The first Block 30 version of the Lockheed Martin AC-130J Ghostrider gunship has been delivered to the 4th Special Operations Squadron, part of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, which Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) described as the U.S. Air Force’s most deployed squadron. The aircraft was flown to Hurlburt by Lieutenant General Brad Webb, commander of AFSOC, following a low-key unveiling at Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, Florida, on March 6, 2019.
The earlier Block 20 version of the AC-130J is operated by the 73rd Special Operations Squadron, and the type achieved initial operational capability (IOC) on September 30, 2017, with six aircraft in service. The AC-130J made its maiden flight, in Block 10 form, during January 2014.
The first Block 30 aircraft will be used for test and development for about a year before becoming operationally deployable. Lieutenant Colonel Pete Ventres, commanding officer of the 4th SOS, said, “The 4th SOS will start receiving J-qualified crewmembers in the coming months. The vast majority of U-model aircrews and maintainers will retrain into the AC-130J to ensure we retain already-developed talent.”
The Block 30 AC-130J (previously known as Block 20+) will replace the AC-130U Spooky gunships now operated by the 4th Special Operations Squadron. They will follow the AC-130H Spectre and AC-130W Stinger II into retirement, leaving the Air Commando force with an all-J Model fleet of 37 aircraft by the end of 2021, at an estimated cost of $2.4 billion. The new aircraft offers performance and capability improvements and will burn 25-30 percent less fuel than previous AC-130 variants.
"The Block 30 AC-130J is now our most lethal aircraft in AFSOC's inventory," said Major Brandon Hughes, AC-130J requirements chief, AFSOC headquarters. The Block 30 aircraft incorporates major technological improvements, including improved software and new avionics, as well as a color weather radar. The Block 30 has a new sensor, a permanent Combat Systems Officer (CSO) station on the flight deck, updated crashworthy crew seats, and new routers and networks. The internal layout has been reorganized, with new equipment racks to free up space in the cargo compartment. It also incorporates a Defensive Systems Upgrade (DSU) electronic warfare (EW) modification providing the CSO with greater control over the defensive systems.
The AC-130J incorporates an all-weather synthetic aperture radar and two MX-20 electro-optical/infrared sensor/laser designator turrets, enabling it to visually or electronically identify targets and friendly ground forces at any time, even in adverse weather.
The aircraft has a fully integrated navigation system with dual inertial navigation systems and GPS, and is equipped with a Precision Strike Package that includes advanced fire control equipment, and has a dual-console mission management/mission operator pallet (MOP) in the cargo bay. There are also remote displays and control panels on the flight deck, including an interim, limited-functionality, carry-on flight deck workstation on the Block 20 aircraft.
The AC-130J’s Precision Strike Package incorporates a trainable 30-mm Mk 44 Bushmaster II (GAU-23) cannon, as well as a heavy-caliber 105-mm M102 howitzer. These two guns are augmented by Standoff Precision Guided Munitions (SPGM), including underwing GBU-39 small-diameter bombs and AGM-176A Griffin missiles, and GBU-69/B Small Glide Munitions (SGM) that can be launched from the cargo ramp.
A planned future upgrade will equip the aircraft with an active radio-frequency countermeasures (RFCM) system and a directed energy weapon.