In a media release dated December 2, 2016 the 1st Special Operations Wing Public Affairs office revealed that the new AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, the latest version of the well known AC-130 Spectre, had successfully delivered laser guided small diameter bombs. The release is interesting for a number of reasons.
The AC-130 family of aerial gun platforms has been a key resource in tactical close air support and in support of the special operations community. As an “in demand” asset for the current scale of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan and for potential support of emerging conflict areas the AC-130 fleet has been continuously upgraded since their introduction. There have been at least six versions of the AC-130 gunship. This newest version, the “J” or “Juliet” model, named the “Ghostrider”, is the most capable to date as this latest round of tests with precision guided weapons indicates.
This new capability offers the AC-130 gunship family greater stand-off capability for delivering precision guided air support. Previously the weapons on board the AC-130 family required the aircraft to remain in relatively close proximity to its target, potentially exposing the aircraft to surface to air threats including small man-portable missile systems.
The range of the GBU-39 (SDB-I) and GBU-53 (SDB-II) is an impressive 60 or 45 nautical miles respectively. This expands the capabilities and even the lighting conditions operated under by the AC-130 family significantly. Most versions of AC-130 gunships are restricted to nighttime operations because of their large size, relatively low speed and orbital targeting tracks that would expose them to anti-aircraft systems and even ground based small arms fire during daylight attacks. With a 45-60 mile stand-off capability for the new GBU-39/53 the new AC-130 family enjoys greatly expanded fire support opportunities.
The GBU-39/53 group of small diameter bombs (SDB’s) was also developed for use by the F-35 program as a scaled-result, precision guided munition. It is a highly evolved aerial bomb for conflicts where large aerial bombs cannot be employed because of concerns over collateral damage.
There are several guidance packages for the Small Diameter Bombs including GPS/Inertial guidance primarily for fixed targets and also infra-red sensing thermal guidance using pre-programmed target recognition algorithms to hit moving targets such as armored vehicles after “locking on” to them in terminal flight.
There has been no official word about the timeline for operationally deploying the new Small Diameter Bomb capability and this most advanced delivery platform, the AC-130J. However, a curious quote appeared in a 2013 public affairs release when Todd McGinnis, USSOCOM Det. 1 AC-130J modification manager said, “The precision strike package that is going into this aircraft is proven down range.” Further noted is this additional comment from the same time frame: “These new weapon systems and small diameter bombs will provide overwatch and further standoff distance to cover a wider range of space for our warfighters on the ground,” as quoted from Maj. Stuart Menn, U.S. Special Operations Command Det. 1 commander in early January 2013.
Regardless of the actual timeline for development and operational employment the new Small Diameter Bomb program integrated into new AC-130J operations provides an interesting insight into the adaptation of the U.S. Air Force to the current battlefield.