In Less Than a Year, U.S. Air Force Gunships Flew Nearly 4,000 Hours in Combat
Deadly planes flew secretive missions around the world
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
When the U.S. Air Force talks about combat power, it usually focuses on fast-flying F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers, hard-hitting A-10 ground attackers and B-1 and B-52 heavy bombers. Less well publicized are the contributions of a fleet of deadly AC-130 gunships.
Since the heavily armed AC-130s often fly secretive missions working with commandos on the ground, the Air Force doesn’t generally go into specifics about their activities. But the specialized planes are major contributors to operations around the world.
Between November 2013 and June 2014, AC-130U Spooky IIs from the 4th Special Operations Squadron flew a combined total of almost 4,000 hours in combat, according to one Air Force history. Altogether, seven of the specialized planes spent over 1,175 days deployed overseas.
War Is Boring obtained a heavily redacted copy of this annual review through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Air Force got the first AC-130s during the Vietnam War. By 1995, the first U models were ready to go. These converted C-130 cargo planes are packed with weapons, armor and sensors. The U version has a 25-millimeter Gatling cannon, a 40-millimeter gun and a huge 105-millimeter howitzer sticking out the left side of the fuselage.
Powerful night-vision cameras, radars and other gear help the lumbering planes find the enemy. Typically, a crew of 13 aviators fly the plane and operate all the equipment.
Based at Hurlburt Field in Florida, the 4th Special Operations Squadron owns all the Spooky IIs. We don’t know where, specifically, the AC-130Us flew into combat in 2013 and 2014.
“In November 2013, seven AC-130U gunships supported combat operations around the world,” the Air Force history explained. “During late May and early June 2014, the remaining aircraft … flew back to Hurlburt Field.
Censors scrubbed any narrative about the nearly seven months of operations from the annual report. In addition, they removed a description or nickname of the specific operation from a table detailing the gunships’ flying hours for the 2014 fiscal year.
However, the gunships were most likely flying missions over Afghanistan. All of the planes were back in the United States before the United States began actively bombing Islamic State militants in Iraq in August 2014.
Since 2001, the Air Force has repeatedly sent AC-130s to work with elite troops hunting Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the Central Asian country. The gunships are ideal for backing up ground troops while avoiding accidentally killing innocent civilians, especially in dense, urban areas.
Once the pilots are in the right area, they put the aircraft into a tight, circular orbit. This keeps the plane steady and the weapons pointed at the right target.
On top of that, the Air Force found tactic to be highly effective — and accurate — at blasting particular buildings or vehicles to kill individuals. During 2013, older AC-130Hs from the 16th Special Operations Squadron were flying these targeted missions in Afghanistan, according to a separate report.
It is entirely possible the 4th Special Operations Squadron took over that mission in November 2013. The next month, the 16th’s gunships returned home to Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.
We do know the demanding schedule played havoc with the squadron’s ability to be ready for action. After over four months of steady operations, only around half of the AC-130Us were capable of combat by March 2014.
That month, the rest of the 4th’s gunships were “non-mission capable.” This percentage would have accounted for six aircraft flying combat missions and three spares at Hurlburt. The seventh AC-130U that went overseas lasted just 11 days in combat. It is entirely possible an equipment malfunction forced the Air Force to bring the plane back to the United States.
In the end, teams from the 1st Special Operations Aircraft Maintenance Squadron appeared to focus resources on keeping the remaining six aircraft overseas in the fight.
The unit “performed maintenance wherever AC-130U gunships deployed,” according to the 2014 history. “With regard to the deployed aircraft, the … personnel maintained mission capable rates in the 80s or 90s.”
On June 8, 2014, the last of the 4th’s AC-130s touched back down at Hurlburt. That particular gunship spent just shy of 200 days blasting militants.
The squadron didn’t get to rest for long. By October 2015, at least some of the AC-130Us were back in Afghanistan.
On Oct. 3, 2015, after a series of disastrous missteps, a Spooky II accidentally destroyed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz. The humanitarian group said at least 42 people died in the attack, including 13 medical staff.
A Pentagon investigation concluded the mistake violated the Laws of Armed Conflict. The Air Force disciplined the aircraft’s crew, but did not levy any criminal charges against them.
The incident didn’t sideline the gunships. In November 2015, AC-130s — possibly including some of the 4th’s aircraft — tore apart dozens of tanker trucks in Syria. Islamic State terrorists had been funding their activities with black market oil.
On Sept. 21, 2015, the Air Force retired one of the AC-130Us — nicknamed Bad Omen — for good and to make way for the newest model, the AC-130J. Bad Omen was one of the veterans of combat during 2013 and 2014.
The Air Force expects to replace the rest of its Spooky IIs by 2018. But if the 4th’s combat record is any indication, the next generation of gunships will be just as active.