The AC-130J Ghostrider — the latest in the Air Force’s line of heavily-armed gunships — marked a major developmental milestone Sept. 30 when it was declared to have reached initial operational capability.
Air Force Special Operations Command spokeswoman Capt. Amanda Farr said in a Tuesday email that its commander, Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, made that determination after six Ghostriders were delivered, and a formal training unit, or schoolhouse had been established.
However, the gunship still has a long way before it reaches full operational capability and is ready to deploy to the battlefield. Farr said that it will likely be fully operational sometime in fiscal 2023, when 37 fully-configured gunships are delivered.
Farr said that ongoing fighting, high operational tempos and frequent deployments of AFSOC’s gunship crews, which are stretching those airmen thin, are making it difficult to switch to a new weapons system.
“However, this is a huge step for the gunship and the modernization of our C-130 fleet,” Farr said.
The modified Lockheed C-130J will carry a 30mm and 105mm cannon — the latter of which is essentially a plane-mounted Howitzer — AFG-176A Griffin missiles, and will be capable of carrying Hellfire missiles and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs. AFSOC leaders have even suggested in the past that the Ghostrider one day could be mounted with a laser, or a swarm of drones to help target the enemy in areas with thick clouds or in mountainous or otherwise dangerous territory.
The 30mm cannon can automatically fire up to 200 rounds per minute, each about the size of a Coca-Cola bottle.
The J variant of the AC-130 line is also lighter, faster and more efficient than its predecessors, burning 25 to 30 percent less gas than previous models. It can reach a top speed of 416 miles per hour, faster than the roughly 300 mph top speed of the AC-130U.
And the Ghostrider can fly a maximum range of 3,000 miles at altitudes of up to 28,000 feet, about twice as far and 3,000 feet higher than the AC-130U.
The AC-130J’s six-bladed propellor design — replacing the four-bladed props of its predecessors — helps provide more thrust and makes it more efficient.
Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold, a former AFSOC commander, in 2015 called the AC-130J “the ultimate battle plane“ and a “bomb truck with guns.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.