The AC-130 Spectre gunship which the Americans are using for special operations in southern Afghanistan was designed for close support of ground forces.
It is a development of the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and as such is slow, flying at less than 300mph, but has a range of at least 1,500 miles without needing to refuel and can loiter over a combat area for some time. Today AC-130 still serve in USAF. The latest armed C-130 variant is MC-130J, rollout in Feb 2011.
The AC-130s are operated by the US Air Force's special operations group, based at Hurlburt Field, Florida. In 2011, SOCOM received its first MC-130W gunship, which can fire guided weapon as well as gun shells.
Although based on an old Hercules transport plane, the AC-130 has one of the most complex aircraft weapon systems.
It uses television, infra-red and radar sensors to locate ground targets, even at night. Uniquely, in the latest type, the targeting computers can follow two separate targets with two different sensors and fire two different guns.
Former crew members say that, in practice, the guns were never fired simultaneously - and the ammunition load was an issue, so it was used sparingly.
The newest AC-130U version - known as Spooky II - has twice the ammunition capacity.
The aircraft has more than a dozen crew: Pilot, co-pilot, navigator, fire control officer, electronic warfare officer, flight engineer, operators for its TV camera and infra-red detection set, a loadmaster, and four or five "gunners" - who reload the weapons which are normally controlled from the flight deck.
The T56 is a turboprop, a jet engine that uses a propeller to produce most of its thrust. Because the T-56 compressor and turbine rotate at a high speed (13,820 rpm), a reduction gearbox is used to allow the propeller to turn at a much slower, more efficient speed. The production T-56 engine delivers approximately 4,000 horsepower to the propeller, while an additional 800 lbs. of thrust is produced by the jet exhaust. Its maximum operating altitude is 55,000 ft. The T56 turboprop, in continuous production since 1954, evolved from Allison's T-38 engine and was first flown in the nose of a B-17 test-bed aircraft in 1954. Originally designed to power the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, the T56 engine is installed in the P-3, C-130, and E-2/C-2 aircraft. The Navy also used a marine equivalent of the T56, the 501K engine, to generate electrical power for its destroyer-class ships.
Although regarded as a highly successful machine - used most recently in support of operations in Panama, Grenada, the Gulf War and Bosnia - its slowness and typical low operating altitude make it vulnerable to ground fire.
It does have a system that drops chaff and flares to counter radar and infra-red guided missiles. There are also heat shields under the engines to try to mask them from heat-seeking missiles.
Even so, one AC-130 was shot down in Iraq by a surface-to-air missile. The other recent loss was in Somalia when, it is thought, a round exploded in one of the plane's cannons.
There are 21 of the two types of AC-130 on "active duty", according to the US Air Force.
These heavily armed aircraft incorporate side-firing weapons integrated with sophisticated sensor, navigation and fire control systems to provide surgical firepower or area saturation during extended loiter periods, at night and in adverse weather.
The sensor suite consists of a television sensor, infrared sensor and radar. These sensors allow the gunship to visually or electronically identify friendly ground forces and targets any place, any time. The AC-130U employs synthetic apertures strike radar for long-range target detection and identification. The gunship's navigational devices include the inertial navigation systems and global positioning system. The AC-130U employs the latest technologies and can attack two targets simultaneously. It also has twice the munitions capacity of the AC-130H.
The AC-130H's call sign is "Spectre." The AC-130U's call sign is "Spooky. " The U-model is the third generation of C-130 gunships. All gunships evolutionized from the first operational gunship, the AC-47.
The AC-130 gunship has a combat history dating to Vietnam. Gunships destroyed more than 10,000 trucks and were credited with many life-saving close air support missions. During Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, AC-130s suppressed enemy air defense systems and attacked ground forces enabling the successful assault of the Point Salines Airfield via airdrop and air land of friendly forces. The AC-130 aircrew earned the Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner Award for the mission. AC-130s also had a primary role during Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989 when they destroyed Panamanian Defense Force Headquarters and numerous command and control facilities. Aircrews earned the Mackay Trophy for the most meritorious flight of the year and the Tunner Award for their efforts.
During Operation Desert Storm, AC-130s provided close air support and force protection (air base defense) for ground forces. Gunships were also used during operations Continue Hope and United Shield in Somalia, providing close air support for United Nations ground forces. Gunships also played a pivotal role in supporting the NATO mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The AC-130H provided air interdiction against key targets in the Sarajevo area.
In 1997, gunships were diverted from Italy to provide combat air support for U.S. and allied ground troops during the evacuation of American noncombatants in Albania. Gunships also were part of the buildup of U.S. forces in 1998 to convince Iraq to comply with U.N. weapons inspections. More recently, both aircraft have been employed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Gunships provided armed reconnaissance, interdiction and direct support of ground troops engaged with enemy forces.
The AC-130 Gunship first arrived in South Vietnam on 21 September 1967 under the Gunship II program and began combat operations over Laos and South Vietnam that year. By 30 October 1968, enough AC-130 Gunship IIs arrived to form a squadron, the 16th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW), at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand. By December 1968 most AC-130s were flown under F-4 Phantom II escort from the 497th Tactical Fighter Squadron, normally three Phantoms per Gunship. In late 1969, under the code name of "Surprise Package", 56-0490 arrived with solid state laser illuminated low light level TV with a companion YAG laser designator, an improved forward looking infrared (FLIR) sensor, video recording for TV and FLIR, an inertial navigation system, and a prototype digital fire control computer. Surprise Package was refitted with upgraded similar equipment in the summer of 1970, and then redeployed to Ubon RTAFB. During Vietnam, AC-130s destroyed more than 10,000 trucks and participated in many crucial close air support missions.
Six Spectres were lost to enemy fire ...
In 2002, a U.S. Air force AC-130 gunship and a B-52 bomber dropped bombs on an Afghan wedding party.
Over 40 people were killed and 100 wounded.
The military admitted at least one bomb had “missed its target.”
Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, “We are aware of reports of civilian casualties but don’t know if casualties were caused as a result of the bomb.”U.S. military spokesperson Colonel Roger King: “Anytime there are inadvertent casualties, it increases the difficulty of operations, because we have to work with the civilian populace to be successful.”
In 2014, SOCOM purchased a high-power laser spotlight, the type used during concerts. In 17 days, it was mounted on an AC-130 gunship, Geurts said. SOCOM calls the initiative “BAGL,” which stands for “Big Ass Green Laser.”“We mounted it on a gunship and from a couple miles away you could flash a green spot,” he said. “Then we told the Afghans, if you’re shooting and you’re seeing a big green blinking light on you, that’s probably not good for you.” And what happened? “It helped stop a lot of fratricide issues,” Geurts said.
During his presentation at the conference, Geurts displayed a picture of a mid-sided pickup truck and three people illuminated by a green laser beam. The picture looked akin to a alien abduction in a Hollywood flick. “That’s not what the laser was designed for, that’s not what the gunship was designed for,” Geurts said. ”But, [we] had a battlefield problem, [we] got something downrange quickly and it solved that problem.”
Continue reading: AC-130 Part 2