The recent news that the Air Force is planning to retire its fleet of AC-130H Spectre gunships had all the usual suspects up in arms, howling how the Air Force was again shirking its commitment to Close Air Support.
Well, maybe. But the AC-130H fleet is aging badly, and the airframes, the avionics and the weapons are all tired and expensive to maintain and operate.
A couple years ago, looking to supplement its already stretched thin fleet, the Air Force undertook an interim program to modify some Special Operations MC-130s to “Combat Dragon” specs with a so-called Precision Strike Package, with a 30mm Bushmaster chain gun, and the ability to employ the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and the AGM-176 Griffin guided bomb.
The program was very quick, and quite successful, and the Air Force has decided to buy a fleet of about 30 new build, dedicated AC-130J gunships, similarly armed, but with fully integrated avionics and adding the famous 105mm cannon.
The Marine Corps’ similar Harvest Hawk program also employs the Griffin and Hellfire, but is designed to be convertible back to a standard cargo hauler, or to a hose and drogue tanker.
This picture shows a GAU-23 mounted on an H model C-130.
Note the IR/FLIR/Laser designator turret under the nose, and the second one on the landing gear sponson.
The first AC-130J recently made its first flight. It will eventually replace the current fleet of AC-130H and U variants.