US AIR Force Special Operations Command has taken delivery of the first Block 30 variant of the Lockheed Martin AC-130J Ghostrider gunship. The aircraft, 16-5837 (c/n 5837), is also the first AC-130J for the 1st Special Operations Wing’s (SOW’s) 4th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) at Hurlburt Field, Florida, beginning replacement of its current AC-130U Spooky fleet, which is slowly being retired from active duty after more than 20 years of operation.
A small unveiling ceremony for the first 4th SOS AC-130J was held on March 6 at Crestview-Bob Sikes Airport, Florida. The Block 30 marks a major improvement in software and upgraded avionics and navigation systems technology compared to the earlier Block 20 AC-130J. It incorporates a Precision Strike Package that includes trainable 30mm and 105mm cannons, while it can also launch 250lb GPS- or laser-guided Small Diameter Bombs from its wing pylons, which will also carry AGM-114 Hellfire missiles in the future. The type can also carry ten AGM-176 Griffin lightweight, precision-guided munitions for launch from the rear ramp. It also has upgraded engines, which contribute, in part, to an operating cost per flying hour that is one-third of that of the earlier Spooky.
The Ghostrider reached initial operational capability in 2017 and has been operated at Hurlburt by the 1st SOW’s 73rd SOS since the unit was formally re-activated on February 23, 2018, as the first ever AC-130J unit. The first Block 30 variant will initially undergo a year of testing before becoming operationally deployable. AFSOC intended to eventually acquire 32 AC-130Js, with final delivery expected around 2021.
Five former 4th SOS AC-130Us are already in storage with the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona. These comprise 89-0509 (arrived there August 7, 2018), 89-0511 (arrived May 8, 2018), 89-0512 (arrived January 16, 2018), 90-0163 (arrived September 22, 2015) and 92-0253 (arrived September 11, 2018).