USAF is acting on concepts to evaluate gunships of the future that would work as part of a combat package

The US Air Force's Special Operations Command (AFSOC) has begun a one-year study of future gunship concepts and technology to support the transition of the Lockheed Martin/Rockwell AC-130 gunship from a "lone wolf" into a member of a more effective "wolf pack".

AFSOC's analysis of alternatives (AOA) project builds on the findings of Task Force Warlord, across-enterprise study by the Air Force Materiel Command's Air Armament Center at Eglin AFB, Florida. "The study really has to have a clear idea of its aims by January or February next year to affect the 2005 [budget request]," says Warlord head Steve Butler.

Using Warlord results as a blueprint, the Air Force Requirements Oversight Council (AFROC) has validated the findings and used them to draft an initial requirements document. This forms the basis for the three-phase AOA study covering a near-term update of the AC-130 fleet in 2003-05, a mid-term 2005-10 modification phase and a longer term solution for 2010 and beyond. As the AOA focus is "really on 2010 and beyond", Butler says the original AC-X AC-130 replacement effort, outlined in a December 2001 decision to accelerate funding for an Advanced Concept Technology Demonstrator (ACTD), has "effectively gone away".

Warlord handed AFSOC a total of 183 concepts to boil down, 26 of which are for the first phase, more than 70 for the mid-term and the balance for the longer term. Ranging in scope from improved sensor suites and munitions to outlandish concepts such as vertical-lift derivatives of the Northrop Grumman B-2, they provide a path for "transitioning the gunship out of the traditional 'lone wolf' role into more of a 'wolf pack'". The plan is linked with Warlord's view of the future threat environment.

The new requirement is for an enlarged mix of long endurance, close-air-support and surveillance. "It must be able to watch the battlefield unfold, not just like anF-16 catching a glimpse. It must also be able to scare people and to influence them, and if necessary, be lethal. That's why there is no requirement for a new gunship but rather 'here's the capability we're looking for'. However, there is still talk of a new aircraft, but it may have to be justified by other things, such as stealthy ingress."

Near-term upgrade possibilities include new electro-optic and infrared (IR) sensors to increase stand-off range beyond the capabilities of today's Raytheon AAQ-26 IR detecting set, and all-light-level TV system, as well as new computers for improved targeting and datalinking capability. Some elements could come from the USAF C-130 avionics modernisation programme (AMP),which provides the necessary open-architecture improvements. However, as the 21 AC-130H/Us are presently last in line for the AMP, it would require "some of the elements to be moved forward or adjusted to get this open architecture more quickly". The improved datalink would also enable the AC-130s to correct real-time imagery against terrain data from the US National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) to establish greater accuracy and "make sure everyone is on the same map", Butler says.

Other options include replacing the 25mm (10in) Gatling gun and rapid-fire 40mm Bofors cannon (both AFSOC unique) with the 30mm GAU-8. This uses US Marine Corps standard ammunition, making logistics support more manageable, says Butler. Guided rounds would also be provided for the single 105mm howitzer. The gunships will also work closely through radar and datalink with hunter-killer unmanned air vehicles, such as the General Atomics RQ-1 Predator or a host of other concepts, including an armed variant of the Rutan-designed Berkut light aircraft.

Mid-term improvements, possibly to be developed through an ACTD, include further datalink enhancements to include Link 16 or the Situational Awareness Data Link, and closer ties to NIMA. It also includes a greater assembly of UAVs, including unmanned combat air vehicles, many of which could be fitted with advanced autonomous or guided weapons.

The longer-term options "are where the wolf pack idea matures", says Butler. They include a C-130-size A-X stealthy multirole aircraft, and a variety of advanced weapons including tactical chemical lasers and high-powered, non-lethal microwave devices capable of causing pain.

These could be mounted either in a new-build A-X, or several airframe candidates including a modified Boeing AC-17, Bell Boeing AV-22 Osprey and a special operations B-2 derivative fitted with wing-mounted lift fans for vertical take-off and landing (above). "We've even got robot jet-ski concepts," says Butler, adding: "Everything is being considered."


Source: Flight International