William P. Head’s Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in U.S. Air Power (Texas A&M University Press, 440 pp., $60, hardcover; $23, paper) is an excellent read for those unfamiliar with the history of Air Force gunships.
The book explains the evolutions of the AC-47 and AC-119, along with the history of the AC-130. Head, who runs the 78th Air Base Wing Office of History at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, emphasizes the efforts of ASD, WRAMA, and contractors to make the AC-130 a long-lived rather than stopgap weapon system. Consequently, AC-130 aficionados and war lovers might view Night Hunters as half of a book because of its long sections devoted to politics and economics rather than concentrating on AC-130 combat operations.
The chapters titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Recent Events, Modifications, and Policy Decisions” are the heart of the story because they examine the complicated pros and cons about the AC-130’s roles. Head’s account of the battle for Fallujah contains a depth of detail that forces the reader to reconsider the validity of the AC-130 as a close-air-support weapon.
His storytelling brings to life AC-130 crewmen and troops on the ground and dramatically emphasizes their interdependence. These two chapters make the reader question the AC-130’s future and its effectiveness in the past.
The book’s first half presents a fixed-wing gunship history through the Vietnam War; its second half deals with AC-130 history from the 1975 Mayaguez incident to the present. Rather than using background information from his own voluminous gunship writing, Head frequently cites Jack S. Ballard’s Development and Employment of Fixed-Wing Gunships, 1962-1972. Along with Ballard’s work, Head relies heavily on the 78th Air Base Wing History Archives, as well as records from the base’s Air Logistics Center and the Air Material Area.
By telling the stories of the 1972 Battle of An Loc and post-Vietnam War operations such as Urgent Fury in Granada, Just Cause in Panama, Desert Storm, and Provide Relief in Somalia, Head shows how the AC-130 went from from truck-busting to primarily close-air-support missions. His description of the Granada invasion provides enough U.S. misadventures to qualify as a scenario for a Gilbert and Sullivan opera—and he delivers it straight faced.
To better fulfill the promise of the book’s subtitle, greater elaboration of aircrew experiences might have provided a clearer understanding of AC-130 combat strengths and weaknesses. Other than speaking with two generals who had once piloted gunships, Head did not interview any other AC-130 crewmen. I view this omission as the book’s biggest weakness.
Interviews of crewmen might have helped to calculate more accurately the AC-130’s role in U.S. air power. I also find it disconcerting that when discussing minor combat operations, Head simply says the AC-130 performed its usual roles without adding details.
For example, he mentions AC-130 deployment to South America to fight drug dealers but gives no factual support. Similarly, he lists sophisticated equipment such as the AN/AAQ-17 IDS/FLIR—which he describes as “one of the most accurate high-tech devices ever conceived”—but fails to explain the operational advantage it provides.
As a former Spectre fire control officer and sensor operator, I believe crewmen deserve more credit than Head gives them for their influence on the development of AC-130 systems and tactics, particularly during the Vietnam War.
In more ways than one, the AC-130 mission was a fly-by-night endeavor from 1966-71. Combat missions doubled as training missions. New equipment that even tech reps did not know how to operate was tested and perfected under fire. Crewmen originated tactics through trial and error and passed them on by word of mouth.
It wasn’t until 1971 that a self-appointed, ad hoc trio of navigators at Ubon Air Base in Thailand wrote the first AC-130 tactics manual. The haphazard approach worked because during those early years mainly lieutenant colonels and majors who had spent most of their careers in C-130s piloted Spectre gunships. Their skillful flying accounted for the high—yet often questioned—truck count.
They deserve interviews because they set the standard.