AC-130J Ghostrider Program Hits Developmental Snags
Air Force Special Operations Command has a history of taking existing aircraft and boosting lethality with new sensors and powerful weapons.
One example is AFSOC’s AC-130, a modified Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft. The AC-130, which has been in the command’s inventory for decades, is currently being revamped with a new J-model, known as the Ghostrider.
The gunship — which is a modified MC-130J aircraft — will be used for close-air support and air interdiction. It is meant to replace aging AC-130 H/U/W gunships and the Air Force plans to convert 32 MC-130Js to the new variant. The first is currently in testing and a second is being built.
However, J. Michael Gilmore, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester, recently found that the aircraft’s developers face a number of developmental issues, including trouble integrating the precision strike package — a key component of the new gunship.
“Problems integrating the PSP weapon kit onto the aircraft continue to delay portions of developmental testing by prohibiting weapons employment,” the fiscal year 2014 office of the director of operational test and evaluation annual report said.
“The visual acuity of the electro-optical/infrared sensors installed on the AC-130J is not sufficient for accurate target identification and designation because the new aircraft causes more vibration than the legacy AC-130W aircraft on which the PSP was previously installed,” it said.
Additionally, electrical/radio frequency interference between the aircraft and the hand controllers used by crewmembers to guide the system’s various sensors and weapons has caused “erratic sensor movements,” the report said.
“This inhibits target tracking and is a safety hazard,” it said. The issue puts operators at risk of committing fratricide, it noted.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Bradley A. Heithold, commander of AFSOC, said while there have been some issues integrating the precision strike package, the technology is tried and true.
“The package we’re putting on the airplane is already proven on the AC-130W,” he said during a discussion at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute in March. “The precision strike package is flying today in combat. We’re just taking that precision strike package and we’re putting it on the AC-130J.”
He said the vibration issue is now resolved, and added that it isn’t unusual for problems to manifest themselves during testing.
“Anytime you have an aircraft in test you begin to get the deficiencies report. They start to pile up. And initially we had some issues with vibration of the sensor. That’s already been resolved,” he said. “That issue is a non-issue at this point.”
The program also faced a suspension of flight testing in February 2014 after the “aircraft experienced a temporary departure from controlled flight” that occurred near the aircraft’s stall limit during a flying and handling qualities test.
“The recovery maneuver exceeded some speed and load limits on the aircraft. Flight testing was suspended for aircraft inspections and a safety incident investigation. Upon return to flight, testing was added to the DT&E [developmental test and evaluation] plan to characterize the flight envelope more carefully,” the report said. DT&E was delayed by two months because of the incident and should be completed by May.
At the time of the report’s release in January, the AC-130J program had accomplished 36 test flights out of 130 planned, equating to 97 flight hours.
Delays in developmental testing have pushed back the planned operational assessment by four months to October, the report found. “This diminishes the risk mitigation value of the operational assessment.”
Once completed, the aircraft will be an essential part of AFSOC’s inventory, providing ground troops with close-air support using its weapons array that includes precision guided munitions, small diameter bombs and an assortment of powerful guns.
Despite the delays, no showstoppers have been found during testing, Heithold said. He noted that he had recently held an AC-130J summit to meet with testers and others working on the program and found it was on track.
“There is a whole lot of good work going on out there,” he said. “There are no significant issues with the AC-130J at this point.”
These developmental problems shouldn’t be seen as unusual, said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group.
“In previous iterations of the AC-130, I think they faced exactly the same issues. There were cost overruns and delays and vibration problems. I think we’ve seen this movie a few times before, but it gets resolved,” Aboulafia said. “It’s a robust airframe. They can do this.”
A Teal Group report noted that the AC-130U gunship also faced delays. The aircraft’s first flight took place in December 1990 after a six-month delay caused by software and electrical system problems.
The current problems with the AC-130J look “pretty familiar,” Aboulafia said.
“Putting a heavy gun on an aircraft is always complicated, but it’s the … approach that Special Operations [Command] and other folks have preferred to take,” he said. “This is a method of providing air support that they think is extremely worthwhile and it has worked very well since Vietnam [and even] before that.”
“In other words, I don’t think there is much risk or much alternative. It’s just a question of how much work it takes to integrate this particular package on this particular airframe,” he said.
Aboulafia said that while he is confident AFSOC can resolve all the issues found in the DOT&E report, it could be costly.
Douglas Royce, an aerospace analyst at Forecast International, said some developmental problems are expected.
“In any development program, you often have to overcome technical hurdles that weren’t anticipated when you began the program,” he said in an interview. “I think they’re on the right track here. It’s just a question of working out all the little development headaches that come along with any program.”
AFSOC has the expertise to execute the program and has a long history of taking C-130s and modifying them with more lethal weapons, he said. “It has been proven in combat. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here.”
Further, the program is less risky than one such as the F-35 joint strike fighter, which is pushing the envelope of fighter jet performance and includes developing new weapons, software and other equipment. With the AC-130J, developers are largely using existing, off-the-shelf sensors and weapons, and loading them onto a new airframe, he said.
“In some sense, the problems are probably more minor than you might see in something like JSF over the lifetime of the program,” he said. “When they occur, they may seem like fairly large obstacles, but I don’t think they are.”
Additionally, there is little cause for alarm as modifying C-130s for attack missions has historically taken the Air Force longer to develop, he said. The AC-130U, for example, took almost nine years to get into service.
“These programs … can be on a fairly long timeframe,” he said. With the AC-130J, “it hasn’t been as speedy as they may have liked, but I don’t think you can say it’s late quite yet. There may be some delays, but I think it takes time to work through technical issues that you didn’t anticipate.”
Developmental delays may affect the mothballing of some of AFSOC’s legacy AC-130 aircraft, but leaders will be able to slow the retirements of some outgoing airplanes as developers work out the kinks in the program, Royce said.
“Over the long term, the program schedule still has enough flex in it, and it won’t represent a major problem operationally,” he said. AFSOC has enough assets to largely fill in any operational gap that a lack of two or three legacy AC-130s may cause.
Besides the hiccups noted in the DOT&E report, Heithold said the program is facing some delays because AFSOC decided to equip the new gunship with a 105 mm howitzer.
“I have caused a little friction because I put a 105 [mm] gun on it. I upgunned it because I want it to be a bomb truck with guns,” he said. Currently the aircraft can drop small diameter bombs and laser-guided weapons.
For some, this is a classic example of adding requirements late in the development process — a practice that has caused delays and cost overruns in other military acquisition programs.
The 105 mm howitzer was originally not required, but Heithold said the weapon — which is on legacy AC-130s — was a critical need. It will be integrated onto the third AC-130J. AFSOC will add the gun to the first and second aircraft at a later date, he said. “I don’t think it’s going to cause a huge delay.”
The DOT&E report said that this change will increase the crew from seven to nine crewmembers, as well as alter their responsibilities.
AFSOC is also considering how it could integrate emerging technologies such as laser guns and high-powered microwaves on the gunship, Heithold said.
“We’re moving in that direction,” Heithold said. “Industry partners out here have got the technology.”
Retrofitting AC-130Js with lasers is still in the distant future, he said. “We think that there’s going to be a small number of them in the Block 50 configuration that might have high energy lasers.”
The Navy already has successfully deployed and operated its directed-energy laser weapon, known as LaWS, on the USS Ponce. The technology is appealing to military leaders because of its destructive power and its affordability compared to traditional kinetic weapons. LaWS — which runs on electricity — costs less than $1 per shot.
High-powered standoff microwaves are also on Heithold’s list. He noted there was “great value” in the technology, in part because it can be employed as a nonlethal weapon that can effectively stop enemies’ advances.
AFSOC currently hasn’t put any money into these initiatives, but researching innovative weapons and technology is something SOCOM commander Army Gen. Joseph L. Votel has demanded. “He wants some leap ahead technologies,” Heithold said.