In February 2011, with unrest engulfing the Middle East, ATK announced a project with Jordan to turn 2 Jordanian CN-235 light transport aircraft into small aerial gunships. In June 2014, they were so pleased by the results that they decided to convert one of their larger C295s.
The aircraft pack electro-optical targeting systems that include a laser designator, aircraft self-protection equipment, and a weapons suite of Hellfire laser-guided missiles, laser-guided APKWS-II 70mm/2.75 inch rockets, and the same M230 link-fed 30mm chain gun that equips AH-64 Apache helicopters. The weapons are all controlled by ATK’s STAR mission system, turning the Airbus light transports into lethal but relatively inexpensive counter-insurgency platforms…
The Gunship Opportunity
Aerial gunships are extremely useful in a number of military scenarios, but most involve internal security, counter-insurgency, and special forces work. Their slow speed and regular flight patterns while firing can make them very vulnerable to air defenses, which sharply limits their usefulness in full scale warfare. On the other hand, they can be devastating against insurgents with few to no air defense systems.
US Special Operations Command AC-130H Spectre and AC-130U Spooky gunships are the best known examples of this type, and offer withering firepower. At over $100 million apiece, however, their price tag is a bit steep for most countries. It was even a bit steep for US SOCOM, who needed a cheaper option. Interest in using the C-27J Spartan light tactical transport was stymied, but Italy stepped in to help Alenia create the MC-27J Praetorian as a lower-priced option for the global market.
Meanwhile, ATK and Airbus are looking to leverage the wide global reach of Airbus’ popular CN-235 family. Jordan gave them that opportunity, and they hope that the industrial partnership opens up a strong niche for them, too. Especially in their own region. ATK:
“Modifications included the installation of an electro-optical targeting system, a laser designator, aircraft self-protection equipment, a synthetic aperture radar and an armaments capability that provides sustained and precise firepower in a variety of scenarios using Hellfire laser-guided missiles, 2.75-inch rockets, and a side-mounted M230 link-fed 30mm chain gun. The ATK-supplied gun is controlled by the fire-control system, automatically linking the gun’s aim point to the selected target of interest, as illuminated by the mission operators using the laser designator. These capabilities are integrated with and controlled by ATK’s Mission System that provides both day and night reconnaissance and fire control capabilities, and the ability to acquire, monitor and track items of interest.”
A comparison of the AC-235 vs. the MC-27J follows:
In addition to competition from the MC-27J, they’ll also have to compete against roll-on weapon kits are being developed for C-130 Hercules aircraft, notably the KC-130J Harvest Hawk, and US SOCOM’s MC-130W Combat Spear (C-130H conversion) and AC-130J Ghostrider. A number of countries around the world operate C-130s, which could make roll-on arms kits very attractive on the global market.
Contracts & Key Events
Sept 15/14: Weapons. Hellfire Systems LLC, Orlando, FL, was awarded a $68.7 million to firm-fixed-price, foreign military sales contract modification to acquire 1,361 Hellfire II tactical missiles in containers and air-to ground missiles: model AGM-114R, AGM-114R-3, AGM-114P-4A, TGM M36E7, and ATM-114Q-6.
The countries involved in this foreign military sales contract are Iraq, Jordan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. All of these countries are AH-64 Apache attack helicopter customers or prospective customers, except Iraq (AC-208B aircraft), and Jordan (AC-235 aircraft). DID looked into these designations.
* The AGM-114P is generally used on UAVs like the Predator, where its 360 degree firing capability and tolerance of high altitude temperatures are welcome. These traits also make it suitable for fixed-wing aircraft.
* There is no AGM-114R-3 – but there is an AGM-114R2 with a Height Of Burst sensor, which helps improve the base AGM-114R’s tri-mode anti-armor/ timed anti-structure/ fragmentation warhead.
* The AGM-114Q model is a training round, with an inert mass that’s the same weight as the warhead. It’s used for live-fire training, where it creates less mess.
* The TGM M36E7 corresponds to what the USAF would call a “CATM” – a training missile with the seeker head, but no rocket or warhead.
Estimated completion date is Nov 30/16. Work will be performed in Orlando, FL. US Army Contracting Command in Redstone Arsenal, AL manages the contract on behalf of its FMS clients (W31P4Q-11-C-0242, PO 0104).
July 17/14: AC-295 finalized. ATK and the King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau (KADDB) have defined the baseline configuration for Jordan’s AC-295 light gunship conversion. They’re working quickly, but they’re working from a known baseline in a similar aircraft. Also, you’d work quickly, too, with your eastern neighbor collapsing and ISIS’ “Islamic State” on your doorstep.
KAADB Chairman Major-General Atef Tell (Ret.) says that they’ll extend their AC-235 work by adding new weapons and mission systems onto the larger AC-295 platform, in order to provide “additional capabilities, more firepower and flexibility for the defense of the Kingdom.” ATK adds that these new systems will also be configured to work on the smaller AC-235, as new options or retrofits.
That should give them an interesting platform to sell on the global market; as a point of comparison, their rival MC-27J just finished tests with a 30mm gun, and hasn’t tested precision weapons yet. Sources: ATK, “ATK and King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau Define Baseline for AC-295 Gunship”.
June 17/14: +1 C295. King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau (KADDB), ATK, and Airbus Defence and Space have signed an agreement to cooperatively work together on a C295 gunship version. ATK will convert 1 of Jordan’s 2 serving C295s, using the same weapon and sensor suite as the AC-235s.
With the Middle East descending into chaos amidst American inaction, Jordan’s additional gunship order is just a sign of the times. Adding a C295 alongside the smaller CN-235s has the side effect of widening the market potential for their Airbus gunship offerings. Sources: Arabian Aerospace, “Jordan signs for C295 gunship partnership”.
May 7/14: Weapons. Jordan has formally signed a Letter of Offer and Acceptance via the US Navy for BAE’s APKWS-II laser-guided 70mm rocket, which will be deployed on the kingdom’s AC-235 light gunships. This marks the guided rocket’s 1st export sale.
APKWS rockets give the gunships an intermediate option between the 30mm gun, and heavier AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missiles. A 70mm rocket is perfectly adequate for most counter-insurgency situations, is less expensive than a Hellfire, and can be carried in a pod that holds 7 guided rockets on the hardpoint instead of 2 Hellfires. Sources: BAE, “Kingdom of Jordan to Purchase BAE Systems’ Precision Rockets to Strengthen Military”.
May 1/14: Delivery. ATK and KADDB (King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau) deliver the first modified CASA-235 light gunship to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, albeit a year beyond the original date of Spring 2013. The aircraft will be featured from May 6-8th, during the 10th edition of Jordan’s SOFEX Special Operations Conference and Exhibition.
Meanwhile, their MC-27J rival from Alenia has only been qualified with its sensor fit-out, and won’t carry precision weapons until Phase 3. Sources: ATK, “ATK Delivers Fully Outfitted Light Gunship to Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan”.
Dec 4/13: Testing. ATK has completed the first flight test for the Kingdom of Jordan’s CASA-235 light gunship aircraft, to validate the installed weapons and gun system. No delivery date is given, but the beginning of flight tests is a good sign for the program, and for the market availability of an AC-235 offering. Sources: ATK, “ATK Completes First Flight Test of its Light Gunship for Kingdom of Jordan”.
Feb 19/11: ATK announces the co-development agreement with Jordan’s King Abdullah II Design and Development Bureau (KADDB). ATK’s scope of work includes development, systems integration, aircraft modification, and testing. Work will be performed in Jordan, and at ATK facilities in Fort Worth, TX, Mesa, AZ and Pelham, AL. Subject to U.S. government export licensing approval, the modified aircraft are expected to be delivered by the late spring of 2013.
The various “order of battle” databases don’t list any existing Jordanian CN-235s yet. 3 squadron flies a pair of larger EADS-CASA C-295Ms out of King Abdullah AB in Amman, and the same base reportedly holds Prince Hashim Bin Abdullah II Aviation Brigade’s 31 squadron and its AN-32B special operations aircraft, but CN-235s are not listed. A pair of CN-235s were reportedly rented for a while from Turkey, and a set of 2006 reports discussed the kingdom’s reported interest in buying 2 from co-developer Dirgantara in Indonesia, but the fate of that deal was never announced. If a quiet deal hasn’t already been done, Jordan’s challenge would be to arrange a fast enough delivery to maintain the conversion project’s spring 2013 schedule.
The joint release acknowledges that KADDB has never done an aircraft modification, but they hope to create a project with sales appeal throughout the region. ATK’s Special Mission Aircraft product portfolio has included a variety of surveillance platforms, but the gunship is a step beyond for them, too. ATK Missile Products Group President Mike Kahn says the firm sees opportunities in Asia and Latin America for similar capabilities, and has had some initial discussions, but the contract with Jordan will be the stepping stone:
“This is really the first step. Countries without a big budget but with a need for some light attack capability on either their existing aircraft, or to modify aircraft that they are buying, will have the option with our package. It is a cost-competitive option as we can work with a wide variety of aircraft.”
* Airbus Military – CN235
* ATK – Light Gunship
* ATK – LW30mm M230 Automatic Cannon. Also used on the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. Different from the GAU-23 Bushmaster II cannon used on C-130J/W gunship ro-ro kits; it’s lighter, with a higher rate of fire. The usual price for that combination is range and accuracy.
* DID – US Hellfire Missile Orders, FY 2011-2014. Also details all of the available variants.
* DID – Pocket Gunship: From AC-XX to the MC-27J Praetorian. It’s larger light tactical transport aircraft than the CN235, and the ro-ro kit and sensor integration is also by ATK. The AC-235’s likely competitor.