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Special Operators Predict AC-130J Will Be 'Most Requested' Aircraft

The Air Force's latest AC-130J Ghostrider gunship sits on the flightline at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)
The Air Force's latest AC-130J Ghostrider gunship sits on the flightline at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (Oriana Pawlyk/Military.com)

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. -- "That's the sound America makes when she's angry."

That's how Col. Tom Palenske, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, characterized the AC-130 gunship after two aircraft fired hundreds of rounds from their 40mm and 105mm cannons and 25mm Gatling gun in the skies above A-77, a range specially made for target practice.

Palenske, also the installation commander here, says crews can't wait for the next best thing: the AC-130J Ghostrider.

"It's going to be awesome. It's our big gun truck. It's going to have more powerful engines, a more efficient fuel rate, and also has a more precise fuel capability so you know exactly how much gas you've got on board," he said.

Palenske caught up with Military.com during a tour of Air Force Special Operations Command aircraft and a live-fire training exercise on ranges used by Hurlburt and neighboring Eglin Air Force Base as part of Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s recent trip to AFSOC.

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"You can keep the sensors on the bad guys longer," Palenske said, referring to the J-model's ability to stay airborne longer due to better fuel management.

Along with the 105mm cannon the U-models sport, the AC-130J will be equipped with a 30mm cannon "almost like a sniper rifle … it's that precise, it can pretty much hit first shot, first kill," he said.

"It's also going to have AGM-176 [Griffin] missiles on the back, so you can put 10 missiles on the back of them. And two of the tubes are reloadable, so those missiles, they're sitting in the tube backward so the tail's pointing out, [and] they eject out of the airplane, right-side themselves and shoot like a forward-fired missile," Palenske said.

The J-model will have the ability to launch 250-pound small-diameter bombs (SDB), GPS- or laser-guided, he added. The aircraft is expected to carry AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, interchangeable with the SDBs on its wing pylons.

The model achieved initial operational capability in September.

The fourth-generation J is slated to replace the AC-130H/U/W models, with delivery of the final J- model sometime in 2021, according to the Air Force. The service plans to buy 32 of the aircraft.

Crews here expect the J to be deployed in late 2019 or early 2020 and are optimistic about its progress.

In January, the Pentagon's Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation said fire control systems associated with the plane's left-hand-side 30mm GAU-23/A cannon had issues, including being knocked out of alignment when fired and needing to be re-centered repeatedly by an operator.

The AC-130W Stinger II and J-model are the only variants of the gunship to use the Orbital ATK-made cannon.

"That was drastically exaggerated," Palenske said in response to the problems cited in the report.

Officials said some of the issues were already being fixed by the time the report was made public.

Now, "all of the gun actuating systems are electric as opposed to hydraulic. Hydraulic's sloppy," Palenske said, referring to the gun mounts that previously used hydraulics to aim the weapons.

"And remember, we're just bringing this thing online. You can't expect to slap this thing together … and have that thing come out perfect," he said.

"From soup to nuts, it's all run by computers and computer programs. But it's going to [be] the most lethal, with the most loiter time, probably the most requested weapons system from ground forces in the history of warfare. That's my prediction," Palenske said.

There are two electro-optical/infrared sensor/laser designator pods on the gunship, a significant upgrade from the U-model.

The U-model "has an older Raytheon ALQ-39 and a L3/Wescam MX-15," Lt. Col. Pete Hughes, an AFSOC spokesman, said in a follow-up email. The J-model has two L3/Wescam MX-20 electro-optical/infrared sensor/laser designator pods.

"The upgraded sensors provide greater resolution at longer distances," he said.

The new sensors can zoom in well enough to identify a shoe on the ground and will be able to share information with fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, officials said.

In the future, AC-130 crews also hope to incorporate a high-energy laser aboard the gunship.

Palenske said the laser will be the ultimate ace in the hole, making disabling other weapons systems easier.

"If you're flying along and your mission is to disable an airplane or a car, like when we took down Noriega back in the day, now as opposed to sending a Navy SEAL team to go disable [aircraft] on the ground, you make a pass over that thing with an airborne laser, and burn a hole through its engine," he said.

Palenske was referring to Operation Nifty Package to capture and remove Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega from power in 1989, during which a SEAL team "disable[d] his aircraft so he couldn't escape."

With a laser, "it's just like that. And you just keep going on, and there's no noise, no fuss, nobody knows it happened. They don't know the thing's broken until they go and try to fire it up," he said.

The transition to the J-model will happen simultaneously in the AC gunship community and the MC-130 Combat Talon special mission community, as older C-130 models are divested "in an elegant ballet" to make sure commandos and ground forces are covered, Palenske said.

The Air Force is procuring more MC-130J models -- used for clandestine missions; low-level air refueling for helicopter and tiltrotor aircraft; and infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of special operations forces -- but is still using H-models in deployed locations.

Palenske said having a standard aircraft in not only the gunship community but also the MC community will be less of a strain on maintainers.

"Imagine the efficiency in the parts supply [for] the maintainers. You can keep less people in harm's way because the people that are going to maintain the systems on [both of] those, they can do it," he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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