Gunship delivers fearsome firepower

AC-130 is put to work battering Taliban targets in Kandahar

War On Terrorism

The Nation

October 17, 2001|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - During the Vietnam War, they nicknamed it "Puff the Magic Dragon" because at night the torrent of bullets looked like a dragon spitting fire. Its successor was a larger, more sophisticated aircraft dubbed the "Fabulous Four-Engine Fighter."

Now it is called "Spectre." A newer version is "Spooky." And on Monday two of the AC-130 gunships focused a barrage of fire from their cannons, Gatling guns and howitzers on Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Again yesterday, the lumbering gunships attacked Taliban militia headquarters, garrisons and troops outside the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, said Pentagon officials.

Lt. Gen. Gregory S. Newbold, the operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed the gunships were used on a mission that he described as successful, though he declined to provide details.

Newbold, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said that the gunship is effective because the slow-moving turboprop plane can "loiter" in an area while its crew turns the powerful and precise guns on ground targets.

The resulting noise and intense fire can be compared to the carpet-bombing B-52 for mentally rattling an enemy, he said.

"The psychological effect here is very important," he said.

A special operations officer who has seen the gunship in operation called it "intimidating."

"When it's firing, forget about it," he said.

Flown by Air Force special operations commandos from Hurlburt Field in Florida, the gunship is equipped with two 20 mm Vulcan cannons as well as a 25 mm Gatling gun that can spew 1,800 rounds per minute. When the crew unleashes a torrent of fire from the guns, they have a term for it: "burp 'em." And the plane can shoot log-sized shells from its 105 mm howitzer.

Sophisticated sensors make the gunship even more effective, officials said. Thermal imagery will display the form of a warm body - an individual or, perhaps, an idling tank - against a colder background.

"It's really difficult to hide from thermal," said the officer. Moreover, a computerized targeting system can place rounds with pinpoint accuracy.

"It can put a round every few inches," said Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret and now director of strategic studies with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington.

Pentagon officials said the 97-foot-long gunships, each with a 14-member crew, are operating out of Oman. The aircraft have a cruising speed of 300 mph and a range of 1,500 miles, although with their refueling capability they can remain aloft indefinitely. The planes have a ceiling of about 25,000 feet, though they sometimes operate at 18,000 feet, still above the range of the feared Stinger shoulder-fired missiles.

Many of their missions, however, are conducted at lower altitudes, at which they are vulnerable to anti-aircraft artillery or missile fire, a threat compounded by the gunship's relatively slow airspeed.

For example, during the Persian Gulf war, 14 Air Force special operations commandos were killed when an Iraqi surface-to-air missile shot down an AC-130 as it was circling in the daylight skies of Khafji, the Saudi border town where Marines were battling Iraqi forces.

That sort of threat has been reduced, officials said, because a week of U.S. bombing has given the American military control of the skies over Afghanistan. In addition, Newbold said, the gunships can be protected by fighter jets.

The gunship also is used to supply air cover to special operations forces on the ground. With British and U.S. commandos already linked up with rebel groups, there was some speculation that ground operations had begun when the AC-130s arrived on the scene Monday.

"At first I thought someone was on the ground," said the special operations officer, when he heard reports of the AC-130 in action. But Pentagon officials have been secretive about when such forces would be used, saying only that some of parts of Operation Enduring Freedom will be seen and many others will be unseen.

"It really is to our advantage that the Taliban has to worry about forces coming at them from every aspect," said Newbold. "And that would be from allies; from the Northern Alliance; from us; from air, ground, sea; from whatever capability we have."

Vickers said that with the introduction of the gunship, Pentagon officials are focusing less on fixed targets and more on troops. Kandahar - which Spectre gunships hit Monday and yesterday - is a stronghold for the Taliban, as well its headquarters.

A less sophisticated version of the AC-130 made its debut during the Vietnam War, destroying more than 10,000 trucks and providing close air support for U.S. troops. In 1989, the gunships had a strong role in Operation Just Cause in Panama, targeting the headquarters of Gen. Manuel Noriega's defense forces as well as command and control facilities.

During operations in Somalia in the early 1990s, the gunships provided close air support for United Nations troops.

"It scared the hell out of the Somalis. That was one thing they were afraid of," recalled retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who stepped down last year as commander of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region.

Two years ago, the gunships again made an appearance, in the allied attacks in Kosovo. Retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, former NATO commander, said yesterday that he wanted to use Spectres more during the Kosovo campaign though Pentagon officials would not let him, fearing attacks from surface-to-air missiles.

"They've got guns and sights and [the crew] is well-trained," Clark said.

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