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To fight and survive in hostile airspace, US Air Force special operators may take the big gun off their 'Ghostrider' gunships

Stavros Atlamazoglou   

To fight and survive in hostile airspace, US Air Force special operators may take the big gun off their 'Ghostrider' gunships
  • The US Air Force is gearing up for a conflict with well-armed adversaries.
  • As a part of that, the military branch is rethinking what aircraft it has and how they're designed.

The US Air Force is gearing up for a conflict with near-peer adversaries, namely China and Russia, who may challenge its operations in a way it hasn't experienced in decades.

Like the rest of the US military, the Air Force is shifting its focus from conducting counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations to preparing for combat against opponents with capable combat jets and advanced air-defense systems.

That shift requires some honest discussion about capabilities and future challenges. As part of that, Air Force leaders are considering a radical change to one of their most effective special-operations aircraft — removing the big gun from the vaunted AC-130 gunship.

Big gun out?

The AC-130 has provided air support to ground forces for more than five decades. The AC-130J "Ghostrider" is the latest version and was first deployed in 2019. The plane is revered among troops for its ability to linger over the battlefield and deliver heavy firepower with precision.

But the Air Force is now considering removing the gunship's trademark weapon — its 105 mm howitzer — as soon as 2026, Defense News reported in November.

"In a scenario where you're not able to just have free rein and fly over a friendly location for three hours, how do we beat our adversaries at that game?" an Air Force official told Defense News. "If they take away our ability to loiter for extended periods of time, what's our counterpunch?"

The AC-130's ability to fly low and slow over targets for long periods makes it perfect for close-air-support missions, but that's also a weakness, as it makes the gunship more vulnerable to antiaircraft fire.

Discussion about removing the 105 mm gun is part of a broader effort to make US aircraft better suited for conflicts where opponents can contest or deny control of the air. In addition to removing the gun, Air Force officials are considering arming the AC-130 with cruise missiles for long-range strikes. The service has also explored equipping the gunship with laser weapons.

However, BA, a former AC-130 gunner, told Business Insider that removing the 105 mm gun "would have a big effect on the capability" of the aircraft.

"To take away a weapon system that had been tested and tried for years to be replaced with something new or nothing at all would ruin combat effectiveness," BA said. "The budget for this project would most definitely end up being a money pit to remove and replace the weapon when that funding could be useful elsewhere, like air-defensive systems."

The gun has been a mainstay of the AC-130 for decades and has proved highly effective when used with the plane's other cannons and machine guns. During the Vietnam War, the AC-130 and its predecessor, the AC-47, were credited with destroying more than 10,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong vehicles.

"The design for the AC-130 was to equip a plane to acquire and attack targets constantly without making multiple flybys like you would in a 'fast mover,'" BA said, referring to jet-powered aircraft.

"By making the gunship more stand-off rather than staying above target would completely defeat the purpose of its design," the former air commando added.

A gunship with aces up its sleeves

While removing the 105 mm gun would undermine its ability to perform close air support, adding stand-off munitions — such as the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb and the AGM-114 Hellfire and AGM-176 Griffin missiles — could expand the plane's mission set.

"I think incorporating stand-off munitions with its already tried-and-tested weapon systems could be beneficial in an air-to-air offensive or defensive scenario" since the AC-130 has little ability to defend itself if engaged by enemy forces, BA said.

The rethinking of the AC-130's role is part of a wider debate about the Air Force's ability to perform close air support, or CAS, in contested airspace and the resources it should dedicate to that mission.

The Air Force has been trying for years to retire the A-10 Thunderbolt, its primary close-air-support aircraft, and is considering slashing the number of Tactical Air Control Party airmen, who get attached to conventional and special-operations ground units to coordinate airstrikes.

But the 105 mm remains at the core of the AC-130 design. Removing it, and moving the plane away from the front line, would likely be an unwelcome change for the troops who have come to depend on it.

"For guys on the ground, CAS is a safety net. We love it. Any news that go against that will always be bad for the grunt or operator who is getting close and personal with the enemy," a Special Forces operator, granted anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media, told BI.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations and a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ). He has a Bachelor of Arts from Johns Hopkins University, has a Master of Arts in strategy, cybersecurity, and intelligence from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and is pursuing a Juris Doctor from Boston College Law School.

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