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AC-X Replacement Gunship

In late December 2001 a Department of Defense Program Budget Decision (PBD) called for purchasing at least 8 additional AC-130U Spooky gunships, and initiating work on a possible replacement gunship aircraft. The PBD added funding to accelerate and fully fund an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration for the AC-X aircraft. The AC-X could be either a further upgrade to the existing AC-130 an entirely new follow-on system. At that time formal procurement program for the AC-X was expected to begin in Fiscal Year 2005.

Special operators wanted the new gunship, or AC-X, to be much smaller than a C-130, with fewer crew members. They wanted it to be stealthy, with the speed and maneuverability of a long-range jet fighter. They also wanted it equipped with directed energy weapons and non-lethal technologies, and expected that it would be able to engage targets from any angle-above and below, front and back.

The USSOCOM Advanced Technology Development program conducted rapid prototyping and Advanced Technology Demonstrations (ATD). It provided a means for demonstrating and evaluating the utility of emerging/advanced technologies in as realistic an operational environment as possible by SOF users. The FY03 plan was to participate in SOF C4I, Mobility, Weapons, and Sustainment ATDs; manage the Advanced Tactical Laser Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD); and continue the AC-X Analysis of Alternatives. Aircraft Experimentation (AC-X) was intended to develop and explore the emerging technologies for the next generation of the AC-130 gunship. The budget request included $55.5 million for the AC-X Gunship Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD). This effort was to initiate an Advanced Tactical Laser ACTD. The overall intent was to understand the military need, provide preliminary concepts of operation for a directed energy weapon on the battlefield to support the warfighter, and assess the military utility based on the ACTD demonstration.

As of 2005, the US Marine Corps was working to develop an advanced Gunship Advanced Combined Arms Weapons Suite (GACAWS) capability that was compatible with any Marine Corps tactical gunship platform. The GACAWS suite would constitute an advanced combined arms firepower capability that integrates a variety of advanced non-kinetic and conventional kinetic weapons (DEW & KEW) capabilities for the flexible and effective application of force in support of the MAGTF across the full spectrum of projected 21st Century conflict.

Work associated with GACAWS included USMC support of work to develop a High Energy Laser (HEL). Weapons that generated ultra violet (UV), optical, and infrared (IR) wavelength ultra-short pulse, short pulse and/or continuous wave (CW) coherent laser energy were a requirement. This included HEL sources that focused on all-electric solid state (SS) and high power fiber optic laser (FOL) technologies of 1 kilowatt average power or greater, that were frequency agile, that could alternately produce both high average or high peak power. HEL weapons systems would be scalable and adaptable to various vehicle, tactical gunship and sea-based platforms. Options would include phase-locked fiber optic arrays for platform topological conformity. Conventional optical apertures should all benefit from adaptive optics to optimize atmospheric propagation and maximize energy delivered to target.

While HEL weapon development continued, additional programs centered on exploration of new gunship platforms. In Fiscal Year 2007, the Dual Mode Small Gunship and Close Air Support Technology for Loitering Engagement (CASTLE) programs were initiated. In addition, in 2007, the USAF took delivery of 4 AC-130U aircraft with a modified weapon's suite.

In 2008, after it became apparent that the USAF's AC-130 fleet was under significant strain from operational requirements, it was decided to explore the possibility of converting C-27J airlifters into small gunships, tentatively referred to as AC-27J. The nickname Stinger II, a reference to the AC-119K Stinger gunship, was also used to refer to these aircraft. The USAF also began exploring ways to recapitalize the AC-130H fleet.

The AC-27J proposal, referred to variously as AC-XX, Gunship Light, and Gunship Lite, was evaluated during 2008 and 2009. In 2010, the decision was made to abandon the AC-27J proposal in favor of a modular Precision Strike Package (PSP) that could be rapidly fitted to Air Force Special Operations Command C-130 aircraft. The initial PSP development was done using a modified MC-130W Combat Spear aircraft under Project Dragon Spear. The US Marine Corps had also continued work on a similar modular package, called Harvest HAWK, which it fitted to modified KC-130J aircraft beginning in 2010. Harvest HAWK aircraft were deployed to Afghanistan for operations by October 2010.

The initial USAF plan for the PSP was to fit the system on an interim basis to MC-130W aircraft, while recapitalizing AC-130H to a similar configuration, where they could also be fitted with the PSP. After the AC-130Hs were recapitalized, the MC-130W aircraft would be returned to their standard unarmed configuration. By 2012, this plan had been supplanted by one to instead recapitalize the AC-130H aircraft to the MC-130J Commando II configuration, and to make the PSP an optional capability for both the MC-130W and MC-130J aircraft. The designation AC-130W Stinger II was subsequently assigned to MC-130W aircraft fitted with the PSP and it was expected that the designation AC-130J and another new nickname would be applied to similar configured MC-130J aircraft. It was unclear at that time whether this planned optional capability for these aircraft fulfilled the previous AC-X requirements and expectations.

The USAF received the first MC-130J to be converted to the AC-130J configuration on 9 January 2013. As of January 2013, a total of 37 MC-130J prototypes were to be modified as part of a $2.4 billion AC-130J program to grow the future fleet. The first AC-130J was expected to be completed in November 2013 and expected to be ready for initial flight testing by December 2013. At that time it was also announced that the AC-130J would receive the official nickname Ghostrider.

At the National Defense Industry Association's 2013 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) in May 2013, it was reported that a side-firing weapon system demonstration involving the C-145A aircraft (the US designation for the Polish PZL M-28 Skytruck) was underway. The demonstration was specifically said to be part of work to enable partner nation aircrew training on tactics, techniques, and procedures associated with side-firing gunships and their use in missions like convoy escort and support of ground forces. The weapon system used was said to be a flexible gun mount featuring 2 GAU-18/A .50 caliber machine guns.

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