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AC-130 aircraft are modified C-130 transport aircraft that are heavily armed to provide air support to special operations forces. Originally introduced in the since the Vietnam War, Its traditional armament was three 20mm and one 40mm autocannon, plus a 105mm howitzer. The most recent version AC-130U is called "Spooky"; its H-model predecessor is called "Spectre".

They are vulnerable to modern air defenses, and typically would be used, in combination with special operations forces, on operations where there is no appreciable air defense threat.

AC-130 in flight, firing flares to divert heat-seeking missiles

Nevertheless, they are some of the most intensely utilized aircraft in the United States Air Force.

Proper employment helps their survivability. The AC-130 shot down in 1991 had not left the area at first light, as ordered but eager to strike more targets. It fell prey to a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile once it could be seen. Survivability also improves when other types of aircraft are being used, confusing the enemy as to the threat.

Mode of Employment

All gunships evolved from the first operational gunship, the AC-47. Some chance observations and informal experiments showed that a set of side-mounted automatic weapons, in a transport aircraft making a continuous turn to the side with the guns, could direct the fire with extreme accuracy. The maneuver is called a "pylon turn", after the pylons circled in low-altitude air races.

Current AC-130s, with air refueling, have worldwide range.


The aircraft has always had excellent night vision and navigation equipment.

During Vietnam, an effective but highly classified sensor was the BLACK CROW, which detected the electrical noise of trucks on the Ho Chi Minh trail, running at night, without lights, under trees.

Current aircraft have low-light television sensor, infrared sensor and radar. These include identification-friend-or-foe, and a wide range of communications devices for coordinating fire suppor, "danger close" when necessary, to friendly forces on the ground. These sensors allow the gunship to visually or electronically identify friendly ground forces and targets any place, any time.

The AC-130U has a AN/APQ-180 synthetic aperture imaging radar, which is a derivative of the AN/APG-70. It can track fixed targets, provide moving target detection, track shells to their target, and give radar information.

Both the AC-130s employ the latest technologies and can attack two targets simultaneously.


Its tactical radios include the AN/ARC-187.


All the autocannon are being replaced by 30mm Bushmasters (see picture).

AC-130 autocannon replacement

Active consideration is being given to adding a 120mm mortar, which will add 360 degree attack capability.[1]

Adding external precision-guided munitions, such as the AGM-65 Maverick and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, are being considered. These would be the first weapons that are not cannon. The 30mm autocannon upgrade, however, will come first.

Defensive systems

Threat detection comes from the AN/AAR-57 Common Missile Warning system.

The infrared countermeasures was not limited to flares, but directed energy from the AN/ALQ-157 system.[2] The aircraft has an AN/ALE-47 Countermeasures Dispenser System [CMDS], is a "smart" dispenser that connects directly to infrared and radar warning receivers, release expendable and towed/retrivable decoys, as well as helping the pilot with situational awareness of the threat.


General Characteristics

AC-130 aircraft are under the Air Force Special Operations Command, part of United States Special Operations Command.

  • Primary Function: Close air support, air interdiction and force protection
  • Builder: Lockheed/Boeing Corp.
  • Power Plant: Four Allison T56-A-15 turboprop engines
  • Thrust: 4,910 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; unlimited with air refueling.
  • Ceiling: 25,000 feet (7,576 meters
  • Maximum Takeoff Weight: 155,000 pounds (69,750 kilograms)
  • Crew: AC-130U - pilot, co-pilot, navigator, fire control officer, electronic warfare officer (officers) and flight engineer, TV operator, infrared detection set operator, loadmaster, four aerial gunners (enlisted)
  • Deployment Date: AC-130H, 1972; AC-130U, 1995
  • Unit Cost: AC-130H, $132.4 million; AC-130U, $190 million (fiscal 2001 constant dollars)
  • Inventory: Active duty, AC-130H, 8; AC-130U, 17; Reserve, 0; ANG, 0