The Angle of Attack: AC-130s, Relevance, and the Future Fight

  • Published
  • By Riley A. Feeney

On a rainy October morning in 2020, I was walking the mile from lodging to the food court at Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, to grab a bite to eat when I got the call to go into crew rest. We had flown up late the previous night to escape Hurricane Zeta’s wrath on the Gulf Coast. I returned to lodging, food in hand, when the mission commander pulled me aside—we were not going back to Florida earlier than planned; instead, we were going on a real-world mission halfway across the globe. Over the next 55 hours, to include the required crew rest, my crew flew for a combined 30.9 hours, air refueled four times to max gross weight, and accomplished the mission. Unbeknownst to me, my crew proved a concept that US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) had been working on since 2016 when the AC-130J came online.

I had heard stories of air commandos flying ludicrous hours to ensure friendlies were protected. I was also keenly aware that the tenacious mentality to execute the mission no matter the ask was pervasive not just in my crew but throughout the AC-130 community, past and present. The difference was that the J model was able to go farther and faster with less support. In the end, my crew proved that the AC-130J could provide fires any time, any place, anywhere, and faster than any previous model. Culture created the conditions for success. The new technology allowed us to scale the possibilities.

A Strong Record

Then commander of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) Lieutenant General James Slife,  along with the command team from the 16th Special Operations Squadron, flew the 31st and final AC-130J to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, on November 2, 2022. On this date, a single-model fleet of side-firing gunships was realized for the first time in history. In his address to the 27th Special Operations Wing, Slife noted “the future is going to be different than what we have experienced for the last 20 years, but one thing I’m certain of is this airplane will be relevant to whatever the future operating environment brings.” These words suggest the AC-130J is going to evolve to meet the needs of the Joint Force in the future operating environment, echoing Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Charles Q. Brown Jr.’s charge to “accelerate change or lose.” The question remains, How can such a highly specialized close-air-support platform become anything else? In order to help the Joint Force tackle the problems in US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), the AC-130J needs to leverage its versatility and showcase its skills outside of close air support. In short, the AC-130J needs to change its angle of attack.

For a platform and community that spent six decades constantly praised and prioritized by AFSOC, and most recently during the Global War on Terror, this is a shock. The AC-130s have earned many Distinguished Flying Crosses and Mackay Trophies (2002, 2016, and 2021)—an annual award given for “ ‘the most meritorious flight of the year’ by an Air Force person, persons, or organization”—for undertaking close-air-support missions with little more than a call sign, frequency, and a grid, and ensuring the friendlies came home. For example, Shadow 77 and Shadow 78, two AC-130Js that flew 15 hours round trip, led command and control for the 2021 evacuation of Hamid Karzai International Airport. The crews of Shadow 77 and 78 won the Mackay Trophy in 2021 for their actions over Kabul that day, and they did not fire a single round. The aircraft’s sensors provided full motion video, enabling the secretary of defense and Joint chiefs of staff to follow the evacuation in real-time. The crew acted as air traffic control for the airfield despite having no formal training and ensured the safety of aircraft coming in and out of the airport.

As part of the mission, the crew received messages directly from the president of the United States over satellite communications and relayed them to those on the ground in Kabul. Simultaneously, they employed a nonlethal laser known as the “green beam” to keep order and prevent Afghan civilians from rushing the airfield. Although identified on the MacKay Trophy citation as a close-air-support mission, the mission was far from it. The crews showcased the aircraft’s ability to conduct command and control in the very definition of a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environment. The Afghan retrograde may have been complicated and messy, but the air component was well executed, thanks in large part to the AC-130J.

Importantly, the actions that earned those crews the 2021 Mackay Trophy were not anomalous. The AC-130Js had been providing over-the-horizon support to the Afghan withdrawal for nearly two months leading up to the evacuation of the airport. Bagram Airbase, the largest US military base in Afghanistan, had been shuttered since July. AC-130Js had risen to the occasion and were excelling at enabling the retrograde throughout Afghanistan. Although they continued to carry weapons, the AC-130Js rapidly pivoted to the command-and-control role better than any other asset.

The skills the AC-130 crews have honed over two decades fighting in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan are not solely limited to “find bad guy and shoot” that some view as the close-air-support mission. Close air support is a robust mission set; consequently, to execute that mission effectively, units develop a diverse set of skills, including airspace deconfliction, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, command and control, and friendly force tracking. These individual skills can be applied to other mission sets provided they are prioritized correctly to yield the best outcome in the long term. The AC-130s conducted close air support for the entirety of the Global War on Terror because it was one of, if not the most, critical mission sets. Yet as the US military plans for potential conflict with peer competitors, specifically China, the Air Force is not signaling for more close air support.


Throughout the history of airpower, aircraft have routinely pivoted roles. Once built, most war machines have demonstrated the ability to adapt to the needs of operating environments. The A-10 Thunderbolt II, or Warthog, became a close-air-support darling during Operation Desert Storm, but it was originally designed to destroy Soviet armor. The vaunted F-4 Phantom II was created to defend naval vessels, but it became an expert at air-to-ground, air-to-air, and eventually surface-to-air missile suppression during Vietnam. Even the AC-130A was not designed to conduct close air support; the aircraft was originally intended to serve an aerial interdiction role on the Ho Chi Minh trail. The E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (STARS) was built in the mid-1990s to “detect, locate and attack enemy armor,” but it, too, evolved and now serves in an airborne battle management role.

Although not exactly war machines, US Special Operations Forces (SOF) such as Navy Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams and Army Green Berets stepped away from their doctrinal roles during  the Global War on Terror. They became exceptionally good at conducting direct-action raids, controlling air strikes, and fighting counterinsurgency and unconventional war to counter violent extremist organizations. The unifying theme in these platform and unit transitions is that the original design or intent is not always a factor in how these assets are subsequently employed by the Joint Force. The communities that adapted to the needs of the Joint Force remained relevant, while the others faded away.

Although change is necessary, it is rarely easy. Internal to the Air Force, it is almost impossible to suggest a role other than close air support for an AC-130J in an air war without alienating someone. Senior service staff who flew previous iterations of the AC-130 want it to remain a dedicated close-air-support aircraft. They reason if the AC-130 cannot have rounds down in 30 seconds, the aircraft is replaceable. In a way, these leaders are retaining an elite cultural identity rooted in being some of the best close-air-support aircrew in the world. They also seem to want to avoid the fact that relevance is temporal. Skeptics, those largely outside of AFSOC, insist that the AC-130J cannot survive against higher-generation threats. Seen only as an attack aircraft, the AC-130J is therefore anachronistic. Ignoring the strong historical evidence that aircraft have shown to be highly adaptable to current operating environments, no middle camp in AFSOC or the Air Force is advocating for a new, more nuanced role for the AC-130J. Fortunately, advocates in USSOCOM are willing to push the envelope on how to employ the AC-130J, but these individuals still have a difficult road ahead to convince their leadership that the AC-130J is something more than an attack platform.

Theater Capabilities

A SEAL ground force commander briefing their leadership about bringing an AC-130J into the Pacific might be reasonably viewed as stuck in the past war, that is, unless they specifically highlight capabilities such as the aircraft’s unique beyond-line-of-sight communications and upcoming standoff fires. The briefer must also acknowledge the nuanced role for the AC-130J, as well as the fact it will not be used for traditional close air support. As suggested above and somewhat ironically, the biggest hurdle the AC-130J faces is its close-air-support expertise—some leaders cannot see it as anything else.

SOF support. The traditional users of the AC-130J are the SOF communities, which are going through growing pains related to the evolution of deployments and operations. USSOCOM components are transitioning back to their doctrinal roles and are being asked to diversify away from direct-action raids and relearn the 11 other SOF core activities. These conditions require training those units to operate with much less support and, more specifically, less air support. Until now, direct-action raids necessitated platforms like the AC-130 for close air support. Looking ahead, operational AC-130J squadrons and their special tactics counterparts are considering ways to use an AC-130 for special reconnaissance—a use that seems ridiculous to suggest, that is unless one considers exercises such as Southern Edge that simulate fighting a peer adversary. The most essential task is not fires; instead, critical information from forward SOF teams must be relayed to command and control in a clandestine manner without losing aircraft or compromising these teams.

JADC2. Although gunship crews may not be ecstatic to shoot less, the AC-130J is equipped with more communication systems and a competent core of tech-capable aviators than nearly any other military aircraft. As a result, the AC-130J could be a central component of command and control during an air war. As the example of Shadow 77 and Shadow 78 shows, the AC-130J can do that mission. As a logical extension to command and control, the AC-130J could quarterback Joint all-domain command and control (JADC2) forward of where an E-3 or E-8 could operate. In fact, in Japan in November 2022, the Keen Sword 23 showcased the AC-130J access and placement potential. Furthermore, the AC-130J has the ability to fly lower and land at shorter airfields than the E-3 and E-8. In concept, the AC-130J does not replace the E-3 or E-8; it adds more tools to fulfill the command and control role while still being able to deliver fires.

Global firepower projection. Currently the Air Force is developing an innovative concept known as Rapid Dragon that turns any cargo plane into a fires platform. The intent behind the program is to project firepower around the globe without having to incur the cost or time required to modify aircraft. Rapid Dragon also utilizes traditional shooters in nonshooting roles, such as an AC-130J conducting command and control. Diversifying the capabilities of current platforms, at low cost and by creative employment, is key to complicating the enemy’s calculus and thus enabling success in the future fight. Since AFSOC first received the AC-130J in 2016, the Air Force has invested significant resources to upgrade the AC-130J to make it more lethal, adding a combat laser, improved defensive systems, and a larger variety of precision-guided weapons.

Additional options. Yet while the upgrades on the surface make the AC-130J more lethal, they are not explicitly relevant to the Joint Force’s needs in the USINDOPACOM theater. Hardware will not get the AC-130J, or any other platform for that matter, to the finish line of relevance. Although equipment is a good start, importantly, technological investment must go hand-in-hand with creativity fostered from a cultural desire to be effective to set the conditions for success. For example, the A-10 community is widely understood to have some of the most dedicated aviators in the Department of Defense.a, b, c That community is again being asked to pivot to remain relevant, and it is fully embracing the idea of creative employment. As opposed to carrying mass firepower as the platform has for the last three decades, some in the community want the A-10s to carry ADM-160 miniature air-launched decoys to create “confusion and noise in the enemy air defense picture” and allow bombers to sneak through amidst the chaos. This idea represents the uniquely American brilliance that has enabled the United States to be a world power. Yet with creativity comes risk. Untested ideas are just that.

To meet the needs of the Joint Force, AC-130Js could carry stand-off weapons and act as a surrogate war wagon that could automatically supplement fast-moving fighters that would penetrate the contested airspace. Accordingly, AFSOC and USSOCOM are funding the development of miniature cruise missiles for the AC-130J to be exercised in Australia during Talisman Sabre in the summer of 2023. Additionally, the 4th Special Operations Squadron attended Air Combat Command’s Weapons System Evaluation program to spearhead agile combat employment initiatives for weapons, ammo, and maintenance Airmen. By reducing its logistics footprint and training to self-carry multiple combat loads of precision-guided weapons internally, the AC-130J community is identifying how to move faster and be more self-reliant. When the high-energy laser comes online—operational testing is slated to be complete in late 2023—the platform could covertly destroy targets with reasonable deniability. Seeing as the AC-130Js have regularly attended Balikatan exercises in the Philippines for the last three years and will be attending again in 2024, this adaptation seems to be an effective way to compete with peer and near-peer competitors such as China.

In addition to the recommendations above, it would be feasible to increase the number of hard points and thereby add to the number of munitions an AC-130J could carry. With additional hardpoints, the AC-130J could carry high-speed anti-radiation missiles, allowing it to fly in formation with C-130s and MC-130s to protect the diverse logistics convoys required for successful agile combat employment. AC-130J leadership attended the Kaneohe Bay Airshow in Hawaii in 2022, in part to liaise with USINDOPACOM and Special Operations Command Pacific leadership to find novel ways to support operations in the Indo-Pacific theater. The meeting generated some ideas including the possibility of reconfiguring the AC-130J to conduct antisurface warfare and reduce an enemy’s naval force. Before its retirement, the AC-130W community was training USCENTCOM-based P-8 crews to reduce Iranian small boat swarms that threaten freedom of maneuver in the Strait of Hormuz.


AFSOC is at a strategic inflection point, and the AC-130J community is ready to embrace the impending changes. While the AC-130J has obvious vulnerabilities to higher-generation, peer and near-peer platform threats, remaining relevant means identifying ways to mitigate the risks these aircraft present, while still providing a needed capability for the Joint Force. This will enable the next generation of operators, whether they fly the AC-130J or not, to succeed at their respective missions. Aircraft come and go in the military, but acquisition is expensive and procurement is a decades-long process. There is a reason that, despite his ability to beat anyone in a dogfight in 40 seconds in an F-100, John Boyd advocated for the F-16s and F-15s. He understood that talent and technology win wars.

Weapons systems become even more effective when the culture of Airmen is such that wicked problems are motivating and the only focus, even at the lowest level, is accomplishing the mission. At an inflection point, the cultural desire to achieve mission success must persist. A desire to be elite is fraught with the peril of holding on to what used to matter but is no longer relevant. The new technology must be passed to a competent culture. The risk is that if the community is left unchallenged the mission-focused culture will wither. The AC-130J community wants to push the limit of what is possible, including fundamentally changing its mission, to complicate our adversaries’ decision calculus, because that is what the culture and our national security demand.

Major Riley A. Feeney, USAF, is an AC-130J evaluator pilot and serves as the 27th Special Operations Wing commanders action group director.


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