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Something Old, Something New: Venerable AC-130s Get Tech Makeover

Written by on Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

If you had to compile a list of the most successful aircraft in US military history, then the line of AC-130 gunships and the C-130 Hercules that they were based on would both be near the top of the list. These massive planes were extremely successful in the ‘60s and they’re so incredibly useful that they’re still being rolled off of Lockheed Martin’s assembly line today.

As useful as AC-130s are, they suffer from a major weakness: they can only operate at night. Quite simply, these relatively slow-moving, lumbering aircraft are easy targets for RPGs and other anti-aircraft weaponry. Flying under the cover of night is the only way that AC-130s can get close enough to provide air support without being under risk of enemy fire.

But that’s all about to change. AC-130s are getting a technological overhaul. Newer AC-130s will feature a large-aperture midwave infrared sensor, a pair of image-intensified television cameras, a rangefinder, and a near-infrared laser pointer and laser designator. What does all that mean? Well, it means that AC-130 pilots will be able to detect threats and stay well out of range of enemy RPGs.

The only problem with this new setup is that the beefed-up cameras have a longer range than the gunships’ 25-mm cannons. The USAF hopes to remedy this by adding longer-range weapons, such as Hellfire missiles and gliding small diameter bombs, to the AC-130 arsenal.

Bob Seifert, a former AC-130 pilot who served in Iraq, explained that “Gunships are in a class all by themselves when it comes to close air support.” Just imagine what these aerial behemoths will do once they’ve got better sensors, longer, range, and can operate twice as long. Seifert added that by enabling daytime operations “you’ve literally increased your overall effectiveness by 100 percent.”

This is a particularly interesting news story because it shows how new technology can revitalize old aircraft. It’s hard to say what the future of military technology will hold, but theoretically we could see other aircraft be similarly revitalized by new technology. For example, what if engineers figure out how to encase older aircraft in radar-absorbing material to give it a stealthy makeover?

The fleet of aircraft in the USAF is becoming more and more diverse. Revolutionary stealth F-35s are flying alongside decades-old AC-130s and B-52s. Is newer always better, or will the USAF get into the habit of constantly upgrading older gear?

Reviving old technology is definitely the preferable option. It uses what we already have and upgrading older aircraft will be significantly cheaper than building brand new aircraft from scratch. The only issue will come from figuring out how to fuse old and new technology into a cohesive system. Pilots might need to become an expert in decades-old mechanical sensors, as well as state-of-the-art digital technology. Will AC-130 maintenance crews need to be able to use a monkey wrench and a blow torch one minute, and figure out how to debug digital storage software the next?

Military consulting firms can help the USAF tackle this problem. Maintaining a strong, pilot-centric view of an aircraft can help engineers build an aircraft that is functional, efficient, and relatively cheap. With the help of military consulting firms, the USAF can build a fleet that combines old and new technology to handle the wars of the future.

If you want advice about the world of military aviation, there’s no better people to turn to than men and women who have sat in the cockpit and flown some of the world’s most advanced aircraft. With over 50 current and ex-warfighters on call, Strike Fighter Consulting Inc. can give you access to up-to-date, first-hand technical and tactical expertise.

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