Published January 20, 2016
The AC-130U “Spooky” gunships’ primary missions are close air support, air interdiction and armed reconnaissance. Close air support missions include troops in contact, convoy escort and point air defense. Air interdiction missions are conducted against preplanned targets or targets of opportunity and include strike coordination, reconnaissance and armed overwatch mission sets.
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, day or night and in adverse weather. The sensor suite consists of multispectral television sensors, high definition infrared sensors and radar. These sensors allow the gunship to visually or electronically identify friendly ground forces and targets anytime, anywhere.
The AC-130U employs synthetic aperture strike radar for long-range and adverse weather target detection and identification. The AC-130's navigational devices include inertial navigation systems and global positioning systems. The AC-130U’s capability to track and engage two targets simultaneously with different levels of ordnance is an invaluable asset to special operations forces on the ground.
The Spooky is the third generation of C-130 gunships. All gunships evolved from the first operational gunship, the AC-47, to the AC-119, and then the AC-130A which was the basis for the modern C-130 Hercules gunship. The AC-130H “Spectre” gunships were fielded in 1972 and retired in 2015. The last AC-130U was flown to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona, June 26, 2020, for retirement.
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 and Liberia. AC-130s were also part of the buildup of U.S. forces in 1998 to convince Iraq to comply with U.N. weapons inspections.
In 1999, AC-130Us were involved in combat operations in Kosovo, where the first ever employment of the radar system to identify and attack targets was used. More recently, AC-130U gunships have supported operations Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn and have been employed in support of operations Enduring Freedom and Resolute Support. Finally, AFSOC gunships have also played a pivotal role in the recent uprisings in the Middle East. Gunships provide armed reconnaissance, interdiction and direct support of ground troops engaged with enemy forces.
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 (before retirement); reserve, 0; ANG, 0
(Current as of March 2021)