The Air Force’s New Gunship Is Easier to Shoot Up
Cheaper AC-130s have less armor
In trying to reduce the cost of its specialized AC-130 gunships, the U.S. Air Force may have made them more vulnerable to enemy gunfire. This is the disturbing conclusion reached by the Pentagon’s top weapons testers in their latest annual report on the AC-130J.
According to the report, the new AC-130J Ghostrider—a Lockheed Martin C-130 transport with special sensors and side-firing guns—will only be required to have armor for its crew and their oxygen system. And the armor only needs to be thick enough to stop light machine gun bullets, around 7.62 millimeters in diameter.
That’s a significant and potentially fatal downgrade from previous gunships, which since the Vietnam War have lurked over combat zones, hunting for and gunning down enemy soldiers.
Thirty-seven of the $100-million AC-130Js are slated to replace older AC-130Hs and AC-130Us starting in 2017. The AC-130U has armor to protect its crew—including pilots and gunners—plus the ammunition and internal systems from cannon shells up to 37 millimeters in diameter.
As the report points out, the armor on existing aircraft and the requirements for the AC-130J are “significantly” different. According to the testers, the Ghostrider’s Mission Operator Pallet—where gunners aim and fire the fuselage-mounted weapons—has no armor at all.
The report reasonably recommends that action be taken to protect this area like any other crew position.
The reduction in armor coverage is most likely tied to the Air Force’s move away from dedicated gunships. Unlike the older AC-130s, the new AC-130J is meant to be easily changed into an unarmed, lightly-protected MC-130J Commando II transports … by simply taking off the weapons.
Likewise, an MC-130J can be transformed into an AC-130J by adding the guns.
Used mostly for inserting Special Operations Forces and refueling helicopters, MC-130s are supposed to do their best to avoid enemy fire. AC-130s, on the other hand, must fly directly into defended territory in order to support ground troops.
MC-130s need to be light and fast—hence their minimal armor.
The flying branch hopes swappable gunships will save money by allowing fewer airplanes to perform a wider range of missions. The Air Force tested the concept on older MC-130W transports, adding a few guns and missiles to transform the airlifters into makeshift—and mostly unarmored—gunships for missions over Afghanistan starting in 2010.
Enemy gunfire is a genuine threat to America’s specialized warplanes. Three Air Force CV-22 commando tiltrotors were damaged by ground fire while attempting a rescue operation in South Sudan in December. The aircraft had to abort their mission and make emergency landings in neighboring Uganda. Four of the Navy SEALs aboard were injured.
It’s possible the the Air Force will listen to the testers and add more armor to the AC-130J. But for now, the new gunship and its crew is vulnerable to anyone with a heavy machine gun and good aim.