Pocket Gunship: From AC-XX to the MC-27JJul 12, 2012 15:00 UTC by Defense Industry Daily staff
In July 2008, an Aviation Week report noted a $32 million budget reprogramming request from Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), 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. Their AC-130 gunships were wearing out, and AFSOC had investigated a number of alternatives [PDF], including smaller aircraft and even stealth designs. The AC-XX option chose an immediate, affordable stopgap that could let AFSOC try some new concepts, without foreclosing future options.
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.
MC-27J: SpecOps Stinger Platform at a Sale Price
The proposed AFSOC AC-27J “Stinger II” acquisition came against the backdrop of an AC-130 fleet that is quickly being flown to the limits of the fleet’s airframe flight hours. At present, the AC-130s reportedly need 14 hours of maintenance for every hour in flight, while wing cracks are prompting major center wing box replacement operations 5 years ahead of schedule.
AFSOC aren’t the only C-130 operators having this problem, 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. 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) kit that lets the planes be used in transport roles.
The MC-27J’s RO-RO palletized system includes enhanced electro-optical/infrared targeting sensors, a trainable GAU-23 30mm cannon, precision guided munitions, advanced communications, and a networked mission management and fire control system.The GAU-23 is more about precision shooting in short bursts than the “lead hose” capabilities of the AC-130H/U, but the ability to use precision attack weapons like MBDA’s GBU-44 Viper Strike, laser guided 70-mm rockets, etc. opens up other new possibilities for gunship support.
The MC-27J is positioned to compete against C-130 options by offering lower purchase and operating costs, and against its EADS CN-235 counterpart by offering the ability to transport small helicopters and tactical vehicles for special forces use.
Contracts and Key Events
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.
- 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 could wind up with 21 “free” base airframes.
- DID – The Right to Bear Arms: Gunship Kits for America’s C-130s. SOCOM’s MC-130W is one of them.
- 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 concerted 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
- DID Spotlight – GBU-44 Viper Strike: Death From Above.
- DID (Aug 11/05) – Viper Strike for AC-130s? There have been a number of demonstration contracts, but nothing fielded yet.