Gunships Get Back to Their Roots in Syria Strike
AC-130s got their first big break blasting trucks
On Nov. 15, a pair of heavily-armed AC-130 gunships – along with four A-10 Warthog attack planes – obliterated a truck park near the Iraqi border. During the raid, the aircraft destroyed more than 100 fuel tankers Islamic State could have used to smuggle oil from the areas under their control to market.
“There’s been discussion about ways to try and go after the infrastructure in such a way that it’s less of an opportunity for them to collect revenue,” Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters at a press conference on Nov. 17. “[The] tankers were taken out, and as best we can tell, there were no civilian casualties.”
Before the strikes, American warplanes dropped leaflets telling the drivers – likely independent operators just trying to squeak out a living in the war torn country – to abandon their vehicles. The mission was part of a larger operation dubbed Operation Tidal Wave II.
This moniker is a direct reference to a massive World War II bomber raid on refineries supplying oil to Germany near Ploiești, Romania. Failing to seriously impact the Nazis’ petroleum supply, that effort was a failure.
“Gen. MacFarland … it was his decision to conduct this as one concerted operation – a tidal wave, if you will – named, appropriately, after Operation Tidal Wave I,” U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, the top spokesman for the American task force fighting Islamic State, had explained on Nov. 13. “So that’s … the history there. “
But far more significantly, the Air Force’s AC-130s have gotten back to their roots. The deadly gunships got their first big break blasting trucks during the Vietnam War.
Gunships in Vietnam
In 1968, the Air Force kicked off the new operation to stem the flow of North Vietnamese supplies through southern Laos and into South Vietnam along the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail.
Initially, F-105 and F-4 fighter bombers worked to crater roads in Vietnam and make them impassable for enemy trucks. The flying branch also seeded the region with thousands of air-dropped “area denial” mines to hold up the convoys.
“Not only were road cuts costly in bombs and sorties, but area denial weapons available … were of little assistance in preventing rapid enemy road/railroad repairs,” Air Force officials complained in an official review of the missions.
At the time, the Air Force lacked significant numbers of guided bombs or sensors to cut through the jungle cover in Laos. Pilots had a hard time hitting their marks even if they could see them. “The use of ‘multiple kill’ loads mixing explosive and incendiary ordnance and the use of gunships were obvious potential solutions,” the flying branch noted in its report.
The Air Force first started seriously experimenting with gunships converted from old transport planes in the early 1960s. In 1964, the first aircraft – then called an FC-47 – arrived in South Vietnam.
Based on the World War II-era C-47 transport, engineers rigged up three fast-firing Miniguns in the plane’s cargo cabin. The guns fired up to 6,000 rounds a minute each out of the left side of the twin-engine aircraft.
The pilot would bank the plane and fly in a circle above whatever they were shooting at. In tests and combat, crews found it easy to keep their weapons pointed at specific targets on the ground.
Eventually renamed AC-47s, these first gunships were perfect for beating back guerrillas from American outposts in South Vietnam. When the Air Force tried to make use of the low-flying gunships over Laos, the results were disastrous.
Unlike Viet Cong guerrillas fighting the regime in Saigon, the North Vietnamese troops manning the Ho Chi Minh Trail guarded their positions with 23-, 37- and 57-millimeter anti-aircraft guns. The Air Force pulled the slow-flying and vulnerable AC-47 back after quickly losing four aircraft and their crews in early 1966.
Enter the AC-130. A year later, the first of these new, larger gunships touched down in South Vietnam. By early 1968, the gunships were already blasting truck traffic in Laos. With four Miniguns and four rapid-firing 20-millimeter Vulcan cannons, the aircraft were in high demand.
But the Air Force worried the planes were still too vulnerable. In May 1969, the first AC-130A crashed after taking fire over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Still, the gunships were putting up impressive numbers. Between January and March 1969, the 16th Special Operation Squadron’s three AC-130s destroyed more than 1,800 trucks, damaged another 350 and blasted nearly a dozen small supply boats.
In an attempt to improve the basic design, the Air Force turned the last of the first batch of AC-130As into a special, flying test-bed known as “Surprise Package.” The crew named the unique plane “Thor.”
Thor’s biggest improvement was the addition of two 40-millimeter Bofors cannons in the place of two of the Vulcans. With the new weapons, gunship crews could fly higher to avoid anti-aircraft guns but still hit their targets. Engineers removed Thor’s short-range Miniguns entirely.
To go along with its big guns, Surprise Package had additional night-vision gear, advanced radars, a sensor that could spot electromagnetic waves from truck engines and other state-of-the-art equipment. Between November 1969 and April 1970, the secretive aircraft blew up more than 800 trucks by itself.
The other seven AC-130As tallied up another 2,500 enemy supply vehicles. The gunships were responsible for more destroyed convoys than any other single aircraft type. Officially, the mission was known as Commando Hunt. Informally, it was “the war against trucks.”
Thor’s success settled the argument and convinced the Air Force to upgrade the entire fleet. The flying branch hired E-Systems in Greenville, Texas to build up nine more gunships in a similar configuration.
The first of these so-called Pave Pronto gunships started flying combat missions in November 1970. During a typical mission, crews would have 3,000 rounds of 20-millimeter ammunition and more than 600 40-millimeter shells at their disposal.
Still, the extra gunships could not satisfy the demands of the Commando Hunt mission. The Air Force eventually upgraded the entire fleet of AC-130As and started sending more powerful C-130Es to be turned into attackers. The new E-models were called Pave Spectres.
Unfortunately, despite the improvements, enemy air defenses were still taking their toll. The flying branch sent F-4s strike jets to escort the lumbering planes whenever possible and blast enemy air defenses.
The gunships also got extra electronic countermeasures to ward off an increasing number of Soviet-made SA-2 surface-to-air missiles. And crews employed an even more dangerous technique to keep tabs on enemy anti-aircraft fire during missions.
“Standard flak evasion technique was to position a scanner on the right side of the aircraft and the illuminator operator hanging out over the cargo ramp in the rear and secured to the aircraft by cables,” according to an official examination of gunship operations the Air Force published in 1971. “These scanners reported all [anti-aircraft artillery] reactions to the pilot as either inaccurate … or they called for a ‘break’ or a ‘hard break’ to the right or left to avoid accurate fire.”
Later versions of the AC-130 had an observation window built into the rear cargo ramp for these observers.
The Air Force wanted a way to push the gunships even higher and keep crews farther away from shooters on the ground. After considering a variety of different weapons, the flying branch decided to test out a massive 105-millimeter howitzer as the AC-130’s newest gun.
The new Pave Aegis gunship had a standard Army M-137 howitzer cannon on a special mount instead of one of the two 40-millimeter weapons. The plane could now lob artillery shells from on high.
On the aircraft’s first mission, the crew destroyed 12 trucks – three with the howitzer and the rest with the Bofors. When the first howitzer-toting gunship was damaged on March 15, 1972, airmen simply removed the cannon and installed it on another AC-130E.
By the end of March, the cannon had blasted 76 percent of the total number of vehicles destroyed in more than 30 individual flights, the Air Force said in an report on the project. When North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam at the end of the month, the Air Force sent the hard-hitting planes to hit a new type of target — Hanoi’s tanks.
“It did not take the ground commanders long to recognize the punch of the Pave Aegis System,” the official review noted. “It quickly became routine to ask each arriving AC-130 Spectre, ‘Do you have the Big Gun?'”
Renewed North Vietnamese offensives forced the Pentagon to refocus its dwindling forces and shut down Commando Hunt VII, bringing the entire campaign to an close. Though the Pentagon had destroyed a significant amount of supplies from the air, the North Vietnamese adapted and kept up the pressure.
By the end of the fight against the convoys, air defenses had pushed the gunships to fight primarily under the cover of darkness. “By running truck convoys shortly before the light faded, the North Vietnamese took advantage of the gap between daytime and nighttime coverage of the trail and neutralized the gunships without greatly increasing the risk of attack from fighter-bombers,” Bernard Nalty wrote in his official Air Force monograph The War against Trucks, Aerial Interdiction in Southern Laos, 1968-1972.
After Washington signed the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973, American troops ended their major combat mission in the country. A little more than two years later, North Vietnamese tanks rolled into Saigon and South Vietnam effectively ceased to exist.
But the AC-130 had proven its worth. The Air Force continued to upgrade the gunships and turn some of them into improved H-models. In 1995, Boeing began delivering the first brand new AC-130Us to bolster the fleet.
More than a decade later, the flying branch transformed a number of special MC-130W transports into attack planes. Unlike previous types, the planes relied more on GPS-guided Small Diameter Bombs and laser-guided Hellfire missiles than guns. The whole gunship fleet benefited from new infrared cameras, more powerful radars, new communications systems and advanced defensive equipment.
In July, Lockheed delivered the first of the latest member of the family, the AC-130J Ghostrider, for operational tests. Like the AC-130Ws, the new gunships will rely primarily on Small Diameter Bombs and GPS- or laser-guided Griffin missiles. The Air Force also says it wants a laser gun for these planes in the near future.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, these unique aircraft have spent most of their time supporting commando and regular forces around the world. During the Gulf War in 1991, the gunships hunted Iraqi armor and troops.
Since 2001, the AC-130s have flown in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Somalia. In October, an AC-130U was responsible for the tragic attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
Now, the rise of Islamic State has given the gunships a chance to get back to their first mission — blowing up enemy supply convoys. After helping blast more than 100 trucks in one night, it seems like the AC-130 hasn’t missed a beat in the intervening 40 years.
We can only hope that Tidal Wave II will be more effective than its World War II predecessor and Vietnam War analogue.