The AC-130 gunship is a devastating display of force and firepower. Through the years, the aircraft has been equipped with an array of side-fired canons, howitzers, mini-guns, wing-mounted missiles and bombs, and laser guided-missiles, earning it the moniker the “Angel of Death.” Credit: Handout.

SOCOM wants to have its cake and eat it too.

A missile that’s small, yet still has long-range. And, it has to pack a punch. And be filled with high-tech, sophisticated technology.

More specifically, the US Special Operations Command is seeking a precision-guided “cruise missile” with a range of at least 200 nautical miles, and ideally a range of more than 400 nautical miles, according to a report by Michael Peck at The War Zone.

This would give SOCOM aircraft, such as AC-130J Ghostrider gunships, the ability to strike targets while remaining safely out of range of hostile air defenses.

The AC-130 gunship platform is beloved by commandos and conventional ground troops because of its unique ability to fire continually against a target, Business Insider reported.

Essentially an aerial artillery platform, the AC-130 attacks using the “pylon turn” technique — flying in a wide circle above the target area, allowing for a steady volume of fire, earning it the nickname “Angel of Death.”

The AC-130 is so effective that it has been supporting conventional and special-operations troops for close to 60 years, seeing action in Asia, South America, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.

The catch is that the Stand-Off Precision Guided Weapon Program Cruise Missile has to be small — in fact, tiny enough to fit into a small launch tube, War Zone reported.

It also needs to be capable of carrying, at minimum, a 13-pound warhead, slightly smaller than one found in many Hellfire variants. At the same time, SOCOM says it is interested in designs that might also be able to hold payloads weighing up to 37 pounds.  

SPEAR3 will become the principal strike weapon of the F-35B Lightning II jets operating from the decks of HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. Credit: Courtesy MBDA.

“This system could be used in a broad range of military applications where a long-range weapon must fit in a small space,” noted the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) announcement.

A seeker system with electro-optical and infrared modes is also required, but the notice says that SOCOM would be happy to consider designs with additional guidance options, if possible, that allow the weapon “to acquire and/or reacquire targets in flight.”

The missile will also need to be networked, at least via Situational Awareness Data Links (SADL), but possibly using Link 16, as well, War Zone reported.

SOCOM also wants the weapon to have a GPS-assisted Inertial Navigation System (INS) guidance system, as well, with the INS component offering a backup to help it get to the target in environments where GPS jamming is present.

In short they want it all, and that’s a tall order. Some experts aren’t even sure it can be done.

So why go to all this trouble?

Because such a weapon would give US special operations forces a long-range fire capability vastly exceeding the reach of their current short-range Hellfire and Griffin missiles and Small Glide Munition (SGM) glide bombs.

The SGM has a range of around 20 miles, or one-tenth of the minimum range of this proposed mini-cruise missile. This new weapon would also out-range the Small Diameter Bombs (SDB) that AC-130s can carry, which have a maximum range of about 50 miles.

While the size of the weapon was not specified, it must be small enough to be fired from a Common Launch Tube, or CLT — a container just four feet long and seven inches wide, War Zone reported.

So how do you cram what would be a long-range weapon inside a relatively tiny launcher?

That appears to be the sixty-four-dollar question.

A combat helicopter is shown with the addition of Systima Technologies’ Common Launch Tube (CLT) system which enables rapid integration of a variety of precision guided munitions and sensors including AGM-176 Griffin missiles, sonobuoys and drones. Credit: Systima Technologies.

SOCOM describes this proposed weapon as a cruise missile, which tend to be subsonic weapons that fly at low altitudes to avoid detection.

On the other hand, the proposed weapon’s small size and long-range – almost contradictory requirements in munitions design – suggest the possibility of something akin to a loitering munition, which orbits a target like a drone before slamming into it.

There are emerging mini-cruise missile offerings, such as SPEAR3, but they would not be able to fit in a CLT and have a range of less than half of what is required here.

SPEAR3 will become the principal strike weapon of the F-35 Lightning jets operating from the decks of HMS Queen Elizabeth and Prince of Wales.

Designed to knock out warships, tanks and armoured vehicles, missile launchers, bunkers, radar posts and air defence batteries, the new missile can be fired at such long range – more than 140 kilometres (nearly 90 miles) – it should keep the Navy and RAF pilots out of harm’s way from enemy ground defences.

Weighing under 90kg and just 1.8 metres long, SPEAR3 (Select Precision Effects At Range missile No.3) is powered at high subsonic speeds by a turbojet engine, can operate across land and sea, day or night, and strike at moving and stationary targets.

Whatever SOCOM develops, if indeed it finds such a capability technologically feasible, could be adopted by US conventional forces. 

The AC-130 gunship was introduced in the 1960s and first saw action during the Vietnam War.

It was an upgrade to the AC-47 Spooky, nicknamed “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” that had been supporting conventional and special-operations troops. The nickname was inspired by the otherworldly effect the AC-47’s miniguns produced when firing at night.

Even the first versions of the aircraft, with their primitive nighttime capabilities, made the difference, saving infantry companies and special-operations recon teams from getting wiped out by the numerically superior North Vietnamese or Viet Cong.

Sources: The War Zone, Business Insider, Naval News