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Lockheed AC-130 Spectre/Spooky

This section is edited by Marc Eichler

Role: Close Air Support (CAS), Air Interdiction
Builder: Lockheed
Variants: AC-130A, AC-130E, AC-130H, AC-130U
Operators: USAF

The AC-130 gunship's primary missions are close air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance. Other missions include perimeter and point defense, escort, landing, drop and extraction zone support, forward air control, limited command and control, and combat search and rescue.

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 periods, at night and in adverse weather. During Vietnam, gunships destroyed more than 10,000 trucks and were credited with many life-saving close air support missions. AC-130s suppressed enemy air defense systems and attacked ground forces during Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada. This enabled the successful assault of Point Salines airfield via airdrop and airland of friendly forces.

The gunships had a primary role during Operation Just Cause in Panama by destroying Panamanian Defense Force Headquarters and numerous command and control facilities by surgical employment of ordnance in an urban environment. As the only close air support platform in the theater, Spectres were credited with saving the lives of many friendly personnel. Both the H-models and A-models played key roles. The fighting was opened by a gunship attack on the military headquarters of the dictator of Panama and the outcome was never in doubt. All objectives were quickly accomplished and democracy was restored to Panama.

During Operation Desert Storm, Spectres provided air base defense and close air support for ground forces. Both the AC-130A and AC-130H gunships were part of the international force assembled in the Persian Gulf region to drive out of Kuwait which Saddam Hussein had invaded in early August 1990. In the following January, the allies launched the actual war known as Desert Storm following the Desert Shield build-up. Victory was accomplished in a few weeks and Kuwait was set free of the foreign invader. Iraq shot down one AC-130H gunship. It resulted in the loss of all 14 crewmembers, the largest single air power loss of the war. Post war restriction on Iraq required the presence of gunships to enforce them.

AC-130s were also used during Operations Continue Hope and United Shield in Somalia, providing close air support for United Nations ground forces. The gunships played a pivotal role during operations in support of the NATO mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, providing air interdiction against key targets in the Sarajevo area. The A-model gunship was the first AC-130 model. The aircraft is 97 feet 9 inches long and 38 feet 3 inches tall. It has a wingspan of 132 feet 7 inches and a wing area of 1,745 sq. feet. Initially, the C-130 had a maximum speed of 384 mph and an unrefueled range of 2,450 miles with maximum load. However, with the aerial refueling modification, the range for the later model gunships was only limited by crew endurance.

The high-wing design of this aircraft and its large capacity made it especially suited as a gunship. The first gunship, the AC-47, with low wings, reduced its field of fire. Having the guns below the wings eliminated the basic problem of the AC-47. Also, the large C-130 could carry more ammunition for its heavier weapons. The AC-47 was equipped with three 7.62mm miniguns. In contrast the AC-130A carried 7.62mm and 20mm weapons; the AC-130H fired 20mm, 40mm and 105mm guns; and the newest gunship, the AC-130U, is equipped with 25mm, 40mm and 105mm weapons.

The C-130 gunship was a new weapon system in an old airframe. Therefore, there were a number of firsts that one model or another chalked up for the gunship. Spectre was operationally tested at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., from June to September 1967. It initially deployed to Nha Trang, Republic of Vietnam Sept. 20, 1967, and flew its first combat mission Sept. 27. Its first truck busting mission was flown Nov. 8, 1967, and all A-model gunships were assigned to Detachment 2, 14th Commando Wing. In 1968, Det. 2 was assigned to the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing and became the 16th Special Operations Squadron. At that time the C-130A was renamed the AC-130A.

Spectre suffered it first battle damage from anti-aircraft artillery Sept. 26, 1968. The sturdy C-130 returned to base. In December 1968, F-4 Phantoms first escorted the gunship in an effort to protect it from ground fire. However, the first gunship was lost with two crewmembers May 24, 1969. One was killed when the gunship was hit and the other perished when the plane crashed at home base. Five of the 18 gunships were shot down or crashed while serving in Vietnam. A gunship accomplished an unusual feat, May 8, 1969, when it shot down an enemy helicopter. Thus was born the nickname the "fabulous four engine fighter" to the chagrin of fighter pilots who where having few opportunities for air-to-air kills. Firepower increased when the first 105mm cannon arrived for installation on the gunship Feb. 17, 1972. The artillery piece was first used in combat March 1, 1972.

The Air Force commemorated the end of an era 10 September 1995 with the retirement of the first C-130 aircraft to come off a production line. The aircraft, tail number 53-3129, went into production at the Lockheed Aircraft Co. in Marietta, Ga., in 1953 and was the original prototype of what was to become a long line of C-130 Hercules aircraft designed and built by Lockheed. The aircraft, affectionately dubbed "The First Lady," was one of five AC-130A gunship aircraft retired during an official ceremony. While the other four aircraft were sent to the Aerospace Marketing and Regeneration Center at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, the First Lady went on permanent display at the Eglin Air Force Base Armament Museum. The 919th Special Operations Wing's gunships, all around 40 years old, had reached the age of mandatory retirement. The only other gunships in the Air Force inventory are employed by active-duty members at Hurlburt Field, which has less than 20 gunships assigned.

The Vietnam-era AC-130E "Pave Spectre" was an improved version of the AC-130A "PAVE PRONTO" aircraft. The C-130E was equipped with more powerful versions of the Allison T56 turboprop engines. The AC-130E was later upgraded to AC-130H standards under project "Pave Spectre II"

The AC-130 is an excellent fire support platform with outstanding capabilities. With its extremely accurate fire control system, the AC-130 can place 105mm, 40mm and 25mm munitions on target with first round accuracy. The crew of these aircraft are extremely proficient working in military operations in urban terrain [MOUT] environments. Many ground units have begun to use Infra-red (IR) tape either as arm bands or sewn to the top of their ballistic helmet for marking troops and vehicles, especially when working with the AC-130. It only takes a very small piece of IR tape to be distinguished as friend or foe by an AC-130, and anything larger than a one inch by one inch piece is going to white out a large portion of the monitor aboard the aircraft.

Because of the hostage situation in Teheran, Iran, four H-model gunships of the 16th SOS flew nonstop from Hurlburt Field to Anderson Air Force Base, Guam in 1979 and later were part of the support force during the hostage rescue attempt in 1980. However, weather and mechanical problems with helicopter forced the mission abort of this heroic effort. In October 1983, the gunships of the 16th SOS played a very significant part in the rescue of American medical students on the island of Grenada. Without the firepower of the AC-130Hs, the invasion of Grenada would have cost more American lives. From late December 1989 to early January 1990, 23 AF participated in the re-establishment of democracy in the Republic of Panama during Operation JUST CAUSE. Special operations aircraft included active and AFRES AC-130 Spectre gunships, EC-130 Volant Solo psychological operations aircraft from the ANG, HC-130P/N Combat Shadow tankers, MC-130E Combat Talons, and MH-53J Pave Low and MH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters. Spectre gunship crews of the 1 SOW earned the Mackay Trophy and Tunner Award for their efforts.

Both the AC-130A and AC-130H gunships were part of the international force assembled in the Persian Gulf region to drive out of Kuwait which Saddam Hussein had invaded in early August 1990. In the following January, the allies launched the actual war known as Desert Storm following the Desert Shield build-up. Victory was accomplished in a few weeks and Kuwait was set free of the foreign invader. Sadly, the enemy shot down one AC-130H gunship. It resulted in the loss of all 14 crewmembers, the largest singer air power loss of the war.

In March 1994, the price of freedom and the high operations tempo was paid by a 16th Special Operations Squadron AC-130H gunship, call sign Jockey 14. The aircraft was lost due to an in-flight explosion and ditching off the coast of Kenya while supporting Operation CONTINUE HOPE II in Somalia. Eight crewmembers were killed, while six survived.

In April 1996, the aircraft participated in Operation ASSURED RESPONSE, which provided support to the emergency Noncombatant Evacuation (NEO) of more than 2,100 US and foreign citizens from Monrovia, Liberia. Operating in a hostile fire environment, SOF personnel conducted dozens of rotary wing evacuation flights using MH-53Js and overhead fire support sorties in AC-130H Spectres, often vectoring friendly aircraft through heavy small arms and rocket propelled grenade fire.

The AC-130H ALQ-172 ECM Upgrade installs and modifies the ALQ-172 with low band jamming capability for all AC-130H aircraft. It also modifies the ALQ-172 with engineering change proposal-93 to provide increased memory and flight line reprogramming capabilities. The Air Force [WR-ALC/LUKA] issued a sole source, fixed price contract, to International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) for development of low band jammer and subsequent production. Issue a competitive, firm fixed price contract for the Group A modifications (preparing aircraft to receive jammers).

Currently funded weight reduction and center of gravity (CG) improvements to the AC-130H aircraft include: redesign of 40mm and 105mm ammo racks using lighter weight materials; reverse engineering of 40mm and 105mm trainable gun mounts using lighter weight material; and removal of non-critical armor. These efforts are performed by a sole source contract awarded to Rock Island Arsenal.

Continuing the distinguished combat history of side-firing AC-130 gunships, the new AC-130U Spectre gunship is being fielded as a replacement for the AC-130A aircraft and to supplement the AC-130H gunship fleet. Its mission is to support conventional and joint special operations forces any time, any place. The AC-130U Gunship program consists of 13 new Lockheed C-130H airframes, modified by Boeing, which assumed responsibility for the AC-130U contract when it merged with the Rockwell Corporation, the original contractor on the program. The modifications allow the aircraft to perform the full range of special operations and conventional gunships missions. It provides surgical firepower, night and adverse weather operations, and extended loiter time on target in Special Operations Forces (SOF) and conventional roles. The AC-130U is named for the AC-47D and has the "Spooky" nickname rather than the "Spectre" nickname used by all other AC-130 gunships.

The AC-130U is armed with a 25mm Gatling-gun (capable of firing 1800 rounds per minute), a single-barrel, rapid-fire 40mm Bofors cannon, and a 105mm Howitzer. The AC-130U replaced the two 20mm cannon used on the AC-130H with one trainable 25mm cannon while retaining the other weapons. The AC-130U employs the latest technologies and can attack two targets simultaneously.

The U-model gunship is one of the most complex aircraft weapon systems in the world today, containing more than 609,000 lines of software in its mission computers and avionics systems. Although it still uses the venerable Lockheed C-130 airframe, the AC-130U incorporates the latest sensor technology, along with an entirely new fire-control system, to substantially increase the gunship's combat effectiveness. The fire control system offers a dual-target attack capability, whereby two targets up to one kilometer apart can be simultaneously engaged by two different sensors, using two different guns. All light-level television, infrared sensors, and the Hughes APQ-180 radar (also found on the F-15E Strike Eagle) provide night and adverse weather capability. The strike radar provides the first gunship capability for all weather/night target acquisition and strike. All weapons can be slaved to sensors which permit night or adverse weather operations. The AC-130U is a highly integrated weapons system. Within the AC-130U resides the Battle Management Center (BMC) where crew coordination is critical to the success of their missions. This BMC consists of five crew stations which are the Navigator (Nav), Fire Control Officer (FCO), Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) and two Sensor Operators who control the Infrared Detection Set (IDS) and the All Light Level Television (ALLTV) systems.

To enhance survivability, emphasis has been placed on increasing the stand-off range of the gunship's weapons system and improving first-shot accuracy. In addition, a set of electronic countermeasures has been installed to help defend the AC-130U against modern threats. The AC-130U gunship airframe is integrated with an armor protection system (APS).

The acquisition program for this new gunship evolved from a Congressional mandate in the mid-1980s to revitalize the special operations force capabilties. Following the contract award to Rockwell in July 1987, the aircraft was first flown on 20 December 1990. FY92 procurement funding was increased to provide the 13th aircraft to replace the AC-130H lost during Desert Storm. Upon completing an exhaustive flight test program at Air Force Flight Test Center from 1991 to 1994 the first aircraft was delivered to AFSOC on July 1, 1994. Boeing’s contract includes: concurrent development, aircraft production, flight test, and delivery. All aircraft have been delivered and the program is transitioning to the sustainment phase. A competitive contract for sustainment was awarded in July 1998. The program office refocused its efforts on major modifications, mission area requirements, and operations and support. Besides streamlining their own efforts, the office shifted more of the workload to the prime contractor and other Air Force organizations. The program office used a Statement of Objectives for all new proposalas, eliminated all unnecessary material in the Request for Proposals (RFP) and pursued an electronic RFP process with Rockwell. Additionally, numerous test activites were transferred to the Special Operations Force's test unit at Hurlburt Field, FL and more quality control actions were assigned to the DPRO.

The 16th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field received two AC-130U aircraft in mid-1996, giving the Wing a total of 35 AC-130U aircraft. This resulted in an increase of 87 full-time military manpower authorizations.

In August 1998 elements of the 4th Special Operations Squadron from a deployment in the Bosnia-Herzegovina area of operations. During the deployment, the AC-130U Spooky gunships, flown by the 4th SOS, completed more than 230 flights, providing close air support, interdiction and reconnaissance for U.S. and NATO troops implementing the Dayton Peace Accords.

In 1999 the Air Force, the Department of Justice and The Boeing Company entered into a mediated settlement agreement, in which the parties resolved contract claims and disputes that had been unresolved for over 10 years. The claims and disputes related to a contract awarded by the Department of the Air Force in 1987 for the design, development, integration, test, and production of 13 AC-130U Gunship aircraft. A structured process was used to analyze the claims, focus on cost, schedule, and performance issues, and isolate the matters in dispute. It is one of the largest contract claims ever resolved through an alternative dispute resolution process.

Although disputed matters between the parties had remained unresolved for over ten years, and had been the subject of intense litigation for three years preceding the ADR attempt, the government team, consisting of the Air Force and the Justice Department, was able, with the assistance of Judge Martin Harty of the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals serving as an independent third party mediator, to work with Boeing throughout a six-month structured settlement process, to ultimately bring the matter to resolution with a settlement of all claims on the contract, valued at over $785 million at time of settlement. Resolution of this dispute also required the work of dozens of people on both sides working full time over a six-month period. Noteworthy was the leadership exhibited by Air Force Brigadier General Frank Anderson, which was absolutely essential to the successful resolution of this matter.

The newest addition to the command fleet, this heavily armed aircraft incorporates 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 an All Light Level Television system and an infrared detection set. A multi-mode strike radar provides extreme long-range target detection and identification. It is able to track 40mm and 105mm projectiles and return pinpoint impact locations to the crew for subsequent adjustment to the target. The fire control system offers a Dual Target Attack capability, whereby two targets up to one kilometer apart can be simultaneously engaged by two different sensors, using two different guns. No other air-ground attack platform in the world offers this capability. Navigational devices include the inertial navigation system (INS) and global positioning system (GPS). The aircraft is pressurized, enabling it to fly at higher altitudes, saving fuel and time, and allowing for greater range than the AC-130H. Defensive systems include a countermeasures dispensing system that releases chaff and flares to counter radar infrared-guided anti-aircraft missiles. Also infrared heat shields mounted underneath the engines disperse and hide engine heat sources from infrared-guided anti-aircraft missiles. The AC-130U Gunship Navigator/Fire Control Officer stations are two of the five positions that reside in the Battle Management Center (BMC) of the AC-130U aircraft. The architecture of the BMC includes a fire control system which allows weapons delivery, sensor/weapons alignment, and diagnostic maintenance operations. The visual, radar, sensor, and electromagnetic combat environment inputs are correlated to each other for real-time display. The real-time display is a high-resolution perspective scene generations, including day/night, radar, All Light Level Television (ALLTV), and Infrared Detection Set (IDS) capabilities. The visual image generation system displays multiple scenes in each visual or sensor scene. All AC-130U gunfire modes are provided to allow full interaction between supported crew positions. These modes include automatic trainable, automatic fixed, semiautomatic fixed, and manual override. The Sensor Operator is one of the very few jobs in the Air Force where an enlisted person has direct control over a devastating weapon system--especially now that the B-52 gunners are gone. A sensor operator assists in planning the tactical portion of a mission. He performs preflight checks on the sensor systems. In-flight, he uses either the infrared detection set or the All Light Level Television system to locate, confirm, track and destroy targets. He coordinates with the navigator, fire control officer and pilot on firing weapons at designated targets. The sensor operator is the last link in the chain to actually fire the weapon. It takes someone about a year to fully check out on this system. Weapons include the 25 mm Gatling gun, 40 mm Bofors cannon and the 105 mm howitzer. All three weapons are mounted on hydraulically actuated, computer-controlled gun mounts, which allow the computer to aim the weapons at whatever target the sensor operator is tracking.

The AC-130U P3I program develops and procures modifications that correct software and hardware deficiencies of the AC-130U fleet discovered during flight tests and that were outside the scope of the original FY86 contract. These modifications will include the following: combine all necessary software requirements for the System Integration Test (SIT) system and hardware and software improvements for the APQ-180 strike radar system; upgrade the Tactical Situation Map; improve core avionics and computers required for the multi-mission advanced tactical terminal/integrated defense avionics system installation; upgrade the EW suite; and modify the software/hardware required for the trainable gun mounts.

The AC-130H/U, AAQ-26 Infrared Detection Set (IDS) Upgrade program modifies the optics on the AN/AAQ-17 Infrared Detection Set (IDS) currently installed on 13 AC-130U and 8 AC-130H Gunship aircraft to the AN/AAQ-26 configuration. The AC-130U wiring, Operational Flight Program (OFP), Control Displays Program (CDP), Trackhandle, bus multiplier (BMUX), control panels, and variable slow rate feature will be modified. The AC-130H will also be modified. Support equipment, spares, and tech data for both aircraft will be modified as required to support the AN/AAQ-26 configuration. Mission requirements dictate a significant enhancement in target detection, recognition, and identification ranges to decrease aircraft vulnerability. A sole source fixed price incentive contract was awared to Raytheon for design, modification, and installation; with directed sub to Lockheed Aerospace Systems Ontario (LASO) for integration of the AN/AAQ-26 on the AC-130H and Rockwell for software integration of the AN/AAQ-26 on the AC-130U.

The United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has a requirement for a C-130 engine infrared (IR) signature suppression system to provide Special Operations Forces (SOF) C-130 aircraft with an IR signature reduction equal to or better than existing systems at a lower cost of ownership. The primary difficulties with present suppressor systems are low reliability and poor maintainability. This C-130 Engine Infrared Suppression (EIRS) Program system will be used on AC-130H/U, MC-130E/H/P, and EC-130E aircraft. The key requirements for the Engine IR Suppression system are: (a) improved reliability and maintainability over existing systems to result in lower total cost of ownership; (b) IR signature suppression levels as good as the current engine shield system (aka. Tubs); (c) no adverse impacts to aircraft performance and ability to accomplish SOF missions; (d) complete interchangeability between engine positions and identified aircraft types. The suppressor is expected to be a semi-permanent installation, with removal being primarily for servicing, allowing the aircraft to perform all required missions with the suppressors installed. There will be up to two competitive contracts awarded for the initial phases of development with a downselect to one contractor for the completion of development and production. The contract will contain fixed price options for procurement, installation, and sustainment of the system. The Directional Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) program develops and procures 60 systems and provides 59 SOF aircraft (AC-130H/U, MC-130E/H) with a DIRCM system capability. The DIRCM system will work in conjunction with other onboard self-protection systems to enhance the aircraft’s survivability against currently deployed infrared guided missiles. Growth is planned to add a capability to detect and counter advanced threats. Execution of this program is in concert with a joint US/UK cooperative development/ production effort with the UK as lead. Development and acquisition of the DIRCM system will be in accordance with UK procurement laws/regulations. UK designation for this program is "Operational Emergency Requirements 3/89." The Special Operations Forces Radar System Upgrade (RSUG) Program, a Special Operations Force System Program Office, performs hardware modifications on the APQ-180 Radar that will enable the next block cycle radar upgrades for the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC). RSUG, along with the Dual-radar Software Development (DrSDF) program managed by the Information Directorate, provides AFSOC a capability to update and maintain the APQ-180 radar systems on its AC-130U Gunships. RSUG and DrSDF programs will leverage Information Directorate embedded information technologies throughout its implementation to provide a cost effective and capable technology for the Air Force.

Two 4 SOS AC-130U Spectre gunships arrived at Taegu AB, South Korea, 24 October 1997, following a 36-hour nonstop mission from Hurlburt Field, Florida. The mission brought members of the 4 SOS to participate in Foal Eagle 1997, an annual Joint Chiefs of Staff exercise held throughout South Korea. Members of the 6 SOS, the FID squadron, also participated.

Throughout 1998 AFSOC maintained a constant CSAR alert posture as part of Operation JOINT GUARD, with aircraft and personnel rotating from the 16 SOW and 352 SOG to San Vito, Italy on a routine basis. This role increased significantly in March 1999 during the crisis in Kosovo and Operation ALLIED FORCE. Operation ALLIED FORCE witnessed the employment of the AC-130U to provide armed reconnaissance. All told, AFSOC’s special operators and aircraft played a significant role in bringing the conflict in Kosovo to an end.

In late December 2001 a Department of Defense Program Budget Decision (PBD) called for purchasing at least eight additional AC-130U Spooky gunships, and initiating work on a possible replacement AC(X) gunship aircraft. The USAF was directed to purchase and field four additional AC-130Us in FY03 and to convert a further four C-130H transport aircraft to the AC-130U configuration. Such a conversion requires the addition of the AC-130's armaments, to include 40mm and 105mm cannons as well as enhanced self-protection systems. To replace the C-130Hs that would be converted, the the Air Force was directed to buy four more C-130J transport aircraft than previously planned in FY03. Conversion of the C-130H to the AC-130U gunship costs in the range of $50 million to $80 million.

Author: Marc Eichler