,300 miles, depending on weight.
The AC-130A was equipped with down facing Gatling guns affixed to the left side of the aircraft with an analog fire control system. In 1969, the AC-130 received the Surprise Package, which included 20mm rotary autocannons and a 40mm Bofors cannon configuration.
The gunships have been modified with multiple configurations through the years with each update providing stronger avionics systems, radars and more powerful armament.
Currently, Air Force special operations groups operate the AC-130U Spooky II and the AC-130W Stinger II.
The Spooky II became operational in 1994, revitalizing the special operations gunship fleet as a replacement for the AC-130A aircraft, and to supplement the workhorse AC-130H Spectre, which was retired in 2015.
The Spooky II is armed with a 25mm GAU-12/U Gatling gun (1800 rpm), a 40mm L60 Bofors cannon (120 rpm), and a 10mm M102 howitzer (6-10 rpm). The AC-130Us have a pressurized cabin, allowing them to operate 5,000 feet higher than the H models, which results in greater range.
The AC-130W was converted from the MC-130W Dragon Spear, a special operations mobility aircraft and are armed with precision strike packages to relieve the high operational demands on AC-130U gunships until new AC-130Js enter combat-ready status.
Over the past four decades, AC-130s have deployed constantly to hotspots throughout the world in support of special operations and conventional forces. In South America, Africa, Europe and throughout the Middle East, gunships have significantly contributed to mission success.
As of Sept. 19, 2017, the AC-130J Ghostrider, the Air Force’s next-generation gunship, achieved Initial Operating Capability and will be tested and prepared for combat deployment in the next few years. The AC-130J is the fourth generation gunship replacing the aging fleet of AC-130U/W gunships.
The Ghostrider is outfitted with a Precision Strike Package, which includes 30mm and 105 mm cannons and precision guided munitions of GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs and AGM-176 Griffin missiles. The 105mm M102 howitzer system is a devastating weapon that can fire off 10 50lbs shells per minute with precision accuracy.
There are 10 Ghostrider gunships in the current fleet and the Air Force plans on purchasing 27 more by fiscal year 2021.
Operation and Deployment
The AC-130 Gunship operational history includes:
- 1960s/70s – Vietnam/Laos
- 1983 – Grenada – Operation Urgent Fury
- 1989 – Panama – Operation Just Cause
- 1991 – Persian Gulf – Operation Desert Storm
- 1993 – Somalia – Operation Restore Hope
- 1995 – Bosnia – Operation Deliberate Force
- 2001 – Present – Afghanistan – Operation Enduring Freedom
- 2003 – Present – Iraq – Operation Iraqi Freedom
Air Force units that operate the current fleet of AC-130Us and AC-130Ws include:
AC-130U Spooky – 1st Special Operations Group, Hurlburt Field, Florida
AC-130W Stinger II – 27th Special Operations Group, Canon Air Force Base, New Mexico
AC-130A Spectre (Project Gunship II, Surprise Package, Pave Pronto)
Conversions of C-130As; 19 completed; transferred to the Air Force Reserve in 1975, retired in 1995
AC-130E Spectre (Pave Spectre, Pave Aegis)
Conversions of C-130Es; 11 completed; 10 upgraded to AC-130H configuration
Upgraded AC-130E aircraft; eight completed; last aircraft retired in 2015
Operational aircraft (active duty USAF); 17 in service
Based on MC-130J; 32 aircraft to be procured to replace AC-130H
AC-130W Stinger II (former MC-130W Dragon Spear)
Conversions of MC-130Ws (active duty USAF)
Did you know?
– The original and unofficial nickname for the AC-130 gunship was “Puff the Magic Dragon” or “Puff.”
– The AC-130H Spectre was introduced in 1969 and was used for 46 years in service; the longest service time of any AC gunship.
– Air Force Special Operations Command plans to install combat lasers on AC-130 gunships within a year.
AC-130U Spooky Fact Sheet:
Primary function: Close air support, air interdiction and force protection
Builder: Lockheed/Boeing Corp.
Power plant: Four Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines
Thrust: 4,300 shaft horsepower each engine
Wingspan: 132 feet, 7 inches (40.4 meters)
Length: 97 feet, 9 inches (29.8 meters)
Height: 38 feet, 6 inches (11.7 meters)
Speed: 300 mph (Mach .4) at sea level
Range: Approximately 1,300 nautical miles; limited by crew duty day with air refueling
Ceiling: 25,000 feet (7,576 meters)
Maximum takeoff weight: 155,000 pounds (69,750 kilograms)
Armament: 40mm, 105mm cannons and 25mm Gatling gun
Crew: AC-130U – pilot, co-pilot, navigator, fire control officer, electronic warfare officer (five officers) and flight engineer, TV operator, infrared detection set operator, loadmaster, and four aerial gunners (eight enlisted)
Deployment date: 1995
Unit cost: $210 million
Inventory: Active duty, 17; reserve, 0; Air National Guard, 0