The heavily armed AC-130U Spooky aircraft incorporates side-firing weapons integrated with sophisticated sensor, navigation and fire control systems to provide surgical firepower or area saturation during extended loiter periods, at night and in adverse weather. The sensor suite consists of a television sensor, infrared sensor and radar. These sensors allow the gunship to visually or electronically identify friendly ground forces and targets any place, any time. The AC-130U Spooky is the third generation of C-130 gunships. The AC-130U employs aperture strike radar for long-range and adverse weather target detection and identification. The aircraft's navigational devices include the inertial navigation systems and global positioning system.
The AC-130U Spooky was originally armed with a 25mm GAU-12/U cannon (capable of firing 1,800 rounds per minute), a single-barrel, rapid-fire 40mm Bofors L/60 cannon, and a modified 105mm M102 howitzer. The AC-130U's GAU-12/U replaced replaced the 2 M61A1 20mm cannons used on the AC-130H, but otherwise retained the previous armament fit. A number of programs were subsequently initiated to investigate additional AC-130U armament options. The AC-130U employs the latest technologies and can attack two targets simultaneously.
The AC-130U gunship is a complex aircraft weapon system, containing more than 609,000 lines of software code in its mission computers and avionics systems. Although still using the venerable Lockheed C-130 airframe, the AC-130U incorporates the advanced sensor technology, along with an entirely new fire-control system compared to previous AC-130 gunships, to substantially increase the gunship's combat effectiveness. The fire control system offers a dual-target attack capability, whereby 2 targets up to one kilometer apart could be simultaneously engaged by 2 different sensors, using 2 different guns. All light-level television, infrared sensors, and the Hughes AN/APQ-180 radar (also found on the F-15E Strike Eagle) provides night and adverse weather capability. The strike radar provided the first gunship capability for all weather/night target acquisition and strike.
The AC-130U is an excellent platform for working at night. AC-130U pilots are trained to be proficient with night vision goggles and the AC-130U carries various systems for working in the dark including FLIR, and ALLTV. It has an LST and 2 laser designators, although these systems cannot be cued to each other. The AN/APQ-180 fire control radar gives the AC-130U an adverse weather capability. They orbit at approximately 5,000-10,000 feet above ground around a target area in a 5 nautical mile arc. AC-130U strengths include an excellent loiter time of up to 4.5 hours. It is a superior platform for Troops in Contact (TIC), and is best used at night to optimize all of its sensors. It also has a superior communications suite. AC-130U weaknesses include decreased maneuverability and survivability in a high tech surface-to-air threat environment. It is a large target with slow speed and should not be used in a high threat environment in daylight. It also has a wide orbit pattern.
All weapons can be slaved to sensors that permit night or adverse weather operations. The AC-130U is a highly integrated weapons system. Within the AC-130U resides the Battle Management Center (BMC) where crew coordination is critical to the success of their missions. This BMC consists of 5 crew stations: the Navigator (Nav), Fire Control Officer (FCO), Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO), and 2 Sensor Operators, who control the Infrared Detection Set (IDS) and the All Light Level Television (ALLTV) systems.
To enhance survivability, emphasis has been placed on increasing the stand-off range of the gunship's weapons system and improving first-shot accuracy. In addition, a set of electronic countermeasures has been installed to help defend the AC-130U against modern threats. The AC-130U gunship airframe is integrated with an armor protection system (APS).
Continuing the distinguished combat history of side-firing AC-130 gunships, the AC-130U Spooky gunship was fielded in the 1990s as a replacement for the remaining AC-130A aircraft and to supplement the existing AC-130H gunship fleet. Its mission was to support conventional and joint special operations forces any time, any place. The AC-130U Gunship program initially consisted of 13 (this was later increased to 17) new Lockheed C-130H airframes, modified by Boeing, which assumed responsibility for the AC-130U contract when it merged with the Rockwell Corporation, the original contractor on the program. The modifications allowed the aircraft to perform the full range of special operations and conventional gunships missions. It provided surgical firepower, night and adverse weather operations, and extended loiter time on target in Special Operations Forces (SOF) and conventional roles. The AC-130U is named for the AC-47D and has the "Spooky" nickname rather than the "Spectre" nickname used by all other AC-130 gunships.
Two AC-130U Spooky gunships of the 4th Special Operations Squadron arrived at Taegu Air Base, South Korea on 24 October 1997, following a 36-hour nonstop mission from Hurlburt Field, Florida. The mission brought members of the 4th Special Operation Squadron to participate in Foal Eagle 1997, an annual Joint Chiefs of Staff exercise held throughout South Korea. Members of the 6th Special Operations Squadron, the FID squadron, also participated.
In August 1998, elements of the 4th Special Operations Squadron returned from a deployment in the Bosnia-Herzegovina area of operations. During the deployment, the AC-130U Spooky gunships flown by the 4th Special Operations Squadron, completed more than 230 flights, providing close air support, interdiction and reconnaissance for US and NATO troops implementing the Dayton Peace Accords.
Throughout 1998, Air Force Special Operations Command maintained a constant CSAR alert posture as part of Operation Joint Guard, with aircraft and personnel rotating from the 16th Special Operations Wing and 352nd Special Operations Group to San Vito, Italy on a routine basis. This role increased significantly in March 1999, during the crisis in Kosovo and Operation Allied Force. Operation Allied Force witnessed the employment of the AC-130U to provide armed reconnaissance. All told, Air Force Special Operations Command's special operators and aircraft played a significant role in bringing the conflict in Kosovo to an end.
In March 2011, AC-130U gunships were forward deployed as part of operations to enforce a UN mandated no-fly zone and otherwise protect civilians in Libya as part of Operation Odyssey Dawn.
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