The Close-Air Support (CAS) platform has been a staple of warfare since the days of World War 1 (1914-1918) and has evolved considerably since. The type proved its worth in the fighting that followed in World War 2 (1939-1945) and modernized for the service in the Vietnam War (1955-1975) where American gunships roamed the skies in support of ground forces. One of the primary inventory pieces of the United States Air Force and its related special forces branches ultimately became the AC-130, built atop the proven framework of the Lockheed C-130 "Hercules" four-engined transport. The AC-130 was eventually evolved across several notable marks during its time in the air - chiefly the AC-130A, E, and H "Spectre", the AC-130U "Spooky", and the AC-130W "Stinger II" - all detailed elsewhere on this site.
As an aging platform, the AC-130 line was eventually due for a modernization and this arrived in the form of the all-new AC-130J "Ghostrider". The Ghostrider's systems were proven under operational conditions in the skies over Afghanistan through modified AC-130W Stinger II platforms with changes including InfraRed (IR) and Electro-Optical (EO) sensors, a 105mm field howitzer, and support for external precision-guided and conventional drop bombs. This ultimately laid the ground work for the official AC-130J production mark (named "Ghostrider" in May of 2012) to follow - completing developmental testing in June of 2015 and reaching Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with the USAF on September 30th, 2017. Six aircraft originally made up the fleet with a complete fleet of 32 aircraft to follow before the end of 2021.
USAF AC-130Js are charged with armed reconnaissance and direct-attack sorties in support of ground forces, often times operating within close proximity of allied units. These are 4th Generation warriors that have followed earlier C-130 fixed-wing gunship conversion designs operated consistently for nearly forty years beginning with service in the Vietnam Conflict. Firepower on these platforms is such that vehicles, structures, and collections of troops can be engaged with a great degree of accuracy from thousands of feet in the air under most operating conditions. This allows the Ghostrider to operate in low-light-level hours, behind clouds and smoke, and over dense urban areas with equal lethality. The aircraft boasts all-modern digital systems included integrated navigation with GPS, aerial refueling, color weather radar, and a full-suite of protected communications.
The aircraft boasts support for the "Precision Strike Package" which allows for broad weapons support and a high degree of tracking and targeting to couple with the onboard 30mm automatic cannon and 105mm field howitzer. Beyond this is provision for precision-guided bombs, drop bombs, and air-launched missiles.
The basic form-and-function of the AC-130 remains in the J-model. The aircraft relies on a shoulder-mounted mainplane offering excellent stability and handling in low-altitude settings. The flightdeck sits over and aft of the blunt nosecone and a single vertical fin is used at the tail along with low-set horizontal planes. The tail unit is raised, allowing access to the fuselage hold by way of powered loading ramp. Each wing mainplane is home to a Rolls-Royce AE2100D3 turboprop engine delivering 4,700 each and driving four-bladed propeller blades. Fuel tanks are slung under the wings between the engine nacelles. Ground-running is by way of a multi-wheeled tricycle arrangement featuring short legs, giving the aircraft a very squat appearance when at rest. Ballistic armament is featured along the port side of the fuselage - the aircraft circling its target below as if a hunting shark.
Compared to earlier AC-130 marks, the J-model has a reduced operating weight with improved overall performance, broader weapons support, and range out to 3,000 miles while operating at ceilings nearing 30,000 feet.
With the retirement of the last USAF special-mission AC-130U in August of 2019, the AC-130J was already being taken on in number by the Spring of 2019. The J-model has recorded combat service in Afghanistan since.