During the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, U.S. forces had the decisive advantage of air superiority.

Conventional troops and special operators knew that they could almost always call in airstrikes or close air support against an enemy force. But that capability might not be available if a conflict with China and Russia breaks out.

In contested airspace, the AC-130 gunship and MC-130 transport aircraft — some of the most capable and loved aircraft in the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) arsenal — will be in danger of becoming irrelevant, unable to do their missions amid the thicket of Chinese and Russian air defenses.

So SOCOM is looking for new ways to use those venerable aircraft. By equipping AC-130 with cruise missiles and turning the MC-130 into a floatplane, U.S. commandos may be able to keep them in the fight.


An Even Deadlier Aircraft

Aircrew load cannon aboard AC-130
Aircrew on an AC-130U gunship load a 105 mm howitzer, front, and a 40 mm Bofors cannon, rear, during an exercise, September 22, 2003. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Greg Davis/USAF)

For over six decades, the different variants of the AC-130 have been supporting conventional and special-operations troops, seeing action in all major and minor conflicts since the Vietnam War.

The AC-130J Ghostrider, the latest iteration of the gunship, is a deadly machine with an arsenal of 30 mm and 105 mm cannons, Hellfire and Griffin missiles, and smart munitions.

The AC-130 is an ideal close-air-support platform. It can stay over targets for very long periods and dish out incredible firepower. But that ability to stay on station for long periods is also one of the aircraft’s main downsides, as it’s relatively slow and vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.