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Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in U.S. Airpower.

Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in U.S. Airpower, By William P. Head. College Station Texas: Texas A&M University Press, 2014. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp 448. $29.95 Paperback ISBN 978-1-62349-119-2

William Head is the 78th Air Base Wing historian at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. In this work, he presents us with an extensive and detailed study of the development and utilization of the AC-130 Gunship, its predecessors, and follow-on aircraft over a period of almost 50 years. He lays the story out chronologically, starting with the development of the early AC-47s, AC-119s, and then the AC-130s in their evolving iterations in the long war in Southeast Asia. He clearly shows how integral they became to overall USAF operations throughout most regions of the theater, and especially highlights their role as a key close-air-support asset, and their effective use in interdiction operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia (I was a FAC in Laos in 1972 and witnessed the deadly work of the AC-130 Spectres). The North Vietnamese had a different name for the AC-130s. They called them the "Thug" and opposed them with massed guns and even SAMs. Head discusses the shootdown of several Spectres and crews in those horrific battles.

Head then tracks the further maturation of the use of the AC-130 through later conflicts. He explains the endless modification programs through which the aircraft were upgraded and improved. At times, the detail is somewhat numbing but certainly necessary to document the process. Post-Southeast Asia, the aircraft and crews were returned to the CONUS and formed into an active and reserve unit, both in Florida. Head explains how the aircraft were considered for and/or used in the Iranian hostage crisis and the Grenada operation. He shows their critical support of operations JUST CAUSE and DESERT SHIELD/STORM, again explaining their tragic losses. However, he only thinly tracks their travails as the USAF struggled through the difficult reorganizations of the 1980s and, eventually, activation of the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) as a component of the US Special Operations Command. The AC-130 force was right in the middle of those painful processes.

The story continues through the 1990s with retirement of the earliest models of the AC-130s and inactivation of the AF Reserve unit. Head explains the development, funding, and creation of the new AC-130U model; activation of another active duty unit; and utilization of the gun-ships in Somalia, Kosovo, and Operation ALLIED FORCE. Subsequent chapters discuss post-9/11 events and combat operations in Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and IRAQI FREEDOM. He follows with a discussion of most recent events, ongoing modifications programs, and policy challenges faced by the AC-130 community. He also discusses efforts by AFSOC to increase the size and efficacy of their gunship fleet with the purchase of multi-mission capable C-130 aircraft and more capable sensor packages and weapons. These efforts are on-going and portend a long life for the AC-130 fleet and community.

I enjoyed reading this book but believe that theater maps and more photos of individuals and locations integral to the story would have added to it. The bibliography, though extensive, cited no references to the AC-130 unit histories. Their use and also interviews with key AC-130 community personnel would have added operational depth to this work. Bottom line: it is an illuminating and interesting read about airmen, air machines, and evolving technology--a truly important theme in USAF history.

Darrel Whitcomb, Fairfax, Virginia
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Author:Whitcomb, Darrel
Publication:Air Power History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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