The United States Air Force just took delivery of their first upgraded “Ghostrider” AC-130 gunships, a valuable tool for Special Operations troops in the ground support role for many years.

The 4th Special Operations Squadron, 1st Special Operations Wing, at Hurlburt Field, Florida, received its first of a reported 37 of the AC-130J Ghostrider Block 30 gunship this week during a ceremony at Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview, Florida, Air Force Special Operations Command said in a statement last week.

The current inventory of AC-130 gunships, known as “Spooky” are in the inventory of the 4th SO Squadron. The Air Force in an official statement said that the Block 30 model marks “a major improvement in software and avionics technology” over the original Block 20 software AC-130J.

“The Ghostrider is the newest and most modernized gunship in existence, fulfilling the same mission sets as the Spooky but with upgraded avionics, navigation systems, and a precision strike package that includes trainable 30mm and 105mm weapons,” the statement added.

But don’t be looking for any battlefield footage anytime soon, the Ghostrider is expected to be in testing for the next year before being cleared for any combat operations.

Besides having upgraded turboprop engines which will reduce operational costs for the airframe, the AF estimates it will consume about 25-30 percent less gas than the AC-130U and fly 416 miles per hour, about 100 mph faster than the predecessor, the Ghostrider will come with the palletized Precision-Strike Package (PSP), which includes a single 30 mm Mk44 Bushmaster cannon, that was characterized by the Air Force as having “sniper-like” precision, precision-guided munitions, and a 105 mm cannon that the AC-130U already has carried. Precision-guided munitions such as the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and Raytheon’s AGM-176A Griffin missile will also be employed, while AGM-114 Hellfire missiles are among armament options.

However, the Air Force has not released any exact armament configurations yet. It will, however, once cleared for combat operations be the most heavily armed gunship in history. When the aircraft was still in the earlier stages of development in 2015, LTG Bradley Heithold, former head of Air Force Special Operations Command, called it “a bomb truck with guns” and “the ultimate battle plane.”

AC-130s have been around since the Vietnam War and have been one of the Air Force’s best, most reliable ground support aircraft providing troops on the ground a massive amount of firepower, loitering right above the battlefield.

The 30mm Chain gun fires a Coke-can sized projectile at a rate of 200 rounds per minute. The weapon carries two different types of ammo and flipping from one chain to another if the target changes is an easy switch for the crew.

The 105mm howitzer, fired from the sky, directly overhead of the target, launches a 2-3 foot, a 50-lb warhead with about 32 pounds worth of explosives. The aircraft carries 80 rounds for the 105mm. The aircraft can fire up to 10 rounds per minute, which is a huge firepower advantage for Special Operations troops that can call on the Air Force to eliminate or subdue threats on the ground.

Between the two weapons systems on the Ghostrider is the Mission Operator Pallet. There are two stations, one for a weapons systems officer and one for an enlisted sensor operator, each having multiple video screens and instruments controlling the array of cameras and sensors that help the crew target, and control the fire of the weapons systems.

What makes the Ghostrider unique is the AGM-176A Griffin missiles. Now the aircraft can unleash 10 Griffins which is essentially a half-sized Hellfire missile. The Griffins are laser-guided with fragmentation warheads and GPS sensors to ensure target hits. Ghostrider will also carry Hellfire missiles and GBU-39  (250-lb glide munitions) Small Diameter Bombs. Eventually, the Air Force plans to field lasers on the Ghostrider.

Last year, Col. Tom Palenske, then-commander of 1st Special Operations Wing, told the media that “It’s our big gun truck.”

“It’s going to have more powerful engines, a more efficient fuel rate. … You can keep the sensors on the bad guys longer … [and] it’s also going to have AGM-176 [Griffin] missiles on the back, so you can put 10 missiles on the back of them.

“It’s going to be awesome,” he added.

Special Operations troops on the ground are going to have a very upgraded AC-130 at their disposal beginning in late 2019 or 2020. And with the threat around the world ever increasing, the ability to protect them from all threats is always a top priority. And inside of the tried and tested airframe of the AC-130, the lethality of our troops on the ground has just been increased.

Photos: US Air Force