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USAF AC-130J Gunship Aircraft Tracked Online During Air Strike in Iraq

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USAF AC-130J (18-5886 as pictured here) has conducted airstrikes over Iraq (Photo: Created by author using USAF image, screenshot from ADSBexchange.com and @tJwWSbZzA7d9nPO)

US DoD confirmed precision airstrikes against two facilities in Iraq. AC-130J gunship spotted flying on public aircraft tracking sites.

On Nov. 21, 2023, US Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed that it had carried out airstrikes over Iraq on the early morning of Monday. This followed from sightings of an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship flying around Baghdad on public aircraft tracking websites such as Flightradar24, ADSBExchange and RadarBox. Initial sightings of the AC-130J (s/n 18-5886) were witnessed online as the aircraft was seen with its transponder on during the duration of its mission.

Most of the times, military aircraft flying in the area around Syria and Iraq are not visible on flight tracking websites. Contrary to the belief of many, this doesn’t mean that they are flying with their transponder off, but rather they are using other transmission modes that are not picked up by flight tracking websites.

In fact, the latter show data received via Mode-S, ADS-B, TIS-B, ADS-C and MLAT but, to be able to do so, there must also be dedicated receivers for those signals in the area. So, if an aircraft is not visible on flight tracking websites, it either means there are no receivers in the area or the aircraft is not transmitting on those modes and using other transponder modes like Mode-3C which is picked up only by ATC radars.

The Ghostrider’s track in the night between Nov. 20 and 21, 2023, on Radarbox.com.

This is especially true for special operations aircraft, such as the AC-130J or the MC-130J. This time was a bit different as the AC-130J was openly transmitting its info on ADS-B and there were enough receivers in Iraq to pick up a good track. However, this doesn’t mean the aircraft was inadvertently broadcasting its position in real time, especially considering the recent OPSEC-related policies for US aircraft, as it could be a conscious action to transmit a “message” to show that the US won’t stay impassive as the number of attacks against its military installations mount up.

Thanks to the public flight track, the airstrike carried out was soon linked to the USAF AC-130J. Coincidentally a ground source had managed to capture footage of the attack on that night. While the image was unclear, the distinct sounds of the 30mm GAU-23/A cannon firing could be heard. The individual who shared the footage of the airstrike claimed to have taken the videos in Khan Dhari, located between Fallujah and Baghdad. The location matches the second set of orbits the gunship made just west of Fallujah.

According to US CENTCOM, the airstrike was carried out in response to recent missile attack on US and Coalition personnel at Al Assad Airbase, Iraq. Al Assad Airbase previously saw ballistic missile attacks launched from the terrorist group Islamic Resistance in Iraq (المقاومة الإسلامية في العراق, al-Moqawamat al-Islamiat fi al-Iraq). It has been reported that a total of eight personnel on base were injured in this strike. As a direct response to this, the AC-130J Ghostrider was employed against the insurgent group resulting in several casualties and at least three confirmed kills.

Flight track shows airstrikes over Al Fallujah, Ramadi, and Albaghdadi region west Iraq.

According to the flight track data online, it appears that there were roughly three positions the Ghostrider remained in orbit. As per standard operating procedures, the gunship flew at a low 11,000ft maintaining visual identification of the targets in an anticlockwise orbit. The AC-130J has a trainable 30mm GAU-23/A cannon and 105mm cannon as its main armament as well as hardpoints on its wings for eight GBU-39s or AGM-114 Hellfire missiles. Contrary to popular belief the upgraded J models do not have the 40mm Bofors gun anymore. With both guns mounted on the port side of the aircraft, the AC-130s are commonly seen orbiting a target in a tight left-hand turn.

The track of the AC-130J until 23.59Z on Nov. 20. (ADSBExchage)
AC-130J (s/n 18-5886) track from 00:00Z on Nov. 21 (the Nov. 20 part saw the aircraft orbiting near Al Asad airbase) seen on ADSBExchange.com.

As evident from the picture, the gunship made three distinct orbits around east Al Fallujah, Ramadi, and then Albaghdadi. The video shared online was taken from the ground was located to be in Khan Dhari, on the outskirts of east Al Fallujah, during the gunship’s first orbit of the night. As of now no official footage has been released by the DoD and sightings of the night attack seems to be a one off. With tensions in the middle east ever rising, one should keep an eye out for any more aircraft operations within the region.

Stefano D’Urso contributed to this post.

Wonwoo is a student journalist and contributor to The Aviationist based in London, United Kingdom. Currently studying MEng in Aeronautical Engineering with a keen interest in OSINT, plane spotting and aircraft design. He is a former Sergeant of the Republic of Korea Army, having served as an artillery Fire Direction Centre Vehicle Radio Operator.





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