Pocket Gunship: From AC-XX to the MC-27J Praetorian
In mid-2008 Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) made a $32 million budget reprogramming request in order to buy a C-27J light tactical transport plane and convert it into a small prototype AC-XX gunship, using “proven/known” weapons and systems.
That effort foundered for good when the USAF canceled the C-27J, but programs to turn existing USMC and AFSOC C-130s into light gunships had laid the technical foundations. Italy’s Alenia Aermacchi figured that a C-27J gunship might have a lot of appeal on the international market. Especially if the gunship kit could somehow co-exist with its role as a transport. In 2012, they unveiled exactly that, thanks to a collaboration with America’s ATK: the MC-27J Praetorian.
MC-27J: SpecOps Platform at a Regular Force Price
Aircraft and Weapons
The MC-27J’s conversion begins with external mounts for 2 surveillance and targeting turrets, and a ground-scanning radar. It can still be used in cargo and MEDEVAC roles, and the added sensors and defensive systems make it more suitable for special forces roles. It becomes a gunship or command aircraft by adding extra screens and controls to the cockpit, and adding Roll-On, Roll-Off palletized systems to the cargo bay. The RO-RO systems include accompanying displays for their sensors, a trainable GAU-23 30mm cannon, precision guided munitions, advanced communications, and a networked mission management and fire control system.
The GAU-23′s 200 rpm is more about precision shooting in short bursts than the “lead hose” capabilities of the AC-130H/U, or of older gunships like the AC-47. On the other hand, the ability to use precision attack weapons opens up other new possibilities for gunship support.
The MC-27J will receive weapons in 3 stages.
The prototype Italian Air Force conversion is expected to deploy to Afghanistan in 2014 with only its surveillance sensors on board. Phase 2 will install the 30mm cannon, and finalize the core systems based on that experience.
Phase 3 will add precision weapons, with Raytheon’s Griffin-B missile and MBDA’s Viper-E as confirmed weapons that will be fired from a ramp-mounted Common Launch Tube set. ATK’s own GPS/laser guided Hatchet precision mini-weapon is under evaluation, as an option for qualified export customers.
The Business Case
The MC-27J is positioned to compete against C-130 options by offering lower purchase and operating costs. Countries who can’t shell out over $100 million for an AC-130U/J Hercules, or even $70+ million for a KC-130J with a Harvest HAWK armed kit, might be willing to spend $40-50 million for a C-27J that can use shorter runways, plus a roll-on/ roll-off (RO-RO) weapons kit that offers dual-role transport or armed escort options. Compared to the C-130J, ATK touts:
“…a 50% lower acquisitioned Life Cycle cost while offering 70% commonality in training, logistics and spares. In operational terms it can perform 90% of routine C-130 theater missions. Its ruggedness is confirmed by mission availability rates in excess of 85% recorded in over three years of operational deployments in the austere and extreme Afghan environment.”
New aircraft are needed for this gunship role, as counter-insurgency becomes a larger preoccupation for many rulers and existing fleets wear out.
The proposed AFSOC AC-27J “Stinger II” acquisition came against the backdrop of an AC-130 fleet that’s quickly being flown to the limits of the fleet’s safe airframe flight hours. AFSOC AC-130s reportedly need 14 hours of maintenance for every hour in flight, and wing cracks have forced major center wing box replacement operations 5 years ahead of schedule. AFSOC had investigated a number of AC-130 alternatives [PDF], including smaller aircraft and even stealth designs. They chose an immediately available, affordable C-27J base that could let AFSOC try some new concepts, without foreclosing future options. Ultimately, however, this inexpensive effort foundered in favor of more expensive solutions based on the C-130.
AFSOC aren’t the only C-130 operators having this problem, however, which opens up a global market for replacement planes instead of C-130 “gunship lite” conversion efforts. Alenia has also noticed the continued popularity of aged Douglas C-47 “Puff the Magic Dragon” gunships, whose updated variants still serve in places like Colombia, Indonesia, et. al.
The MC-27J is their answer.
Contracts and Key Events
Dec 3/13: Colombia. The FAC operates Airbus light transports, but Alenia is offering them the MC-27J as a gunship replacement for their ancient AC-47T Fantasma (“Spooky”) gunships. AC-47s are based on a World War II vintage C-47 Skytrain airframe, and were used in Vietnam. They focus on high rates of fire from 12.7mm machine guns, and so the MC-27J’s 30mm GAU-23 Bushmaster cannon and possible precision weapons are a bit of an operational shift.
The Fantasmas have received a number of upgrades because they’re tremendously useful to Colombia, but they won’t last forever. Alenia is smart to offer, but they’ll have competition. The FAC already operates the smaller Airbus CN-235-200 transport, and Jordan is modifying that plane into a mini-gunship rival, with an ATK weapons suite that’s known to include rockets and Hellfire missiles. The “MC-235″ lacks the MC-27J’s heft and short-field performance, and its lighter and faster-firing M230 30mm chain gun has implications for accuracy and for required flight profiles. Sources: Defence Market Intelligence, “Colombia; FAC mulls MC-27J gunship acquisition”.
Nov 18/13: Italy. Italy becomes the MC-27J’s 1st customer, signing a contract during the Dubai 2013 air show to convert up to 6 of their 12 C-27Js to the MC-27J “Praetorian” configuration. The aircraft will be used to the Italian Comando Operativo Forze Speciali (COFS).
During Phase One, Alenia Aermacchi will develop and deliver the Praetorian prototype to the Italian Air Force by spring 2014, immediately followed by testing in an operational scenario. The configuration will involve changes to the mission systems and communications, and the roll-on/ roll-off palletized weapon and fire control systems.
Phase Two will encompass installation of the Praetorian configuration in 3 existing C-27Js by the end of 2016, preparation of another 3 C-27Js to be able to install the Praetorian systems if needed, and setup of full support capabilities. Sources: Alenia Aermacchi, Nov 18/13 release.
Italian order: 3 + 3
June 30/13: Testing. i-HLS reports that the planned MC-27J gunship will undertake the first test firings of its 30mm cannon while slaved to an electro-optical/infrared sensor at the end of 2013 or early 2014. Israeli sources also point to a possibility that the GATR guided rocket cooperation between Elbit systems and weapons integrator ATK may result in adding Israeli weapons systems on the MC-27J.
June 17/13: Phase 1 Testing. ATK and Alenia Aermacchi have made some progress, successfully completing Phase 1 with ground and flight tests of the GAU-23 Roll-On/Roll-Off 30mm Gun System pallet at Eglin AFB, FL. Interestingly, the test events were designed and certified by the USAF, and deemed successful by Air Force Special Operations Command.
July 9/12: MC-27J. So what if AFSOC didn’t bite? Alenia Aermacchi is going ahead anyway, creating a competition with EADS’ CN-235 gunship for countries that want a less expensive alternative to the C-130J. The MC-27J is a collaboration with ATK, who was involved in Jordan’s CN-235 gunship conversion.
The MC-27J is designed to be a flexible special missions aircraft that can perform surveillance, gunship, command and control, or transport roles. Its RO-RO palletized system integrates enhanced electro-optical/infrared targeting sensors, a trainable 30mm cannon, precision guided munitions, advanced communications, and a networked mission management and fire control system. ATK will integrate precision weapons onto the platform, and developed a roll-on/ roll-off (RO-RO) GAU-23 30mm gun pallet that can be installed or removed in 4 hours.
Alenia has reportedly claimed interest from Australia (who is buying C-27Js) and Britain, and hopes this will add pressure to reverse the cancellation of American C-27J orders. Alenia Aermacchi | ATK | DoD Buzz.
Jan 26/12: JCA to End. Preliminary FY 2013 budget materials discuss coming shifts in Pentagon priorities, as the US defense department moves to make future cuts. The USAF’s 38-plane C-27 fleet will now be eliminated entirely, and sold:
“The new strategic guidance emphasizes flexibility and adaptability. The C-27J was developed and procured to provide a niche capability to directly support Army urgent needs in difficult environments such as Afghanistan where we thought the C-130 might not be able to operate effectively. However, in practice, we did not experience the anticipated airfield constraints for C-130 operations in Afghanistan and expect these constraints to be marginal in future scenarios. Since we have ample inventory of C-130s and the current cost to own and operate them is lower, we no longer need – nor can we afford – a niche capability like the C-27J aircraft. The Air Force and the Army will establish joint doctrine relating to direct support.”
May 15/09: Plan B. Gannett’s Air Force times reports that Air Force Special Operations Command’s plan to buy 16 C-27Js under the Joint Cargo Aircraft program, for conversion to AC-27J Stinger II gunships, has fallen apart with the removal of Army C-27J funding in the FY 2010 budget.
In response, they’re investigating a “Plan B” that would add roll-on, roll-off kits to its MC-130W Combat Spear fleet. The MC-130W program began in 2006 to replace combat losses of the MC-130E/H Combat Talon, but it is based on the older C-130H, not the new “J” version of the Hercules.
May 13/09: MC-130W beats AC-27J. Aviation Week reports that the C-27J gunship project appears to be dead:
“…efforts to field a gunship variant of the C-27J, called the Stinger II, appear to have dropped off of the radar. During the official DOD rollout briefing, Adm. Steve Stanley, said the MC-130W will be the platform of choice for gunships. That doesn’t jibe with what AFSOC was pushing in earlier budgets, including the command’s desire last year for a C-27 platform on which to begin weapons testing.”
Meanwhile, SecDef Gates is proposing to cut C-27J buys in favor of C-130s, and take the plane from the Army. Early solicitations from the USAF suggest that they may be moving toward modular roll-on/roll-off solutions for their MC-130 fleet, similar to the US Marines’ “Harvest Hawk” program for their KC-130Js.
Sept 9/08: DoD Buzz reports that Lt. Gen. Donald Wurster, commander of Air Force Special Operations Command, reiterated his strong support for the C-27J “Stinger II” gunship at the US Air Force Association’s annual meeting. During his presentation, Wurster said AFSOC is looking to field about 16 of these aircraft.
July 25/08: Aviation Week reports that AFSOC is looking to reprogram $32 million of its budget to field an AC-27J prototype.
Past proposals to arm AC-130s with precision weapons like GBU-44 Viper Strikes, Hellfire missiles, etc. have always stumbled against the issue of integrating them into an old airframe. Integration into a new-build aircraft may offer a tempting opportunity to give the new gunships new capabilities, at an affordable price. This is the “Stinger II” prototype’s other benefit: its ability to serve as a systems integration platform to help define the current state of the art, without sidelining even more of the in-demand AC-130 fleet for long refit periods. All of which may help to explain why AFSOC, who fields the $100+ million AC-130H/U gunships based on the larger C-130 Hercules tactical transport, still wants $11.5 million to execute an AC-XX feasibility study and engineering analyses. Overall:
“This prototype will serve as a risk mitigation effort to field a new platform to operate in austere locations, with increased operational flexibility and a smaller support tail of manpower and logistics.”
Based on known airframe and conversion costs for the C-27J and other platforms, further funding for the AC-XX effort will almost certainly be required in FY 2010. See also Air Force Association Magazine.
Background: C-27J and Ancillary Equipment
Note that other than the 30mm cannon, no specific weapons have been confirmed for the MC-27J.
- ATK – MC-27J Multi-Mission Aircraft. ATK adds all of the additional equipment that makes it a gunship.
- DID Spotlight – Joint Cargo Aircraft: We Have a Winner(?) The JCA program chose the C-27J, bringing that type into American service. With the contract’s cancellation, SOCOM has already picked up 7 “free” base airframes for training, with a possibility of more.
- ATK – GAU-23 Bushmaster Automatic Cannon. Bushmaster II, actually.
- Defense Tech – VIdeo: ATK’s Hatchet [sic]. The laser/GPS seeker is made by Elbit Systems, and the warhead is the equivalent of a 60mm mortar.
- DID – Raytheon’s Griffin Mini-Missiles
- DID Spotlight – GBU-44 Viper Strike: Death From Above.
Background: Other Gunships
- DID – The Right to Bear Arms: Gunship Kits for America’s C-130s. These kits create secondary gunships that can also provide transport, including SOCOM’s MC-130W Dragon Spear and AC-130J; and the USMC’s KC-130J Harvest Hawk.
- DID – A Spookier Spooky, 30mm at a Time. The experiment sought to install 30mm Bushmaster chain guns in the existing AC-130 fleet, replacing older 25mm and 40mm guns and providing wide commonality with land and naval forces. The 4 aircraft were rolled back to their original weapon set, however, after the Bushmasters displayed accuracy issues when mounted in an aerial gunship.
- DID – Keeping the C-130s Flying: Center Wing Box Replacements. SOCOM has been putting its planes through the program.
- DID – Jordan’s Pocket Gunships: Converted CN-235s. They’re smaller than the MC-27J, but ATK is also handling that weapon conversion, which involves a very similar set of weapons: M230 30mm cannon, AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, and 70mm rockets.
- Colombian FAC – AC-47T Skytrain. Actually called Fantasma.