The Gunless Gunship
A hat tip to Sharon Weinberger at the Danger Room for this item, detailing the Air Force's dream of a "gunless" gunship.
According to Defense Daily (subscription required), the head of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) says the service envisions an exotic weapons suite for its next-generation gunship.
Lieutenant General Michael Wooley told a ground of defense writers in Washington that the "gunship of the future, in my estimation, won't have any big guns on it. Rather, it would have lasers, directed energy and lethal/non-lethal capabilities.
"So the key," he continued, "is going to be keeping the current fleet viable while we push technology to make that transformational leap. We have done that with the CV-22 on the mobility side and now is the time to do that with the gunship, in my estimation."
General Wooley also said it's too early to tell if the next gunship will be a variant of the Air Force's next bomber, set to enter service around 2018. The AFSOC commander suggested that he is open to the idea of a "family" of manned and unmanned platforms to provide the gunship capability, if that concept proves viable. Until then, the Air Force will soldier on with its current inventory of AC-130H and AC-130U gunships, built on the venerable "Hercules" airframe.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with speculating about what the next gunship might look like. At this point, it's almost two decades away from entering service, and a lot could happen over that span, in terms of threats, technology and funding. But the new gunship also faces considerable hurdles. Forget about the technical hurdles (for a moment), and simply consider the budgetary obstacles. The Air Force has some other big-ticket items in the acquisition pipeline, including new UAVs, the Joint Strike Fighter, the CSAR-X helicopter, a new tanker airframe and that next-generation bomber, not to mention upgrades in satellites, existing airframes and ISR systems. Even in an era of $500 billion defense budgets, it's hard to see how a "transformational" gunship can fit into that mix, particularly with more money being allocated to ground forces.
And that may be the concept's saving grace; troops on the ground--particularly SOF units--love gunships. Operating almost exclusively at night, they have an unmatched capability to loiter over the battlefield and deliver withering firepower from their on-board cannons and 105 mm howitzer (the 30mm Bushmaster is actually replacing the 25mm and 40mm guns found on older gunships, and the new cannon is expected to be operational this summer).
As for the "transformational" gunship, don't hold your breath. Conventional ground forces and the SOF community will take all the support that "Spooky" can deliver, but not at the expense of other programs that directly affect their operational capabilities. According to the Air Force, each AC-130U (the current "state" of the gunship art) costs $190 million--and the service has only 13 of those, along with eight of the older "H" models, which have a price tag of $132 million. We can only imagine how much a jet-powered, Buck Rogers Death Ray-equipped gunship would cost, in 2007 dollars, let alone 2023. It's also worth noting that AFSOC got burned (a bit) on its last transformational airframe, the CV-22. Originally envisioned as a multi-mission workhorse, the Osprey is now intended to perform only three tasks: long-range infiltration, exfiltration and resupply. The CV-22's troubled development history and escalating costs are one reason the Air Force is preparing to spend $15 billion on its next search-and-rescue helicopter--a mission that the Osprey was once slated for.
If you asked operational customers what they want in the next-generation gunship, their answer would be couched in three terms: firepower, availability and affordability. That's why the "laser jet" will probably remain a pipe dream, and Spooky's eventual replacement may be much more conventional, in both the airframe and its armament.