AFSOC's 'Ultimate Battle Plane' Now Operating in Afghanistan

Air Force Special Operations Command’s first Block 30 AC-130J Ghostrider gunship arrives at Hurlburt Field, Florida, March 6, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joel Miller)
Air Force Special Operations Command’s first Block 30 AC-130J Ghostrider gunship arrives at Hurlburt Field, Florida, March 6, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Joel Miller)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- The new AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, described by Air Force Special Operations Command as "the ultimate battle plane," has been "performing magnificently" in its initial combat missions in Afghanistan, AFSOC commander Lt. Gen. Jim Slife said Monday.

The Ghostrider, with internal and external weapons systems including a 105mm artillery piece, is replacing the AC-130U version, which has provided close-air support for AFSOC "for many, many years," Slife said at the Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

The AC-130Js have a similar fire support system to the AC-130Us, he said, but the Ghostriders boast higher altitude ceilings and longer endurance.

AFSOC started taking delivery of the Ghostrider in the spring. The aircraft began deploying to Afghanistan over the summer to replace AC-130Us on a "one-to-one basis," Slife said.

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"It's higher mission-capable rates across the board" with the Ghostriders, he said. "It's been an improvement in our ability to provide close-air support to our ground teams."

In addition to the 105mm artillery piece, the Ghostrider has a 30mm GAU-23/A cannon and carries on its wing pylons GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bombs and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.

Slife said AFSOC plans to put a laser weapon aboard the AC-130Js within five years.

"It's got an open architecture system inside the airplane that kind of allows the addition of sensors and weapons systems as they become available," he said. "And so we haven't seen any particular challenges with integrating" lasers on the Ghostrider.

There are "a number of technical integration challenges that we're working our way through," Slife added, but "so far we haven't seen anything to cause us to think we're outside that time frame" of developing a laser for the aircraft within five years.

"We're not experiencing any delays in the deliveries" of the Lockheed Martin AC-130Js, said Slife, who declined to say how many of the aircraft are in Afghanistan or where they're based.

He gave a different assessment of the status of the CV-22, AFSOC's version of the Marine Corps' MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.

There are "readiness challenges" with the CV-22, said Slife, former director of operations for the 20th Special Operations Squadron and commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing, who took over at AFSOC in late June from Lt. Gen. Brad Webb.

He said the Osprey readiness challenges are "pretty common across the Air Force and the Marine Corps," and involve maintenance and the failure of components he did not identify.

"Our experience with the V-22 -- when it's deployed and when it's sustained by a responsive supply system, we generate a lot of flight hours," Slife said. "When the airplanes fly, they fly pretty well, but what we are seeing is some components that are failing at a higher rate than expected."

The components' failure rates "are driving additional maintenance workload and putting pressure on our supply system," he added.

Slife also said that the Air Force is still looking into the possibility of mounting a weapon on the CV-22 that could fire forward.

"Engineering work continues on that," he said of the long-sought weapon, either a machine gun or a cannon.

"It's just a matter of the trade-offs in terms of the space, weight, power and drag that an externally mounted weapon system would cause the airplane," Slife said, adding that the Air Force isn't ready to say "whether we're willing to do that or not."

"So we haven't made a final decision on fielding a forward-mounted weapon on the V-22, but there are a number of designs that are under consideration," he said.

As the new AFSOC commander, Slife said one of his main priorities is integrating women into the command, pointing to the example of 1st Lt. Chelsey Hibsch, a security forces officer assigned to the 821st Contingency Response Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California.

Hibsch made history recently by becoming the Air Force's first female airman to graduate from the U.S. Army's Ranger School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

"That's the caliber of airman" AFSOC is seeking, Slife said, adding, "We're anxious to see our recruiting efforts bear fruit" to put women in the ranks of AFSOC.

Currently, women serve in AFSOC but there are none in such roles as pararescue and special reconnaissance. Last month, the first enlisted woman to attempt the Air Force's special operations weather career field -- now known as special reconnaissance (SR) -- was not selected to proceed further in her training, according to Air Education and Training Command.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct information about women serving in AFSOC.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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