Powerful Air Force gunships double up in the Philippines during Balikatan exercise
Stars and Stripes April 24, 2023
SUBIC BAY, Philippines — The U.S. Air Force hasn’t had this much gunship firepower in the Philippines since the Vietnam War, according to special operations airmen participating in this month’s Balikatan drills.
A pair of AC-130J Ghostrider gunships — heavily armed versions of the C-130J Super Hercules tactical airlifter — landed recently at Cubi Point, a former U.S. naval air station in Subic Bay, on the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.
The aircraft are in the islands for the large-scale annual Balikatan exercise involving about 17,000 U.S. and Filipino troops.
Special operations airmen are also flying two MC-130J Commando II airlifters out of Cubi Point. Those planes are assigned to the 353rd Special Operations Wing at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.
The $115 million Ghostrider is the latest version of a gunship that first saw combat in Vietnam.
The AC-130J replaced the AC-130U, known as “Spooky.” Air Force officials have called it “the ultimate battle plane” due to an onboard arsenal that includes a 105 mm howitzer, 30 mm autocannon, missiles and laser-guided bombs.
A single AC-130J debuted at Balikatan in 2021.
This year, the Air Force has sent two gunships along with 107 airmen from the 17th Special Operations Squadron at Cannon Air Force Base, N.M.
“It’s the first time since the Vietnam era” that two gunships have been in the Philippines, said Capt. Nestor Soriano, a gunship pilot.
The aircraft, which can refuel in flight and loiter over targets for longer than previous models, have been practicing close air support with Filipino ground troops, he said.
The ground troops were maneuvering at Crow Valley Military Reservation, a live-fire range north of Clark Air Base on the island of Luzon, Soriano told Stars and Stripes on Sunday at Cubi Point.
A Ghostrider will attack a decommissioned fishing boat off the coast of Luzon during a live-fire exercise on Wednesday, he said.
The aircraft’s involvement in the drill is about coordinating with the other forces rather than simulating a realistic attack, he said.
Historically, gunships were used in littoral combat but they’re not the ideal weapon to sink a ship. The AC-130J is a precision tool for defending ground forces, Soriano said.
“We are not who you call to blow something up,” he said. “Send a bomber or an F-16.”