The Air Force wants to replace the AC-130 gunship with a new aircraft that has more firepower, range, sensors, and survivability, and may even consider a stealthy design. The biggest challenge facing the Air Force is the new Russian-built S300 air defense missile system (known as SA-10 to NATO). The missile is sophisticated and presents a bigger challenge to jammers and decoys, but its biggest threat is range. With three or more times the range of earlier missiles, the S300 can be deployed far from an area the US wants to attack and still pose a threat to US aircraft. With its long range, it can also threaten the tankers, AWACS, and command aircraft that have traditionally stayed on the edge of the battle area.
The leading candidate is the AC-17, an undefined attack version of the C-17 air transport. Due to its huge size and range compared to the C-130, the AC-17 could carry more and heavier weapons including lasers, microwave transmitters, and even air-to-surface missiles. Another idea is to include a capability for air-to-air missiles on the AC-17, giving it a secondary mission to defend against cruise missiles. There are other ideas. One is known as Wolfpack, and consists of an AC-130 datalinked to other aircraft (some of them unmanned), allowing it to coordinate attacks. Another idea is to replace each AC-130 with several smaller aircraft (possibly stealthy or vertical take-off) that would work as a team.
In the short term, the Air Force wants to build four new AC-130Us on the airframes of the new C-130J. These would replace the 40mm gun of the AC-130 with the 30mm GAU-8. (The 40mm gun is the only one of its type used by the Air Force, complicating the supply of spare parts and ammunition. The GAU-8 is used by the A-10, so there are plenty of spare parts and ammunition available. The Air Force wants to include laser or GPS guidance for the 105mm howitzer, turning it into a "one shot, one kill" weapon. The Air Force wants to replace the AC-130's radar with a new type able to penetrate foliage, allowing both new and refitted old AC-130s to track moving troops in forests. Datalinks between AC-130s and Predator drones would provide visual confirmation of the target when needed. --Stephen V Cole