William P. Head. Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in US Airpower. Williams-Ford Texas A&M University Military History Series. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2014. 440 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62349-119-2; $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62349-118-5.
Reviewed by Paul Springer (Air University, Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
William P. Head is an air force command historian at Warner-Robbins Air Force base. His previous work examines the development of AC-47 and AC-119 gunships, and thus it is only natural that he would examine the next aircraft in the same development line, the AC-130 Spooky II. An AC-130 is a fixed-wing, transport aircraft that has been heavily modified to create a gunship armed with Gatling guns, a howitzer cannon, and grenade launchers. It is capable of enormous fire support with extreme precision, in part because it is an highly stable platform with an array of sensors and can fly extremely slow patterns. However, the same characteristics that make it an effective close air support weapon also make it vulnerable to modern air defenses, and hence, the aircraft operates almost exclusively at night to minimize that threat as much as possible.
Head begins his work with a quick overview of earlier variants of the fixed-wing gunship. Each experimental craft was essentially rushed into production and quickly fielded, and not only proved the concept but also demonstrated how important these platforms could be to modern warfare. The early testing of a prototype AC-130 during the Vietnam War showed that it was an efficient and effective weapon, perfectly suited for aerial interdiction missions, point defense of airbases, and close air support of troops on the ground under certain circumstances. From the beginning, these aircraft were considered part of the special operations arsenal, and they remain part of the air force contribution to joint special operations.
In Vietnam, the small number of AC-130s were so in demand that they flew an enormous number of sorties, leading to maintenance difficulties as their components wore down. These aircraft accounted for a large percentage of the trucks and small boats destroyed along the Ho Chi Minh trail. Yet air force leaders, many of them absolutely dedicated to the fighter platforms, significantly hindered the acquisition of more gunships, despite their obvious utility. Personnel rotation policies also hurt the effectiveness of the AC-130 missions, as entire units rotated out at the same time, leaving a substantial learning curve for their successors in-theater. As the war wound down, the massive reduction in aircraft and air force personnel gradually eroded the AC-130s’ effectiveness, as did the introduction in 1972 of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles.
The decade after Vietnam saw significant changes within the military, and the air force was no exception. The AC-130 remained a part of the aerial fleet and continued to perform yeoman service in the small engagements of the 1970s and early 1980s. Head supplies excellent coverage of the Mayaguez affair, but his approach to Operation Eagle Claw and Operation Urgent Fury is somewhat lacking. A full chapter dedicated to Operation Just Cause supplies more than ample coverage but seems a bit unbalanced when the succeeding chapter combines Desert Storm, which is well analyzed, and Somalia, which is not.
Even though the C-130 airframe, upon which these gunships are constructed, has remained largely unchanged for decades, the AC-130 has undergone major modifications. In the 1990s, the air force dedicated funds for an AC-130U model, to be built by Rockwell. Poor coordination between the company and the military led to a host of delays and an eventual lawsuit, and might very well have ended the program if Boeing had not stepped in, purchased Rockwell, and immediately worked to repair the breach. Thanks to the new management, the new aircraft was ready for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and made major contributions in each campaign.
Head concludes his work with a summary of semi-recent events, mostly through 2009 but with occasional forays up to 2012, that is very gung-ho about the AC-130’s future, although it does little to explain how the aircraft might perform against a near-peer competitor with a substantial integrated air defense network. The final portion of the work is a somewhat bizarre, detailed report of a 1972 crash, which makes for an odd dismount from an otherwise well-constructed work.
Overall, this book is a combination of a biography of an aircraft model and an operational analysis of its employment in combat for the better part of five decades. Readers interested in special operations, in particular, will find much utility in this work, as will airpower scholars, air force professionals, and individuals interested in the development and employment of military technology. It has an excellent blend of broad analysis and specific anecdotal examples, and will remain the standard work on history of the AC-130 for decades.
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Paul Springer. Review of Head, William P., Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in US Airpower.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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