ATK’s AC-208 Combat Caravan Gunship

No, it’s not brand new but it’s still cool. This little model on display at ATK’s booth during the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in DC a couple of years ago represents the company’s AC-208 Combat Caravan. Now, air force’s around the world use the already use the Cessna Caravan for light cargo and ISR duties. Two years ago, ATK began turning the Iraqi air force’s caravans into very light gunships (well, missile ships to be specific) by arming them with Hellfire missiles, electro-optical/IR sensors, laser target designators, datalinks and countermeasures. This turned the little cargo planes into cheap counter-insurgency (COIN) aircraft.

As you all know, the U.S. military has been trying to field (high performance) prop-driven COIN planes, for years. While this plane would likely be based on a trainer aircraft, it would receive significant upgrades — making it almost purpose built for the role. Congress keeps fighting the idea, saying the military needs to justify the expense of such aircraft.

Adding weapons to the Air Force’s MC-12 Liberty ISR birds could be a fast and cheap way around this. The planes are already in service downrange with trained pilots who are used to working closely with ground troops — adding weapons wouldn’t be a huge stretch. (Heck, Hawker Beechcraft has already modified the MC-12’s wings to accept weapons). Critics of the COIN plane idea claim that even the relatively quick and nimble AT-6 and Super Tucano already being considered may be too vulnerable to ground fire. You can imagine what they’d say about a modified cargo plane performing this role.

Check out the specs on ATK’s Combat Caravan, after the jump:

Armed Caravan – AC-208 Combat Caravan

  • Musson1

    It sounds like a piloted UAV!

    • blight

      I guess a Reaper carries more Hellfires. Put some some fiftys in wingtip gunpods or with synchros and fire through the propellor…it could be the ’40s and ’50s again. Aren’t they concerned that these type of aircraft are vulnerable to MANPADS, just as the Hinds were?

      • Thomas L. Nielsen

        “Aren’t they concerned that these type of aircraft are vulnerable to MANPADS, just as the Hinds were?”

        Probably, but any aircraft flying CAS will, to some extent, be vulnerable to MANPADS – they come with the territory, like mosquitoes. And yes, the A-10 could probably absorb a hit in most places from almost any MANPADS. Once! What happens when the next one comes along?

        I like the idea of a low-cost CAS platform, manned for preference, and I would actually prefer something like the AC-208 over the AT-6 and Super Tucano, since our CAS platform can then moonlight as a light cargo carrier or liaison bird. But it needs a gun, of course (on the principle that all military aircraft do).

        Back in the day there was something called an “Army Cooperation Aircraft”. Time to resurrect that idea?

        Regards & all,

        Thomas L. Nielsen

        • blight

          The titanium bathtub works against AA rounds (like this 14.5mm or 23mm). Armoring a light aircraft to be that survivable wouldn’t work out well.

          The caveat of a machine like this is that it would probably be vulnerable to small arms. Not sure how it could be properly armored. At night they would be hell in the air for sure.

          • SomeFighterJock

            You can armor it to an extent…and the OV-10 is a much superior COIN aircraft if light cargo is a requirement.

          • Thomas L. Nielsen

            FWIW, if you’d like to see the OV-10 brought back instead of (or as a supplement to, why not?) the AC-208, you’ll hear no complaints from me. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Bronco.

            Regards & all,

            Thomas L. Nielsen

          • Russian 23x152mm are good for two miles. MANPADS vary, two or three miles, the commonly available ones are infrared tail chasers, not so good against a cool running turboprop that doesn’t need to get very close.

            AGM-114 Hellfire maximum range is five miles.

            GBU-44 Viper Strike packs just 1/10th the punch but can ride three to the rail on the same hardpoint that takes a Hellfire. Glide ratio is 10:1, Combat Caravan at 5,000′ AGL has the same strike distance at the Hellfire and this scales up linearly as they climb.

            Cost per hour on an A-10 is something like $24k. Cost per hour on a Combat Caravan is under $500 for fuel, not sure about crew & ground support costs, but certainly much less.

            A new A-10 was about $20m, the new Textron Airland Scorpion is about the same. A pre-combat Caravan is 1/10th that, upgrades might take it from $2m to $3m.

            As a conservative estimate, we can put at least five Combat Caravans in play for what it costs to run an A-10. This isn’t a substitute for the mighty Warthog and I worry what will happen when company commanders call for support and instead of a hardcore CAS plane with a 1,200 round magazine they get a wet noodle F-35 with short loiter time and only 180 – 220 rounds.

            Retiring the A-10 in favor of the F-35 is going to cost a lot of lives if we ever find ourselves in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq again. All that begin said, an AC-208 that can not only look down, but also shoot down, and provide ISR for more heavily armed aircraft seems like a win to me.

  • Matrix3692

    Looks like it’s got some good budget-to-performance ratio, without the complex / sensitive system in it and lesser ground support / logistic requirements.
    Good for hunting “soft” targets (without guarded by MANPADS), even the Hellfires are quite overkill for COIN targets, but a country with a tight budget is going to LOVE it.

  • Tim

    That’s interesting. Considering the Hellfire is roughly 80K a pop, a few dozens of them could buy a new… plane. Nevertheless, poor countries may find it useful for may reasons. The Philippines, may be?

  • Will

    If this, or a similar, aircraft goes into service here or somewhere else, they will be armed with a variety of weapons in addition to the Hellfire, such as the APKWS based on the 70 mm unguided rocket. Is an AC-208 more vulnerable than an F-35A? Of course it is. But it should be less vulnerable than an AC-130, a fraction of the cost & a crew of only 1.

  • FormerDirtDart

    1. This is not a “Gunship”, as it has no “Gun”
    2. Why is the first thing opponents to these no frills/cheap weapons platforms bring up is “MANPADS”? How many aircraft, in the last decade, have been engaged, and downed by a MANPAD?
    3. Probably, (IMO) something like the Griffin missile would be much better suited for this application, than a Hellfire. Could carry more weapons, which are more appropriate for anticipated targets. Not like you’re going to send this thing out to engage MBTs & IFVs.

    • Mr.T

      Manpads down about a plane per week in Ukraine

  • Lance

    Good for flying supplies into cut off bases in Afghanistan BUT in any other mission its hopeless under armed and armored. Why doesn’t the Army go to a reproduction aviation company and bring the A-1H Skyraider back that’s was one deadly COIN plane.

    • blight

      Skyraiders would get eaten alive by MANPADS. And if they don’t have MANPADS, you can use these Caravans and trample all over them.

      • SJE

        Plus, advances in electronics give better early warning, and enable craft to perform and engage the enemy at night.

        Most things, if hit by a MANPAD, are going down.

        • blight

          Fair enough. We can at least deploy air assets and do our best up until we see them deploy appropriate weapons…and we’ll respond appropriately.

          • SJE

            Exactly. If there is evidence or intelligence about better AA weapons, send in different weapons. You don’t need AC130s or A10s firing 30mm DU rounds to kills a few guys with AK47s.

          • SomeFighterJock

            You do need armor piercing to punch through thick walls to get to those guys with AKs though…

          • Thomas L. Nielsen

            Interestingly, troops in Afghanistan have found that the clay-and-wood walls used in many Afghan buildings are surprisingly tough, and have an effect much like composite armor. Even 12,7x99mm ball rounds have trouble getting through.

            According to a friend of mine in the Danish Army, the only thing that will reliably punch through is an HEDP from an 84mm Carl Gustaf.

            Regards & all,

            Thomas L. Nielsen

          • blight

            And the United States army only issues Carl Gustavs to Rangers and I think airborne companies. Instead, they get AT-4s. Perhaps if they had more hard firepower available there wouldn’t be so many calls for air support?

            I imagine that clay-and-wood buildings, the clay has cured and is reasonably strong against small arms. They might also be thick as insulation against chilly winters and hot summers.

            Or, if the clay is discovered to be high in boron and cure in ways that would make a materials chemist working on ESAPI plates smile, there might be an opportunity in the making. Like coating HESCOs in it.

  • chaos0xomega

    Wait, you’re telling me that Congress through a fit because the AF and Navy wanted to buy what is largely an off the shelf non gold plated system that would actually be useful in our current wars/contingency operations that would only cost a few million per plane… but they are perfectly okay with funding a multi-billion (trillion?) dollar project that is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget for an aircraft that is of questionable utility to current and ongoing operations, let alone of questionable capability against emerging threat?

    Nope, I don’t see anything wrong with that statement…

    • chaos0xomega

      (This is in reference to the linked article regarding Congress nixing the COIN proposal)

  • tiger

    All this reinventing the wheel….. Burt Rutan had a A37 sized jet powered COIN plane 20 years ago ready to go & we passed on it.

    • mike j

      I love the ARES. Doesn’t that look like a kick in the ass to fly? Would’ve made a perfect Piglet to go with the Warthog.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      Reinventing the wheel, yes. But with reference to the Rutan ARES? Not so much. The Ares was a dedicated light strike and CAS platform. Decidedly no liaison, transport, medevac, paratrooper delivery, etc. capability.

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

  • SJE

    The doctrine that slow moving props were vulnerable to ground fire came from the first Iraq War, IIRC. However, in the same environment, helicopters were also vulnerable. Basically, these aircraft were vulnerable to a well armed professional military.

    But most US combat in the last 10 years has been against small, lightly armed, irregular forces. A fast moving (eg. F18) or heavily armed (eg A10, AC35) is overkill, and overbudget. There is a role for slower, more nimble aircraft for COIN.

    The other issue appears to be a fear of any Air Force casualties. This is a legitimate fear, but it has to be weighed against all US/coalition forces. If your ground forces have a lack of CAS, you will get infantry deaths. Some props could fill a CAS niche, and improve overall force protection.

    • mike j

      As the article linked above says, Congress just refused to spend $17m to test that theory in Afghanistan. They previously refused to spend $22m on the Navy’s Imminent Fury program using the Super Tuc.

      This is about politics, as usual. Nothing whatsoever to do with military necessity.

      • SJE

        Politics, yes, but it wasn’t just the Congress: the AF had a lot of push on the issue. They wanted bigger and better toys, and flying a prop plane with machine guns just lacked the wow factor.

        • mike j

          I’m not saying you’re wrong, but clearly the USAF and USN as well are not all of one mind about light attack turboprops. Both services have programs developed up to the point of running tests and dropping weapons stateside.

          I want to hear the inside baseball on what’s behind this stonewalling.

  • There is no reason why a well designed fixed wing light attack aircraft should be any less survivable than Cobra or Apache.

    From ‘Offensive Air Operations of the Falklands War’ – Major Walter F. DeHoust, USMC Command and Staff College (1984)

    “The PUCARA proved an enduring craft. They were hit numerous times by British small arms fire and by BLOWPIPE SAMs, but were often able to return to their base for repair”

    • blight

      “Pucarás operated from Port Stanley airport and two small grass improvised airfields at Goose Green and Pebble Island. They were used in the reconnaissance and light-attack role.”

      Apparently at least one was shot down by a Stinger, one by massed small arms fire, and another by 30mm fire. They don’t sound too bad, and the “take off from shorter airfields” or “take off from cleared grass” angle sounds pretty appealing.

      • mike j

        I’ve pointed out the stats for the USMC OV-10s during Desert Storm in probably all of these COIN-prop threads. But I’ll do it again.

        We lost two OV-10As to MANPADS, neither had heat suppressors on the exhausts. 3 of 4 crew survived. We lost no OV-10Ds which had heat suppressors and IR strobes, despite the fact they continued operating in higher threat environments. MANPADS have improved since then, so have the defenses.

      • Brian Black

        The three in flight combat losses of the Pucara compares to, I think, six destroyed by an SAS raid, three destroyed on the ground by Harrier cannon fire or CBU with (more damaged and unrepaired), one controlled flight into a mountain and one missing over the Atlantic.

        I’m not suggesting anyone buy these particular aircraft, they are very outdated. But I would expect a similar configuration would suit a newly designed light attack aircraft very well.

        We shouldn’t expect this role to come cheap either. Apache would be a lot cheaper if we strpped out all the black boxes and stuck a couple of forward firing .50s on the wings – it would also be sh*t. The US, UK and other nations have standards for this type of aircraft. Once you put on all the sensors, optics, weapons and defensive aides, you still get quite a price tag.

  • guest

    If you google a bit you’ll find pics, at least 10 years old, of a Caravan with a M2 .50 cal poking outside the left cargo door, so there has been a gunship thought of for many years

  • jamesb

    You Guys gotta stop posting this stuff!

    Come on!

    The only REAL thing that would compliment the A-10 would be the Brazilian prop job….The Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano
    And Like we like to say here…
    The Army might want it and use it…
    But the Air Force is gonna steal it from them in broad daylight and put jet engines on it before over pricing it!

    • greysave

      Why not the AT-6?

  • Jayson

    They were effective in Veitnam when they were originally forward light scouts then they threw a couple missiles and stuff on them. They would be super effective imo.

  • Paul

    Let’s re-invent the OV-10… Military Industrial complex indeed. In regards to the comment about the USAF passing on past COIN, it doesn’t look so good on either a recruiting poster OR a General resume.

  • Shail

    For all the faster some of these light COIN offerings are,
    I’d think they would ideal for any number of current and coming lightweight precision weapons, not just Hellfires.
    There are several guided 70mm rockets in development (and finally yielding promising results, including the DAGR that packs 4 of the 70mm on a modified launch rail system where a single Hellfire would go).
    Then there’s that recent flyweight 12-pound “JDAM Mini-Me” that Raytheon advertises,
    the Small Tactical Munition, at :

    People once argued that MANPADS and HMG-caliber AAA would devastate these low-and-slow COIN types, but that isn’t stopping manufacturers from peddling their aircraft.
    How about we see an air-launched version of the Javelin next? It’s fairly small and lightweight, and its seeker can be set to lock on after launch. Since the aircraft will get optical sensors and suitable avionics upgrades, something like this might work pretty well, and cheaper than a Hellfire.

    • blight

      Not a bad idea re. Javelin. I don’t know if we should be going all out with gigantic ATGMs anyways. Our baseline capability is to outrange a fifty, because even a fifty will chew up a light aircraft. We might be overengineering to survive MANPADS, 23mm, 57mm’s, 30mm’s…

      I’d never heard of STM. Awesome stuff. It’s even smaller than the DAGR/Griffin missile/Viper Strike/Scorpion glide bombs that goes with the Harvest Hawk

      • Shail

        The first time the guys showed me the STM, I thought it was just like a third- or quarter scale model. They said, “no, that’s it, really.” To see it right there, barely 2 feet long, that’s impressive (I could only imagine some kind of WCMD/cluster dispenser with dozens of these things inside, like mini-MIRVs networked to land like 10m apart all over a large area.

        As to making things outrange a 50-cal, I think I’d minimally want to outrange a 14.5mm type: they’re not uncommon at all in some rat-holes of the world, and hit harder and farther than the big Browning.
        Most of these lightweight PGM types, they’re plenty outside the range of even many high-end 20-and 23mm systems. But the aircraft are still quite vulnerable because they fly so slow (can’t get out of the kill zone fast enough over mostly-open terrain).

        • blight

          Is 14.5mm really that common? Seems in all the pictures of insurgents/Taliban/Libyans et al, it’s often 12.7mm (though that ZPU-4 with a 14.5mm mount did appear in that hookah image).

  • mwfair

    Caravan has been flown unpiloted. Control scheme and huge logistics supply base makes it easy to retrofit as UAV and/or fly/maintain/sell all over the world.

  • Steve Oliver

    I thought that the drones were coming along pretty well in this role. What do any of these options do that the drones do not? Carry cargo to those cut off bases? I’m pretty sure that the guys hauling cargo would rather have a drone doing the COIN duty. The Brazillians can keep their trainer-with-guns, thank you – we’ll go American.

  • greysave

    I don’t understand the survivable questions. helicopters aqre much slower and no one questions there utility for CAS? This argument seems very strange to me. Why are we trying to over engineer a solution again? Why not just use at-6, and the mc-12 since they are already in inventory? Do we really want more machines to maintain the parts.

  • spydoy

    Look how many incidents of cut off/ soon to be overrun troops (Iraq/Afg) that were saved by fast movers walking bombs onto the target “danger close ” from 10,000 ft.

    They can barely see/locate our guys and are usually following verbal instructions and corrections. Even Karzai was injured in one of those.
    You’re screaming to yourself, “Damn it, you’d see ’em if you weren’t 10,000 ft up.”

    AN A-10, the old A-1 ‘Sandy”, or this new Cessna on steroids would be invaluable. Lower and slower, With the pilot using the Mk-1 eyeball actually on the target, and something called ‘loiter time’, not three passes from 10K ft up and then RTB out of gas.

    • spydoy

      Oh yeah, and of course it has to have a gun!!

      • blight

        A ball turret preferrably. Engaging all-aspect enemies on the ground is probably preferrable to a larger axial weapon that cuts into interior space anyways.

        Ideal fantasy would be a CROWS-style mount hanging from underneath that could be operated by a gunner, raining lead from the sky.

    • Shail

      Seems like even a new-gen A-37 could be quite capable as their light CAS.
      Its jet speed (500mph +) seems more favorable than any turboprop.
      A new nose with new sensors, new engines with more thrust, and replace the 7.62minigun with maybe the 3-barrel 20 (or Apache’s M230)…
      All those lightweigt missiles would pack underwing by the dozens.

      Damn limited budgets!

    • blight

      Considering A-10’s and Apaches have been involved their own number of “friendly fire” incidents, I wouldn’t pin it on them being at high altitude.

      Karzai was injured when the operator put in his own GPS coords and called in a bomb on his own position. This happened in Northern Iraq early on as well, injuring/killing operators and some Kurds.

      If the Karbala raid could have been executed with a high altitude strike, then the Apaches wouldn’t have walked into that ambush sidelining an entire Aviation brigade, and the Iraqis would have not have acquired two POWs. Everything has its ups and downs, and the downside for air support is usually short loiter time or time for the aircraft to get to your position and launch missions, as well as communications issues.

  • Peter

    AC/MC-27J could be a better answer!
    STOL,3g manouver capability,ASE,Ballistic Protection, more redundant and protected, better payload, already in US inventory, can be converted using RollOn Roll Off kit

    • Guest

      Exactly why was the AC-27J Stinger II cancelled again? I’ve looked into it, and have yet to find any real reason given.

      • blight

        “Now, the deal is off because Army funding for 40 of the Italian-made C-27s has been stripped from the fiscal 2010 budget”

        Sounds like the usual: find cuts, find a program with the least amount of people behind it and axe it quietly. Great way to save pennies when bleeding dollars.

  • Guest

    Ideally, the Air Force should have a flexible High end-low end fleet of combat aircraft.
    A core fleet of F-22s and F-35s for conventional operations, and a mix of several hundred cheap COIN aircraft like UAVs, fixed wing gunships, Combat Caravans or related types, light strike planes (be it a Tucano, AT-6, something else…whatever performs better in a fly-off).
    Even after Vietnam, we still maintained a fleet of Broncos and A-37s, so I think it’s odd/dumb that we lack equivalent aircraft in the post-Cold war era where they have a clear utility.
    Unfortunately that would require a semblance of competant leadership.

    • Jayson

      I totally agree, competent leadership is the greatest threat to the military .. hell to the whole USA in these days.

      • Shail

        actually, INcompetent leadership is the threat.
        It’s a LACK of competent leaders that are the real problem.

    • Leonidas

      Ditto to all but the fighter mafia is coming back, with Sec Gates gone and Sec Panetta mainly concerned on stemming the bleeding from the military, they are going to push the F-35 to the detriment and expenses of everything else… post Vietnam all over again… we got rid (eventually) of our COIN airframes and just focused on conventional operations…