An MC-130J prototype arrives at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. on Jan. 3 to receive modifications to become Air Force Special Operations Command's next generation gunship, the AC-130J Ghostrider. (Courtesy Photo)
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Air Force Special Operations Command will begin flight tests later this year on a new gunship that will replace its aging fleet of AC-130s.
An MC-130J Commando II arrived at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., last month, where it will be converted into a new variant called the AC-130J Ghostrider. The AC-130J will be a combination of the advanced avionics, targeting systems and engines of the MC-130J and the cannons and bombs of legacy AC-130s, which have been in high demand for providing close-air support and armed reconnaissance in Afghanistan.
The new gunship will have dual electro-optical infrared sensors and all-weather synthetic aperture radar to help deliver AGM-176 Griffin missiles, small-diameter bombs and blasts from a 30mm cannon.
"Major enhancements will include extended sensor capabilities, more precise fire control and stand-off precision guided weapons capabilities," said Capt. Belena Marquez, spokeswoman for Air Force Special Operations Command.
The AC-130J will begin flight testing in December. Initial operating capability is planned for 2017 with six aircraft, including two trainers, Marquez said. Then the Ghostrider will be ready to deploy.
The Air Force plans to replace all 37 of its AC-130s with the AC-130Js, starting in 2014 with the oldest AC-130Hs. The U and W variants will be replaced beginning in 2016. They will be based at Hurlburt Field, Fla., and Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
Because the aircraft is designed for a new mission, all aircrew members will need new training for the weapon system before the plane is ready to deploy.
The $2.4 billion program began in 2008 with an AFSOC study analyzing alternatives to the aging AC-130 fleet and a fleet viability study in 2010. Funding began in 2011. New engines will provide 28 percent more power, allowing it to fly faster and better respond to calls for support, Lockheed Martin spokesman Peter Simmons said. The greater range also lets it loiter longer, and higher, over ground forces.
"This coupled with speed allows the AC-130J to get to where it needs to be a whole lot quicker," Simmons said. "Also allows for review of potential threats out of harm's way."
AC-130s have become the face of heavy close-air support in the Air Force. The AC-130H Spectre and AC-130U Spooky variants have provided support and reconnaissance since 1967 in Vietnam and through theaters such as Grenada, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan.