In the five years since the Air Force converted an MC-130J Combat Shadow II into a next-generation AC-130J Ghostrider ground-attack aircraft, Air Force Special Operations Command hasn’t been able to stop bulking up the airframe’s weapons systems. They added a 105mm cannon and are even considering the future installation of a frickin’ laser beam to make the Ghostrider “the ultimate battle plane” for close air support; the Ghostrider’s muscular arsenal has led AFSOC officials to call it “a bomb truck with guns on it.”
But a new Pentagon report reveals a serious problem with this truck’s guns. Buried in a January 2018 after-action from the DoD’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (and flagged by our friends at The War Zone) is a relatively alarming assessment of the Ghostrider: The aircraft’s fire control systems “performed inconsistently when accounting for changing ballistic conditions” like shifts in altitude and ambient wind; those factors frequently required in-flight recalibrations to ensure the gun and mount actually remained on target.
Even worse, the report states that recoil from the 30mm GAU-23/A cannon’s full rate of fire (a blistering 200 rounds a minute) causes the gun to shake so aggressively that the fire control system’s automatic safeguards kick in, and the operator has to allow the gun and mount to recenter before opening fire again. Both of these problems, the report notes, are absent from the Ghostrider’s predecessor, the AC-130W Stinger.
AFSOC declared that the Ghostrider had reached initial operating capacity in September 2017, and the command remains confident that the aircraft “will support most elements of the Close Air Support and Air Interdiction missions,” as the report states. But, the report warns, the overstuffed skunkwork project has the potential to be a real Frankenstein’s monster: “The complexity of system software, inadequate training and technical manuals, and the overall operating environment aboard the AC-130J diminishes usability.”
Obviously, the 30mm cannon isn’t the only tool in the Ghostrider’s arsenal. The aircraft boasts GPS- and laser-guided AGM-176A Griffin missiles and the deliciously destructive GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs, not to mention the 105mm howitzer jutting from the airframe’s side. Indeed, the service plans on adding even more deadly goodies to the Ghostrider, including upgraded SDBs and powerful AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, to say nothing of that frickin’ laser beam.
But the 30mm issues in particular spell big trouble for the AC-130’s long-held status as a weapon of choice for “danger close” operations. “AC-130s have developed an excellent reputation for being precision tools ideal for ‘danger close’ missions where enemy forces are close to friendly troops, innocent bystanders, or both,” as the War Zone notes. “A loss of calibration or severe vibrations could send shells flying wildly off the mark, potentially leading to friendly fire or civilian casualties.”
On the upside, the report states that the 105 mm howitzer is doing just fine, with its rounds demonstrating “expected lethality against personnel, trucks, and light armored vehicles.” So there’s that, I guess.