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CNN flies aboard the Ghostrider, the aircraft carrying the largest US weapon in the sky

As the US Air Force’s AC-130J flies over South Korea’s towering apartment blocks, its powerful cameras can almost see into the windows of the upper floors.

Looking further afield, weapons officers on the four-engine aircraft, nicknamed Ghostrider, can detect objects nearly 10 miles away — all potential targets for the largest cannon ever mounted on a fixed-wing aircraft.

A CNN got an exclusive look inside the aircraft, assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command, in early June after it flew from its base at Hurlburt Field, Florida, for joint exercises in South Korea.

In a live-fire exercise, the 105-millimeter howitzer fired nearly 45-pound shells at a firing range east of Seoul, the force of each explosion so powerful that it pushed the tail of the eighty-ton plane to the right.

About eight seconds after firing, the shells struck more than 10,000 feet below, sending smoke into the sky as the big gun’s controllers watched the results of their work on large video screens in the middle of the aircraft.

“Two tanks destroyed,” a gruff voice confirms in the AC-130 crew’s headsets.

Pilot Capt. John Ikenberry said the AC-130’s presence for exercises in South Korea was designed to send a simple message to its belligerent neighbor, North Korea, and its leader Kim Jong Un.

“It shows we’re ready,” Ikenberry said.

Tensions have been rising on the peninsula in recent months.

The North has sent trash-filled balloons into areas in and near Seoul and tested missiles, and South Korean troops fired warning shots as North Korean soldiers crossed the military demarcation line in the middle of the demilitarized zone.

Earlier this week, North Korea criticized live-fire exercises in the South in late June and early July as an “explicit and inexcusable provocation.”

Meanwhile, Washington has kept a steady flow of equipment heading south for land, air and sea exercises leading up to one of its largest annual exercises, Ulchi Freedom Shield, due to begin in late summer.

Experience they can’t get in the United States

The AC-130J, the newest version of the U.S. Air Force’s Hercules helicopters, is testing its mettle in Korea for the second year in a row.

Maj. Heath Curtis, the Hercules’ combat systems officer, says it is important for the fighter to make the flight across the Pacific because it provides training experience where a conflict can be fought in conditions that cannot be replicated at the Florida or New Mexico firing ranges that the fighter would use in the United States.

The mountain ranges and ridges of the Korean Peninsula present wind conditions not found elsewhere, he says, and that can make a difference even to a projectile traveling at more than 800 mph.

It also gives Curtis and a second officer sitting in the AC-130’s weapons control center the opportunity to practice alongside South Korean allies they might need to protect in the event of a ground war on the peninsula.

Huge television monitors show the battlefield below in both standard and infrared definition. Cameras mounted outside the plane can magnify the details to ensure weapons fire is accurate.

“What’s unique about the AC-130 is the amount of firepower we bring, the amount of munitions — the diversity of them — and the amount of loitering we can provide,” said the fighter’s mission commander, Maj. Justin Burris.

In addition to the 105-millimeter howitzer, the AC-130J carries a 30-millimeter cannon and can launch precision-guided missiles and bombs from pylons on its wings.

With the weapons’ near-pinpoint accuracy, it can fire on enemy positions within close range of friendly troops, earning the aircraft the title of “the infantryman’s best friend” in some circles.

And with mid-air refueling, it can, in theory, remain on station supporting ground forces as long as crew and ammunition last.

“Scary” story

The U.S. Air Force’s warships trace their lineage to the Vietnam War, when the service mounted 7.62mm cannons to fire down the side of a C-47 transport aircraft.

With this configuration, the aircraft could circle a single point and unleash massive, continuous firepower from its cannons, which could fire 6,000 rounds in a minute, according to Air Force data sheets.

Their firepower and the flares they used to illuminate targets during night missions earned them the nicknames “Spooky” and “Puff the Magic Dragon.”

As the war progressed, the Air Force sought a heavier airframe for the fighter role and turned to the C-130 Hercules transports.

The first conversion of a C-130 to an AC-130 saw action in Southeast Asia in 1967, according to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

With their ability to support troops in close combat, AC-130 gunships in different variants have seen action in conflicts including Grenada, Panama, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan and saved countless lives, according to the Air Force.

With the AC-130J model, introduced in 2017, the Air Force removed the machine guns in favor of more precision-guided munitions.

But there have also been problems, including a 2015 attack on a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, that killed and injured 42 patients, staff and caregivers.

Despite the formidable firepower it carries, the AC-130 flies low and slow, making it vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire.

And seven AC-130 gunships have been lost over the years, the last on Jan. 31, 1991, when an Iraqi surface-to-air missile downed an AC-130H during Operation Desert Storm, according to Air Force news releases.

The plane crashed in the Persian Gulf while supporting US Marines during a

battle in Khafji, Saudi Arabia, killing all 14 crew on board.

The AC-130 crew acknowledges the dangers of ground fire to their aircraft, and some analysts question its usefulness in any potential conflict with North Korea.

“They could not be operated within, say, 100 nautical miles of the border as they are too vulnerable to North Korean border air defences,” says Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia and a former Royal Australian Air Force officer.

But Layton says the fighter jets could be useful in supporting allied troops who may be trying to encircle North Korean special forces units that have managed to infiltrate deeper into the South.

Still, he warned, “if a war breaks out there, try not to be in an AC-130 unless you’re leaving the theater.”

Maj. Christopher Mesnard, director of public affairs for Special Operations Command Korea, said the AC-130J is a suitable weapons system for the Korean Peninsula.

“We have the utmost confidence in our ability to operate weapons systems like the AC-130J at times and locations of our choosing and in a manner that appropriately considers risk, regardless of region,” he said.

Source: CNN Brasil

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