ATK’s Light Gunship Package

A few years ago I helped break the story that Air Force Special Operations Command wanted to turn twin-engine, C-27J cargo planes into a “gunship lite” to bolster the command’s fleet of aging AC-130 gunships. AFSOC was all about the idea for a while until budgeteers nixed the gunship lite proposal in FY 2010 and the command opted to recapitalize its AC-130 fleet with new C-130Js.

Imagine my surprise last week when I came across a “light gunship” display at ATK’s booth at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference here in Washington. The aircraft appears to be a CASA CN-295 — instead of a C-27J — and it’s shown bristling with missiles, rockets and a 30mm cannon.

While no one from ATK was available to tell me more about the airplane, a marketing sheet I took from the display describes the plane as a “robust day/night ISR solution now available with precision strike/close air support capabilities.” From the brochure, I deduced that ATK is marketing this as an equipment package that can turn any medium-size transport into a gunship — the CN-295 is simply being used to show off the concept.

According to the fact sheet, the proposed gunship would be equipped with:

  • an electro-optical/infrared sensors and a laser target designator
  • fuselage-mounted weapons pylons capable of carrying both AGM-114M/K Hellfire missiles and 70mm rockets
  • a side firing M230LF 30mm cannon
  • a sythetic aperture radar
  • countermeasures
  • cockpit and passenger armor
  • datalinks that can transmit full motion video taken by the plane’s sensors
  • beyond line of sight communications gear

It may be that ATK smells a global opportunity to provide light gunships to air forces around the globe who can’t afford to buy dedicated aircraft for the mission.  Remember, while AFSOC didn’t move ahead with the AC-27J concept, AFSOC and the Marine Corps have both installed roll-on light gunship kits on some of their MC-130W and KC-130 tankers/cargo haulers. These modified tankers — called Dragon Spears and Harvest Hawks, respectively — have proven to be very useful.

Here’s a model of the light gunship that was on display at ATK’s booth below the giant picture shown above:

  • blight_

    Hmm, a mix of forward and side-firing weapons, though mostly forward attack.

    Anti-radiation missiles to engage enemy air defense, or air-to-air in case of helicopters might not be a bad idea…

    • Logan Hartke

      If they’re in an environment where they need ARMs, they’re screwed already. A disco-ball (or DIRCM) and maybe some flares would be all you’d bother with in real life. Any more and you’re trying to turn a converted trash-hauler into a Wild Weasel. Good luck, but I won’t be booking a ticket on the flight!

      As for air-to-air, same deal. Even Stingers would be a waste of a hard-point. A Hellfire is perfectly capable of knocking out a helicopter in a pinch and anything more than that would have you for lunch.

      Those suggestions just seem to be more drag on an airframe that would have enough unintended drag as it is, what with the aftermarket Hellfire packs and FLIR ball. It’s a good concept, but all that’s needed is someone like you trying to make it into a Strike Eagle and you’d destroy the program budget and get it deep-sixed…like the AC-27J.

  • Josh

    A few Of these hovering around my head in Afghanistan for a few hours would be nice. Screw UAV’s I’ll take missle pods and a 30mm any day!

    • Thunder350

      Those UAV’s can give you eyes on, for a MUCH longer time then any manned craft out there now. (Plus there cheaper too).

      • William C.

        I don’t know what the endurance of this AC-27J is like, but the AC-130 is certainly an exception to that rule.

        • PMI

          Even 130’s 4+ hour loiter time can’t really touch that of some of the Predator/Reaper.

          • William C.

            In-flight refueling however can make a big difference.

          • blight

            Different niches. A Predator has great loiter and the Hellfires appropriate for point targets. Car? Check. House? Check.

            But if you need to suppress a large enemy force rolling into an outpost a la Lang Vei or Wanat, the Predator may have great loiter time, but what’s four Hellfires against a large mass of attackers on the ground?

            Eventually, the UAVs will get bigger to deal with this.

      • PMI

        They also provide decreased situational awareness, fewer weapon stores & a much higher tendency to crash.

  • Jeff M

    What’s that new missile that’s a 1/4th the size of a hellfire? I’m thinking they need a kit that’s less than 300 lbs that includes a camera pod, line-of-sight video link, and a handful of these mini-hellfires. Griffin? Spike missile?

    For those emergencies when a cargo plane is all you’ve got.

  • Riceball

    I wonder if something like this, with a few mods, could be used on Ospreys to make an AV-22? Granted that with the gynormous props all of the hardpoints would probably have to be attached to the belly but it would be interesting to see if it could be done.

    • joe

      I seem to remember some discussions around a belly gun concept for the osprey.

      The marines haven’t really been a fan, though.

      The weapon is removeable, and some sort of triple fit of these plus an arse-rack of light missiles (Griffins? like the harvest hawk) would allow you to ‘gunship’ the osprey. Might not be a bad answer to the ‘what do you use for escorts’ debate.

    • Guest A

      Maybe if they were to push fwd with the V-44 concept, but even then it would be a huge stretch….

  • Leonidas

    An awesome idea – so good their is no way the AF would ever do it…

  • Paralus

    But, didn’t CNAS just declare Counterinsurgency is dead? ;)

    The odds of this seeing the light of day is nil. Institutional resistance and a growing apathy of Congress towards Afghanistan will see to that.

  • ref

    Can we say the potential leading customer is Brazil?

    Would be a great complement to the armed Super Tucanos.

    • joe

      As noted, the leading customer at the moment is Jordan. Everyone loves gunships.

  • Dfens

    Hard to believe anyone would want to compete with Lockheed after the bang up job they did on their gunless gunship (with helicopter missiles — it’s not that it doesn’t have any teeth at all).

    • joe

      On a C-130, probably not. But this is a conversion pack for a different, lighter aircraft, which is more likely to be tempting for air forces who don’t operate the herky bird.

      • Dfens

        From what I understand, the request for quote for the new AC-130J’s just has Lockheed bolting pallets to the floor of the aircraft. The Marines have lost all confidence in them when it comes to building either the targeting stations or mounting the gun (a feat they could not accomplish the last time around). Hell, for that matter, they could be bolting ATK pallets to the floor.

  • bbmg

    Surely something like the 20mm M197 package tried with the OV-10 NOGS in Vietnam could be slung under a UAV?

    It would certainly be a much more economical option for taking out individuals and soft targets than missiles.

    As to operating on a budget, worth noting that the venerable AC-47 is still soldiering on in Columbia, albeit with Basler airframe and powerplant upgrades:

  • Shail

    I must’ve missed it:
    why would ATK even waste time displaying this at AUSA, when the Army opted out of the JCA program?
    Granted, the C-23 Sherpas need replaced,
    and of the JCA offerings, the Army actually preferred the C-295 for its longest floor space than the other contenders (Air Force kept pushing the commonality of the C-27J with the C-130J, and that the Spartan could haul wide Humvees internally, something the Army was never seeking to begin with.
    Then the USAF had to come along crying all KeyWest BS and stuff, basically fenangled the Army out, then cut the numbers down so low that the available aircraft won’t anywhere near be available to the Army to replace Sherpa duties on the Army’s schedule (when the Army needs it done).

  • Shail

    The USAF doesn’t like flying into “austere” and actually having to land, not on a routine basis. We’ve all seen those C-17 airdrops from A-stan where stuff is scattered over a somewhat-controlled large area.
    A Sherpa could actually land in many of those places, that’s what the original Shorts 330 airframe was built capable of: STOL from dirt.
    And that’s what the Army eventually wants. Not a gunship lite.
    They actually have very useful gunships already, called Apaches.
    Soon to be joioned by Gray Eagles (Predator drones wearing US Army decals).

    • chaos0xomega

      Yes, because Apache’s proved to be so effective during Karbala in 2003…

      And C-17s DO in fact land in austere environments, I have pictures to prove it, in fact, one of those pictures happens to be my desktop background. I don’t know if you’ve realized this or not, but its actually not possible to land an airplane on the side of a mountain. Shocking I know, but who would’ve thought that our pilots would have difficulty landing on a steep slope…

      As for the AF vs. Army thing, I think you’ll find that army leadership is trying to save money by cutting down on its own air assets without pressure from the Air Force. They voluntarily removed themselves from the V-22 program, remember? There was even a news item about a week ago that the Army wanted to give up some of its RC-12 Guardrail aircraft to the Air Force, citing that the AF was in a better position to support that mission than the Army was, and how the Army couldn’t afford to be doing things better left to others in a time of budget austerity. The same story also cited the similar approach taken w/ transferring the Joint High Speed Vessel projecting to the Navy. Don’t come in all pouty because Army Aviation is a shadow of its former glory, its not the Air Force’s fault.

      • Shail

        Gee, talk about strawmen…

        Again, how many missions in two theaters have Apaches flown, and how many have been lost (seriously, show me the ratio of in-theater operational hours versus combat losses) ?
        By your token, we might as well abandon UH-60s since some got lost in Mog’shu, and rid ourselves of all those IED-prone ground warfare vehicles.

        As to Army aviation: where do you get your “evidence” that suggests cut backs?
        I see an upgrading of the Chinook fleet (F/G), new enhancements to the Apache fleet (all D-model and incorporating live UAV feeds), the fielding of the Lakota helicopter and Gray Eagle drones, more smaller UAV types than I can count and name, and the Army still recognizes it needs a Sherpa and Kiowa replacement, let alone a few future rotorcraft programs that info surfaces about from time to time.
        How exactly again is Army leadership trying to cut down aviation?

        • chaos0xomega
          • Shail

            Been there, saw that.
            Do they even teach interpretive reading in high school anymore?
            I looked at all that, and didn’t see a single mention where you are trying to point to where Army leadership wants to cut aviation.
            As a matter of fact:
            “…the Army’s aviation leaders said they’re considering buying an interim helicopter to fill in for the OH-58 Kiowa Warrior…”

            Seems like they’re hoping to build it up more, not cut it back (Kiowas reaching the end of their usable life are needing replaced just like they want with the Sherpas…)

            Nope, no direct mention of any Army aviation drawdowns, nothing other than seeking new replacements for old.

  • jamesb

    Along with everyone else here I think the story is BS…..

    Even if the Army said they wanted the a/c….
    As someone pointed out ….
    The Air Force would steal it from them then bury it….
    Just like the C-27J….
    The Army has enough on it hands trying to keep what air assets it has from the Air Force pick pocketing them….

  • jamesb

    We’ve ALL become jaded on the Army vs The Air Force in the fixed wing area….

  • Lance

    It wouldn’t match a AC-130J but a return of a Puff the Magic Dragon style gunship would work well in Afghanistan.

  • Byron Skinner

    Good Evening Folks,

    What’s missing of course are the costs. The concept is good its proof being Vietnam and “Puff”. Ground troops (Army and Marine) are in need of close air that can loiter around for awhile and the get in close and personal with in 200 meters of blue forces. The C-27J appears to be an ideal platform for such a weapons system.

    We know that the ac130J in 2008 dollars was $190 million a copy, with about $98 million being for the c130J. The last quotes price for the C27J was in 2009 euros and the conversion brought it out to about $30 million for the airframe.

    No one is doubting the utility of the ac130J, it has and every night proves itself in combat in Afghanistan and tother war theaters but as with everything else its the cost. The USAir Force only plans on buying about 10-20 ac130J’J and they will all be under the operational control of the USSpecial Operation Command. This leaves noting at call unless released from Spec. Ops for the conventional forces.

    The problem here seems to be that such an aircraft doesn’t fit into the image of the USAir Force. Like the A-10 in the 1970’s the Air Force simple didn’t want a much needed aircraft and thus all ended up on Air National Guard units where training until the 1991 Gulf war was sparse to say the least.

    The USAir Force would rather have the f-22’s and f-35’s and train endlessly for a mission, the air superiority/dominace of the battle field, that has largely fallen to the budget ax in every country but the United States and has becomes the US’s by default. This is not a sexy aircraft and it doesn’t have a sexy mission, USAir Force is not interested, period.

    Byron Skinner

    • chaos0xomega

      Which is why the Air Force is looking to acquire 16 new gunships to replace the 8 that it intends to retire, not to mention investing millions of dollars to upgrade the existing fleet with new weaponry and capabilities? Sounds like the AF is interested in expanding its capabilities there to me. Just because they aren’t laying out billions or trillions of dollars to buy 180+ of them doesn’t mean they aren’t interested.

      • chaos0xomega

        Also worth noting that the decision was made to acquire 16 AC-130J aircraft in place of 16 AC-27Js…

        • blight

          Considering the Spartan is here to stay as part of JCA, going the AC-130 or AC-27 route is probably based on development and payload considerations. What’s the benefit of going with the smaller Spartans as gunships versus the larger aircraft?

  • dirtEdan

    Forget it Go Big or Go Home! Convert existing C-17’s to Mega Gunships! It will haul more ordinance, ammo and guns PLUS loiter longer than any propeller AC. Also C-17’s can carry directed energy weapons once those are fielded.

    • blight

      Why? Some sort of flying ship-of-the-line that can present immense broadside weight at enemy targets? Missiles that don’t have to be pointed broadside at a target don’t require a C-17 sized aircraft, and when it comes to guns, what’s the utility of having so many 120mm static mounts pointed out one end at a target? Not like our enemies of the future will be clustered together tightly enough to leverage multiple cannon. C-130’s are still just about the right size for the gunship mission.

    • Goldmember

      A death star…

    • mongomike

      C5 Galaxy… That. We need that, with guns on both sides. Is it practical? No. Do we NEED it? YES.

  • Bring back the Army’s 1st Aviation Brigade and give them a squadron of these Tac Air Fixed Wing platforms.

  • snowwolf

    screw it.. just use some old American Aircraft that you are wanting to get rid of already.. I want to see an AC-5 concept. Go big or go home

  • flyontime