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Night Hunters

The AC-130s and Their Role in US Airpower

William Pace Head

Publication Year: 2014

In Night Hunters, air power historian William P. Head provides the first detailed study of the development and deployment of the AC-130 gunship. While other airframes and other types of close air support (CAS) and interdiction weapon systems preceded or flew with the AC-130s, this four-engine cargo airframe proved to be not only the longest serving fixed-wing gunship but also the most effective by far.

During the Vietnam War, the US military developed new tactics and weapons systems to counter a diversity of enemy tactics and geographic features, the difficult climate, and the shifting diplomatic context. One of the most important was the development of the AC-130. Its ability to transport heavier payloads at higher altitudes across longer distances made it the logical choice to be the final Vietnam-era fixed-wing gunship and the only one that continues to fly missions in the twenty-first century. In addition, it employed many of the most advanced weapons, sensors, targeting devices, and fire control systems of the 1970s or of any era.

By recounting both the technical development and the combat operations of the plane, and by looking at the proposed alternatives for its use in the War on Terror, Night Hunters offers a clear view of the role of gunships and of close air support in US wars. In today’s never-ending brushfire wars, the AC-130s continue to uphold their reputation for excellence.

Published by: Texas A&M University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii


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pp. viii

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pp. ix-x

Over the past decade I have written three accounts of fixed- wing gunships. The first, on the AC- 47, appeared as an article in a scholarly military history journal. The second, on the AC- 119G/ Ks, was published in 2007 by Texas A&M University Press. Both were long...

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pp. 1-4

During the Vietnam War the US military found itself confronted by various enemy tactics, diverse geographic features, a difficult climate, and constantly wavering political and diplomatic circumstances. In an effort to circumvent these roadblocks to victory, it...

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1. The Origins of the US Fixed-Wing Gunships in Vietnam

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pp. 5-15

Experts disagree as to the origins of fixed- wing gunships. Some argue that the concept originated with mail or supply deliveries in the Australian Outback or Amazon jungles, where remote settlers or missionaries were delivered their...

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2. The AC-119G/K Gunship Program: An Overview

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pp. 16-28

Although not originally intended, the second major production model gunship deployed to Vietnam was the AC- 119G, followed by the AC- 119K. Air Force leaders never meant for Shadow and Spectre to replace Spooky, but airframe availability...

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3. A Wondrous Variety: Moving Towards the Spectre

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pp. 29-54

While the most famous fixed- wing gunships proved to be the AC- 47, AC- 119, and AC- 130, the Air Force did initiate other experimental projects to bolster the gunship fleets and even replace the AC- 47s. During Project Tailchaser in August...

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4. Final Production and Deployment; Operations in Vietnam

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pp. 55-77

When the AC- 130A test- bed aircraft first deployed to Vietnam in 1967, officials placed it under the 14th Air Commando Wing. In July 1968, CINCPACAF created the 16th Air Commando Squadron and placed it under the 8th Tactical...

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5. Expansion of the AC-130 Fleet: It Really Was a Surprise Package

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pp. 78-93

Th e Terry, Krause, and Wolverton meeting was highly significant. Terry had played a vital role in the birth of both the AC- 47 and the AC- 130A, and the others had major supporting roles. So it is not surprising that they made such an important...

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6. Development and Deployment of the New AC-130s

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pp. 94-112

Before the story of the AC- 130s moves on to the final years of the war and the important air operations that made up those days, it is critical to examine in detail the production of the AC- 130As and Es. This is particularly true since, unlike...

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7. The War Grinds On

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pp. 113-130

Just because the Americans were busy upgrading and modifying their AC- 130s did not mean the war had stopped or even taken a break. Throughout Richard Nixon’s first term, the enemy continually redefined the strategic and tactical...

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8. Linebacker I and II: America’s Involvement Winds Down

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pp. 131-142

In order to grasp the significance of the role of the AC- 130s at the end of the Vietnam War, one needs to understand how the Nguyen Hue or Easter Offensive unfolded and how US airpower responded. The enemy invasion officially lasted...

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9. “Goodbye Vietnam!”: The AC- 130s Transition

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pp. 143-167

The AC- 130 sorties during Linebacker I involved some of the most intense missions of the Vietnam interdiction campaign. Beginning in April 1972, crews implemented new tactics to more successfully attack columns of enemy vehicles...

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10. AC- 130s and the Birth of US Special Operations Command

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pp. 168-181

Th e immediate post- Grenada world of gunships focused on training crews and maintaining aging airframes. Soon, the 711th SOS became one of the main units for training Army, Navy, and Marine conventional or special operations surface...

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11. The Early 1990s: The Persian Gulf to Somalia

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pp. 182-206

In retrospect the history of the AC- 130s in the 1980s had been a dress rehearsal for the events of 1990s. No sooner were the H models returned to Hurlburt Field and the AC- 130As to Duke Field than the final steps were completed for the...

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12. The Late 1990s: Repair, Upgrade, and a New Model

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pp. 207-220

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the AC- 130As and Hs had flown long, grueling hours in lethal combat environments. With the birth of AFSOC, those involved with the fixed- wing gunships believed now was the time to build a...

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13. AC- 130s on the Fringes: Kosovo and Operation Allied Force

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pp. 221-235

On June 6, 1999, the preeminent military historian John Keegan, in an editorial in the Daily Telegraph, wrote: “There are certain dates in the history of warfare that mark real turning points. . . . Now there is a new turning point to fix on...

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14. Operation Enduring Freedom

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pp. 236-250

As the gunships of the 4th SOS and 16th SOS returned from OAF, the world entered the twenty- first century with positive anticipation. After all, the United States had twice in the 1990s formed a mighty coalition of the most prosperous...

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15. Operation Iraqi Freedom

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pp. 251-269

From the standpoint of the Air Force fixed- wing gunship fleet, as difficult as the war in Afghanistan proved to be, Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) increased its operations tempo and the stress level on the crews. While they would...

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16. Recent Events, Modifi cations, and Policy Decisions

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pp. 270-292

As America’s role as occupier and rebuilder evolved in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Spectre and the Spooky II, or “U- Boat,” both faced new challenges on the battlefield, most notable increasingly sophisticated and mobile SAMs. This...

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Conclusion: Some Final Thoughts about the Night Hunters

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pp. 293-310

In 1944, when asked how the Allies would defeat Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt declared, “Hitler built a fortress around Europe, but he forgot to put a roof on it.” So it remains in the twenty- first century that the expenditure...


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pp. 311-360

Glossary of Acronyms

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pp. 361-366


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pp. 367-396


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pp. 397-430

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781623491505
E-ISBN-10: 1623491509
Print-ISBN-13: 9781623491192

Page Count: 440
Publication Year: 2014

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Spectre (Gunship) -- History.
  • Air power -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Air power -- United States -- History -- 21st century.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Aerial operations, American.
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