The U.S. military has released a video of an AC-130J Ghostrider gunship firing its 30mm cannon during recent live-fire training over the Caribbean Sea. U.S. officials say this was unrelated to a still-nebulous air exercise American forces carried out with their counterparts in Guyana that occurred on the same day. Still, it is an unusually public demonstration of American capabilities in the region that comes amid an especially serious flare-up of a long-standing territorial dispute between Guyana and Venezuela.
U.S. Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) posted the video of the AC-130J's Caribbean live-fire training, which was shot from another unknown aircraft using an infrared full-motion video camera, late yesterday. The training flight took place on December 7. In addition to the 30mm cannon, each Ghostrider is also armed with a 105mm howitzer and can also employ an increasingly wide array of precision-guided missiles and bombs.
Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) released additional images yesterday from the same training event, which also saw U.S. special operations forces conduct free-fall parachute jumps from an MC-130J Commando II special operations tanker/transport. At least one Air Force KC-135 aerial refueling tanker supported the AC-130J and MC-130J flights over the Caribbean.
SOCSOUTH, which oversees U.S. special operations activities across the Caribbean region and Latin America (with the exception of Mexico), put out brief statements about the training flights last week, but focused on the free-fall jumps. No mention was made about the AC-130J taking part until yesterday.
AC-130 flights in Latin America, even just training, have been uncommon in recent years, in general. SOCSOUTH said a Ghostrider flight off the coast of Panama in May was the first flight of an AC-130 gunship of any kind to that particular part of the world in more than a decade. Another AC-130J took part in an exercise in Chile in July.
"Yesterday, U.S. SOF [special operations forces] carried out a joint training evolution in the Southern Caribbean which included elements from the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard," one post on December 8 on SOCSOUTH's official account on X, formerly Twitter, read. "The event not only honed readiness and interoperability skills but also demonstrated capability and security for the region."
The War Zone has reached out to SOCSOUTH for more information about the training in the Caribbean last week.
U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the top U.S. military command in the region, separately told The War Zone today that SOCSOUTH's training flights on December 7 were unrelated to an air exercise that was conducted together with Guyana's armed forces that same day. That training event was first disclosed by the U.S. Embassy in Guyana and little additional information has subsequently been released. It remains unknown where exactly that exercise took place, what aircraft were involved, and what the core objectives were. You can read more about what is known in our past reporting here.
Publicly available air traffic control communications recordings indicate that an Air Force RC-135V/W Rivet Joint electronic surveillance plane may have been in the southern end of the Caribbean on December 8, as well. There is no indication one way or the other that this flight was related to the SOCSOUTH training flights or the exercise in Guyana. Rivet Joint operations in the region are hardly unheard of and there has already been increased focus on Venezuela in recent years stemming from a political crisis in that country in 2019, as The War Zone has explored in the past. That being said, using RC-135V/Ws specifically to help monitor the current Guyana-Venezulea crisis would make good sense.
Whatever the case, it is notable to see the highlighting of U.S. special operations aviation capabilities in the Caribbean in the context of current events. In the event of the need to help U.S. nations evacuate from a hotspot, or otherwise respond to a crisis on short notice, AC-130Js and MC-130Js are high on the list of go-to-assets. For instance, MC-130s can insert special operators, including via free-fall jumps, to help open up airfields and other landing zones while AC-130s provide overwatch. MC-130s can assist in extracting personnel, as well.
SOCSOUTH, and the rest of the U.S. military, does, of course, have other operational responsibilities in the Caribbean. This includes supporting U.S. government counter-narcotics efforts, as well as those conducted by allies and partners in the region, including Guyana.
How the ongoing crisis between Guyana and Venezuela may otherwise evolve now remains to be seen. The dispute over Essequibo, a resource-rich region that makes up some two-thirds of Guyana, traces its roots back to the 19th century, but erupted in a whole new way earlier this month, as you can read about more in a previous War Zone explainer.
Following a referendum in Venezuela last week, officials in that country threatened to annex Essequibo. The have been reports of Venezuelan forces massing on the border and Guyana has put its more limited military on alert. Brazil has also moved some of its forces into the eastern end of the country, which borders Guyana, in response to the crisis.
Over the weekend, authorities in Guyana agreed to bilateral talks with Venezuela to resolve the crisis. Brazil, in particular, reportedly pressured the Guyanese government to enter the negotiations to avert a full-blown conflict. However, Guyana President Irfaan Ali has made clear that his country has no intention of ceding territory to Venezuela.
“I have made it very clear that on the issue of the border controversy, Guyana’s position is non-negotiable,” Ali said in a national broadcast this past weekend, according to the AP. "We expect that good sense will prevail and the commitment to peace, stability, the threat of disruption will cease."
For its part, the regime of Venezulea's dictatorial president Nicolas Maduro said it had agreed to talks in order "to maintain Latin America and the Caribbean as a zone of peace, without interference from external actors." Guyana's President Ali said last week that he had reached out to the United States, and the U.S. military directly, about possible support in the event of a conflict over Essequibo.
Until a resolution to the current crisis between Guyana and Venezuela reaches a conclusion, even ostensibly routine U.S. military activities in the Caribbean, such as the unusually publicized AC-130 live-fire training, are likely to draw heightened interest.
Howard Altman contributed to this story.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org