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By Michael Peck, The National Interest
Call it the “Spookovik.”
Russia wants to make its own version of America’s legendary AC-130 “Spooky” gunship.
“An analogue of American AC-130 aircraft directly supporting ground forces on the AC-130 battlefield is being developed in Russia,” according to Russian news agency TASS. “An advance design has already been developed on the basis of the An-12 transport with 57-millimeter guns.”
“The OCD [experimental design work] is to develop a flying battery -- an aircraft directly supporting troops on the battlefield, similar to the American AC-130 gunships,” a Russian defense source told TASS during a recent defense trade show. “The An-12 military transport aircraft with two 57-mm guns will be used as a flying laboratory.”
While the U.S. Air Force has favored the 105-millimeter cannon as the big gun on the AC-130, Russia favors the smaller 57-millimeter for the Spookovik, as well as its newer armored troop carriers and self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery. However, the Russian gunship would be armed with smaller-caliber guns and automatic grenade launchers.
That’s more or less comparable to the Lockheed Martin AC-130, a gun-toting C-130 Hercules transport that combines a cargo plane’s lift capacity and long-range with artillery too heavy to be carried by a fighter. Its combat debut dates back to the late 1960s, when the legendary AC-130A appeared out of the dark skies to hose down the Viet Cong with 40- and 20-millimeter cannon, and 7.62-millimeter miniguns. The AC-130H Spectre and its 105-millimeter cannon appeared in 1972, followed by the current AC-130U Spooky, armed with a 105-millimeter, a 40-millimeter, and a 25-millimeter cannon—not much less than the gun armament of a U.S. Navy destroyer. The newest AC-130J Ghostrider has 105- and 30-millimeter cannon, plus smart weapons such as the Small Diameter Bomb and the Griffin mini-missile.
Tales are legion of hard-pressed troops, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, grateful for the Spectre and Spooky lighting up the night sky with glowing streams of tracers. North Vietnamese truck drivers on the Ho Chi Minh trail felt otherwise. But the AC-130 was hardly invulnerable: a half-dozen were downed during the Vietnam War by anti-aircraft guns and missiles, and an AC-130 was shot down by a shoulder-fired SA-7 missile.
Today’s AC-130s are packed with defensive jammers. Nonetheless, the AC-130 is still a military transport aircraft at heart, slower and less maneuverable than fighters. Against opponents with weak air defenses, it’s a terror. But a conflict in Eastern Europe or the South China Sea, against advanced Russian or Chinese air defenses, would be a different matter. As the recent shootdown of a Global Hawk—an airliner-sized drone—by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile demonstrates, large, slow aircraft are vulnerable to the sort of missiles that Russia has proven adept at developing.
Indeed, the TASS article notes the AC-130’s vulnerability. Which is why it’s so interesting that Russia is choosing to imitate it. Russian gunships operating in the teeth of NATO fighters and air defenses would be a risky proposition.
However, the AC-130 has proven invaluable in small wars against lightly defended targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as supporting special operations. Which suggests that the Spookovik may be intended for small conflicts, such as Russia’s intervention in Syria, the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, the Russo-Georgian conflict or operations in Chechnya.
Moscow’s embrace of “gray zone” warfare suggests special operations and support for insurgents will be a norm. And you can be sure that a Spetznaz commando team, surrounded and hanging on for dear life, will be grateful to see a fire-spitting Spookovik.