The US Air Force's Special Operations Command will test fire Boeing Hellfire missiles from an AC-130U Spectre gunship later this year.

Efforts to give the aircraft a hard-target kill capability, along with other product improvements, are expected to extend the operational life of the 16th Special Operations Wing's (SOW) eight AC-130H and 13 AC-130U Hercules-derived gunships to at least 2025, according to the unit's Capt John Peck.

The 16th SOW and the USAF's Air Armament Centre at Eglin AFB, Florida, have teamed up to determine whether the pressurised AC-130U can be given an increased stand-off range and an anti-armour capability by integrating the US Army's AGM-114 Hellfire anti-armour missile.

A two-missile outboard pylon will be installed on a Spectre gunship for the test, planned for November or December.

The USAF's gunships have been used in all recent conflicts, including the Allied Force operation against Yugoslavia, providing close air support and air interdiction and conducting armed reconnaissance missions. Concerns about the type's lack of stand-off range stem from the loss of a low- and slow-flying AC-130H to an Iraqi surface-to-air missile in the 1991 Gulf War.

The AC-130U has three side-firing weapons - a 105mm howitzer, a 40mm Bofors cannon, and a 25mm six-barrel Gatling gun. Its primary sensors are the Raytheon APQ-180 fire-control radar (a derivative of the Boeing F-15E's APG-70), a Marconi Electronic Systems all-light-level TV, and the Raytheon AAQ-26 infrared sensor, which incorporates a laser illuminator/designator.

The older AC-130H also carries the AAQ-26, as well as an APN-59 ground-mapping weather radar, a low-light-level TV, plus the 105mm and 40mm weapons.

The AC-130s are part of the USAF's $4 billion C-130X avionics modernisation programme. Further enhancements are planned in the Common Avionics Architecture for Penetration programme, which includes low probability of intercept/detection radars and improved situation awareness equipment.

The Spectres will also receive the Northrop Grumman AAQ-24 directional infrared countermeasures system, which replaces the Marconi AAR-44 missile approach warning system.

Source: Flight International