The AC-130J Ghostrider ground-attack aircraft has picked up several different unofficial moinikers in the five years the Air Force Special Operations Command maniacs at Hurlburt Field have spent slapping guns on the thing: “The most advanced gunship in the inventory.” “The ultimate battle plane.” “A bomb truck with guns on it.”
The latest affectionate description of the converted MC-130J Combat Shadow II is probably the best — and it reflects the branch’s excitement to get this bad boy in the air.
“That’s the sound America makes when she’s angry,” 1st Special Operations Wing commander Col. Tom Palenske told Military.com air reporter Oriana Pawlyk of the Ghostrider’s arsenal as the aircraft brrrrrrrp’d off its 25mm, 40mm, and 105mm cannons in the skies above Hurlburt during Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s visit this week. “It’s going to be awesome. It’s our big gun truck.”
He’s not wrong: the Ghostrider’s weapons system is, to even the most cursory observer, awe-inspiring. Apart from the 25mm Gatling gun and 40mm cannon Pawlyk observed in action and its payload of various munitions — namely AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and the GPS-guided Small Diameter Bombs favored by the Pentagon after years of uptempo bombing sorties in the Middle East — the Ghostrider will boast a 30mm cannon that Palenske described as “almost like a sniper rifle … it’s that precise, it can pretty much hit first shot, first kill.”
That’s before you even get to the 105mm cannon that AFSOC slapped on the back of the airframe at the insistence of former AFSOC chief Lt. Gen. Bradley Heithold. The cannon is literally the equivalent of an inverted howitzer. And while AFSOC always intended for the Ghostrider to operate with the latest electronic warfare package (and increasing priority in recent months alone), the command has also pushed, despite funding obstacles in Congress, to outfit the airframe with a high-powered directed energy weapon that could disable enemy vehicles, communications, and power sources.
Ironically, AFSOC’s new angel of death may be too overgunned for its own good, if you can imagine such a thing. A recent evaluation from DoD’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation found the aircraft’s fire control systems “performed inconsistently when accounting for changing ballistic conditions,” like strong crosswinds and sudden changes in altitude (inconsistencies that would necessitate on-the-fly recalibrations). But the report also found that the recoil 30mm GAU-23/A cannon’s fastest rate of fire causes the gun to shake so aggressively that automatic safeguards kick in, requiring the gun and mount to recenter before going to town again. The sniper rifle, it seems, is too powerful for the airframe.
Palenske insisted to Military.com that the report “drastically exaggerated” the problem. He also said that it’s already been fixed. “All of the gun actuating systems are electric as opposed to hydraulic. Hydraulic’s sloppy,” Palenske told Pawlyk of the Ghostrider’s new gun mounts. “And remember, we’re just bringing this thing online. You can’t expect to slap this thing together … and have that thing come out perfect.”
A big, expensive gun that’s the close air support version of a bucking bronco? There’s nothing more American than that.