August 1, 2014:
The Italian manufacturer of the 28 ton C-27J air transport has successfully completed testing a gunship version called the MC-27J Praetorian. This conversion system is based on mounting n 30mm automatic cannon and fire control system on pallets of the type usually used in the C-37J to carry and load cargo. Night vision sensors, laser designators and high-rez vidcams are in a turret that is attached under the nose of the aircraft. Still to come are tests with guided missiles (like Hellfire, 70mm, and other small ones like Griffin) launched from hard points on the wings. This system is designed for quick installation and allows a C-27J to be quickly converted to a MC-27J gunship by loading the pallets and attaching the missile launchers and sensor turret to the outside of the aircraft.
The C-27J can carry three HCU-6/E pallets. Each is 224 cm (88 inches) wide, 274 cm (108 inches) long, and 57mm (2.25 inches) high and can carry up to 4.5 tons. The pallets are loaded via the rear ramp. The Praetorian testing is to be completed by 2015 and Italian special operations forces are to receive three of them by 2016.
This use of palletized systems is not new. Back in 2008, the air force portion of U.S. SOCOM (AFSOC, Air Force Special Operations Command) looked into using light (two engine) C-27J transports for "light gunships." This twin-engine aircraft can carry 9 tons for up to 2,500 kilometers and land on smaller airfields than the four engine transports can handle. SOCOM planned to take a C-27J and mount one or two 30mm automatic cannon on it, along with the AC-130 gunship sensors and communications gear, as well as guided missiles. Called the "AC-XX", this C-27J experiment didn't work out (mainly for political reasons) and SOCOM stuck with the AC-130. The Italians feel there might be an international market for a twin engine gunship using the American system of pallets to quickly convert a transport into a gunship.
Meanwhile, U.S. SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has equipped and deployed 14 similar MC-130W "Dragon Spear" gunships since 2010. The first MC-130W arrived in Afghanistan in late 2010, and a month later it had fired one of its weapons (a Hellfire missile) for the first time (killing five Taliban). Getting 14 new gunships into action so quickly was only possible because SOCOM adopted an idea developed by the U.S. Marine Corps: the "instant gunship." Called "Harvest Hawk," the marine instant gunship system works using weapons and sensors that can be quickly rolled into a C-130 transport and hooked up. This takes a few hours and turns the C-130 into a gunship (similar in capabilities existing on AC-130 gunships). The sensor package consists of day/night vidcams with magnification capability. The weapons currently consist of 10 Griffin missiles and 4 Hellfires. A 30mm autocannon is optional.
The 15.6 kg (34.5 pound) Griffin had earlier entered service in Afghanistan aboard UAVs. The older Hellfire II weighs 48.2 kg (106 pounds), carries a 9 kg (20 pound) warhead, and has a range of 8,000 meters. The Griffin has a 5.9 kg (13 pound) warhead which is larger, in proportion to its size, than the one carried by the heavier Hellfire. Griffin has pop-out wings, allowing it to glide and thus has a longer range (15 kilometers) than Hellfire. UAVs can carry more of the smaller missiles, typically two of them in place of one Hellfire.
This use of missiles instead of cannon has allowed for a major change in how gunships are used. As a result, in 2011 SOCOM, for the first time since the Vietnam War, allowed its MC-130 gunships to operate in daytime. For the last four decades it was believed too dangerous for these low, slow flying, heavily armed aircraft to operate when the sun was up. The key to this change is the use of missiles by gunships. The new, small missiles enable the slow, large, MC-130s to operate above the range of ground fire and still hit their targets.
Dragon Spear is based on the earlier Harvest Hawk system, which enabled marine KC-130J tankers to be transformed into a gunship, with the addition of the portable weapons and sensors. The marines had long noted the success of the U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunships that SOCOM (Special Operations Command) uses. But they couldn't afford them, as an AC-130 costs more than three times as much as a marine KC-130J aerial refueling aircraft. But the marines developed a solution. This is something the marines often do.
The KC-130J is the latest, and largest, USMC version of the C-130 transport used for aerial refueling. The KC-130J can also carry cargo and weapons (bombs and missiles) hung from the wings. Thus the Harvest Hawk version of the KC-130J adds a targeting pod, with the data going to a special cargo container containing control equipment (computers, commo, and displays) enabling operators use of the day/night sensors of the targeting pod, to fire missiles hung from the wings. The SOCOM version is the MC-130W.
The original plan was to have a 30mm Bushmaster cannon fired out the door, so that there would be gunfire support as well. But this was made optional, as the 14 missiles seemed to provide sufficient firepower. It also means less for Harvest Hawk to carry. The Mk44 30mm Bushmaster cannon weighs 157 kg (344 pounds) and fires at 200 or 400 rounds per minute (up to 7 per second). The cannon has 160 rounds available, before needing a reload. That means the gunner has 25-50 seconds worth of ammo, depending on rate of fire used. Each 30mm round weighs about 714 g (25 ounces, depending on type). Explosive anti-personnel rounds are fired when used in gunships. The fire control system, and night vision sensors, enable the 30mm gunners to accurately hit targets with high explosive shells. Existing SOCOM AC-130 gunships are armed with a 105mm howitzer and a 25mm and 40mm automatic cannon. But the two smaller caliber guns are being phased out of military service. The air force is considering equipping its gunships just with smart bombs and missiles.
The big thing with gunships is their sensors, not their weapons. Operating at night, the gunships can see what is going on below, in great detail. Using on-board weapons, gunships can immediately engage targets. But with the appearance of smart bombs (GPS and laser guided), aerial weapons are more available to hit any target that is found. So Harvest Hawk would be able to hit targets that were "time sensitive" (had to be hit before they got away) but could also call on smart bombs or laser guided missiles for targets that weren't going anywhere right away. Most of what Harvest Hawk does in Afghanistan is look for roadside bombs or the guys who plant them. These the marines want to track back to their base and then take out an entire roadside bomb operation.
Ultimately, the air force and SOCOM see the potential for the Harvest Hawk/Dragon Spear approach replacing custom built AC-130 gunships. There would still be a need for specially trained gunship crews. But they, and the several cargo containers of Harvest Hawk gear, could be held ready to go wherever they are most needed. Cargo aircraft serving as gunships first appeared, using twin-engine World War II era C-47 transports, in the 1960s over Vietnam. The troops called the gunships, which liked to operate at night, "Spooky." The gunships quickly moved to four engine C-130 transports but the nickname stuck.