Lockheed AC-130

Dave King, of Lockheed Martin, marshals out the AC-130J Ghostrider as it taxis the runway for its first official sortie Jan. 31 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. The Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130J arrived at Eglin in January 2013 to begin the modification process for the AC-130J, whose primary mission is close air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance. A total of 32 MC-130J prototypes will be modified as part of a $2.4 billion AC-130J program to grow the future fleet. (U.S. Air Force photo/Chrissy Cuttita)

The Lockheed AC-130 gunship is a heavily-armed ground-attack aircraft variant of the C-130 Hercules transport plane. The basic airframe is manufactured by Lockheed, while Boeing is responsible for the conversion into a gunship and for aircraft support. The AC-130A Gunship II superseded the AC-47 Gunship I during the Vietnam War.

The gunship's sole user is the United States Air Force, which uses AC-130H SpectreAC-130U SpookyAC-130J Ghostrider, and AC-130W Stinger II variants for close air support, air interdiction and force protection. Close air support roles include supporting ground troops, escorting convoys, and flying urban operations. Air interdiction missions are conducted against planned targets and targets of opportunity. Force protection missions include defending air bases and other facilities. AC-130Us are based at Hurlburt Field, Florida, while AC-130Hs and AC-130Ws are based at Cannon AFB, New Mexico. The AC-130s deploy to bases worldwide in support of operations. The gunship squadrons are part of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), a component of the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM).

Role Fixed-wing Ground-attack and close air support gunship
Manufacturer Lockheed and Boeing
First flight AC-130A: 1966
Introduction AC-130A: 1968
Retired AC-130A: 1995
Status In service
Primary user United States Air Force
Number built 47 (in all variants)
Unit cost AC-130H: US$132.4 million
AC-130U: US$190 million (2002)
Developed from Lockheed C-130 Hercules

All of the weaponry aboard is mounted to fire from the left (port) side of the non-pressurised aircraft. During an attack the gunship performs a pylon turn, flying in a large circle around the target, allowing it to fire at it far longer than a conventional attack aircraft. The AC-130H "Spectre" was armed with two 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannons, one Bofors 40mm autocannon, and one 105 mm M102 cannon, although on most missions after 1994 the 20mm cannons were removed due to their incompatibility with precision targeting and to carry more 40mm and 105mm ammunition. Another reason the 20mm cannons were removed was due to insufficient slant range to target to operate outside of the shoulder launched missile (MANPADS) threat envelope. The upgraded AC-130U "Spooky" has a single 25 mm GAU-12 Equalizer in place of the Spectre's twin 20 mm cannons, an improved fire control system, and increased ammunition capacity. New AC-130J gunships based on MC-130J Combat Shadow II special operations tankers were planned as of 2012. The AC-130W is armed with one 30mm Bushmaster Cannon and can drop the AGM-176 Griffin missile.


Underside of an AC-130U Spooky


The AC-130 is a heavily-armed long-endurance aircraft carrying an array of anti-ground oriented weapons that are integrated with sophisticated sensors, navigation, and fire control systems. It is capable of delivering precision firepower or area-saturation fire over a target area over a long period of time, at night or 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 in most weather conditions.

The AC-130U is equipped with the AN/APQ-180, a synthetic aperture radar for long-range target detection and identification. The gunship's navigational devices include inertial navigation systems and a Global Positioning System. The AC-130U employs technologies developed in the 1990s which allow it to attack two targets simultaneously. It has twice the munitions capacity of the AC-130H. Although the AC-130U conducts some operations in daylight, most of its combat missions are conducted at night. The AC-130H's unit cost is US$132.4 million, and the AC-130U's cost is US$190 million (fiscal 2001 dollars).

Operations since 2001

The United States used gunships during War in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) in Afghanistan (2001– ), and Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) in Iraq (2003–2010). In 2007, U.S. Special Operations forces also used the AC-130 in attacks on suspected al-Qaeda militants in Somalia.

Close air support was the main mission of the AC–130 in Iraq. Night after night, at least one AC–130 was in the air to fulfill one or more air support requests (ASRs). A typical mission had the AC–130 supporting a single brigade’s ASRs followed by aerial refueling and another 2 hours with another brigade or SOF team. The use of AC-130s in places like Fallujah, urban settings where insurgents were among crowded populations of non combatants, was criticized by human rights groups. AC-130s were also used for intelligence gathering with their sophisticated long-range video, infrared and radar sensors.

AC-130 strikes were directed by special forces on known Taliban locations during the early days of the war in Afghanistan. U.S. Special Operations Forces are using the AC-130 to support its operations. The day after arriving in Afghanistan, the AC-130s attacked Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces near the city of Konduz and were directly responsible for the city's surrender the next day. On 26 November 2001, AC-130 Spectres were called in to put down a rebellion at the prison fort of Qual-a-Jinga. The 16 SOS flew missions over Mazar-E-Shariff, Konduz, Kandahar, Shkin, Asadabad, Bagram, Baghran, Tora Bora, and virtually every other part of Afghanistan. Spectre participated in countless operations within Afghanistan, performing on-call close air support and armed reconnaissance.

In March 2002, three AC-130 Spectres provided 39 crucial combat missions in support of Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan. During the intense fighting, the planes expended more than 1,300 40 mm and 1,200 105 mm rounds.

There are eight AC-130H and seventeen AC-130U aircraft in active-duty service as of July 2010.

In March 2011, the U.S. Air Force deployed two AC-130U gunships to take part in Operation Odyssey Dawn, the U.S. military intervention in Libya, which eventually came under NATO as Operation Unified Protector.

As of September 2013, 14 MC-130W Dragon Spear aircraft have been converted to AC-130W Stinger II gunships. The Stinger gunships have been deployed to Afghanistan to replace the aging AC-130H and provide an example for the new AC-130J Ghostrider. Modifications began with crews cutting holes in the plane to make room for weapons, and adding kits and bomb bases for laser-guided munitions. Crews added a 105 mm cannon, 20 in infrared and electro-optical sensors, and the ability to carry 250-pound bombs on the wings.


AC-130A Spectre (Project Gunship II, Surprise Package, Pave Pronto)
Nineteen converted from C-130As, transferred to Air Force Reserve in 1975, retired in 1995.
AC-130E Spectre (Pave Spectre, Pave Aegis)
Eleven converted from C-130Es, ten upgraded to AC-130H configuration.
AC-130H Spectre
Eight operational (active duty USAF)
AC-130U Spooky II
Seventeen operational with (active duty USAF)
AC-130J Ghostrider
Sixteen planned to replace AC-130H and increase fleet size.
AC-130W Stinger II (MC-130W Dragon Spear)
12 aircraft.


AC-130U over Hurlburt Field

 United States:

  • United States Air Force
    • Air Force Special Operations Command
      • 1st Special Operations Wing
        • 4th Special Operations Squadron
        • 19th Special Operations Squadron
      • 27th Special Operations Wing
        • 16th Special Operations Squadron
        • 73rd Special Operations Squadron
        • 551st Special Operations Squadron


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