The US Air Force plans to declare its newest gunship, the AC-130J Ghostrider, ready for combat — or initial operating capability in acquisition parlance — this month, but the aircraft won't actually deploy to a war zone for a couple more years, a general said.
"We are declaring IOC, Initial Operating Capability, this month on the AC-J," Lt. Gen. Marshall "Brad" Webb, head of Air Force Special Operations Command, said Sept. 19 during a briefing with reporters at the Air Force Association's annual conference outside Washington, DC.
However, the general added, "That doesn't mean anything with respect to putting it in combat — we're still just shy of two years away from wanting to put those in combat."
USAF Lt. Gen. Brad Webb, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command. USAF photo by Capt. Jessica Tait.
The reason for the delay is because the high pace of operations in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria makes it difficult to train special operators on the new weapon system, Webb said.
"We're not waiting around," he said. "This is a fully configured gunship … The challenge that we have, it's my problem, is how do we fight the current fight — we have gunships deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria — and use those same people to convert into a new weapon system?
"We're not going to have the luxury of doing what most normal units do," he added, referring to the typical transition period for returning troops.
"So, how do I navigate having some capability in the fight, transition those same guys in those same squadrons to a new weapon system, and then build them up at the same time?" Webb said. "So, that draws out the timeline from IOC of airframes to train the guys who come back from combat into a new weapon system, have them have a deployed-dwell time to make sure that they're going to have families at the end of their 20-year career, then bring them back on the battlefield in the Js."
AC-130J Ghostrider. Photo courtesy of USAF.
A heavily modified C-130, the AC-130J features fully integrated digital avionics, as well as a "Precision Strike Package."
The latter includes a mission management console, robust communications suite, two electro-optical/infrared sensors, advanced fire control equipment, precision guided munitions delivery capability, as well as trainable 30mm and 105mm weapons, according to the Air Force.
The cannons can be mounted on both sides of the aircraft.
The Air Force currently has 10 of the Ghostriders and plans to buy a total of 37 from manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp., the general said.
The service recently retired the AC-130H and, as of last fiscal year, had a total of 31 AC-130s in the fleet, including three Ghostriders, 16 Spookys, and 12 Stinger IIs, according to information compiled by the Air Force Association.