AC-235 Gunship Lite

One of our longstanding frustrations with the way the US purchases airpower is that it has so often sought the comprehensive solution to a perceived problem, and not the 80% solution at 20% cost.  Rather than buying low cost platforms for low threat environments (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) in modest numbers, the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps insist on flying their dwindling number of strike fighters. An airframe has a finite number of flying hours available. And they’re being wasted droning over virtually secure airspace. The only push in the US for low cost solutions is coming from the Special Operations community, and they are getting pushback from the mainstream services.

The AC-130U is the definitive gunship conversion of a transport aircraft. But there will only ever be a handful of them. They’re such good aircraft because they are so lavishly equipped. They’re astonishingly expensive. I’ve seen quotes of a flyaway cost of about $190 million dollars!

The C-27J program looked at building a low cost roll-on package for the Spartan to provide top cover.  That dream died when the Air Force smothered the program in its crib.

But the idea of putting some weapons and sensors onto a converted transport has merit. Witness the Marine Corps deployment of C-130J Harvest Hawks.

And other nations are catching on as well. The latest is Jordan. Jordan teamed with ATK to field a conversion of the popular CN-235 light transport into the AC-235 gunship.


That’s actually a pretty robust capability. As Think Defence notes, integrating the APKWS guided 70mm rocket is a no-brainer as well. With very good sensors (the SAR/GMTI radar is quite handy), and presumably a system similar to our ROVER that allows sensor video to be shared with troop units on the ground, the long endurance of an AC-235 allows much more than merely providing supporting fires. The top down view can allow a commander to exercise much better control over his forces, as well as providing a better picture of the enemy.

The US Coast Guard is buying a handful of CN-235s for Search and Rescue. They were going to buy more, but instead they’re taking delivery of a handful of C-27Js that were intended for Army and Air Force use. Would it be so hard for the services to buy a few more and convert them to AC-235s*?

*The  Air Force quietly operates a pair of vanilla CN-235s for unknown purposes. My supposition is they are used to quietly move Special Forces troops around in Africa or other places that operations aren’t secret, but where a discrete footprint is desired.

Harvest Hawk Herc

We’ve mentioned the Marine Corps program to “bolt on” a ground attack capability to some of its fleet of KC-130J Hercules. And lo and behold, here’s some video of one doing a live fire exercise.

My eyes are getting pretty old. Can one of you sharp eyed spotters identify the chase plane? I think it’s a T-6 Texan II, but I’m just not sure.


Early on in the blog, we wrote about the development of the gunship, modified transport aircraft armed to provide fires to troops on the  ground. They’re very expensive aircraft (mostly because of their sophisticated sensor arrays) so there are only a relative handful in service.

The introduction of the C-27J in service had some folks hoping a “Gunship Lite” program could be developed to supplement (but not supplant) the current AC-130U.  For various reasons, including the cancellation of the entire C-27J program, that never came to pass.

But the need to bolster gunship numbers didn’t go away.  So the MC-130W “Dragon Spear”  was pressed into service. Originally intended to make up for losses in the special operations MC-130H community (clandestine delivery and retrieval of special operations forces), the MC-130W’s were in fact armed with sensors and weapons. A 30mm Bushmaster gun and ViperStrike missiles gave it a limited ability to attack enemy targets on the ground with great precision.

The armed mission was so pressing, the special operations mission was set aside, and last year, the “Dragon Spears” were redesignated AC-130W Stinger II.

The Air Force hopes to add Hellfire missile capability within the next year.  I’ve heard they can (or soon will) use the GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, but haven’t seen confirmation of that.

If you look closely at the pic above (click to embiggenfy) you’ll note not only the 30mm gun on the port side, but also the pylon outboard of the engine. That’s where the Hellfires will mount. The small turret under the nose radome houses the infrared sensor/laser designator.

Would you like warporn with your coffee?

via WeaselZippers, a good demonstration of why you shouldn’t piss off Marines when they’re trying enjoy a quiet evening at home…

Some NSFW language.


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More Apache Pr0n

What’s that? You wanna see some more Apaches? Well, just this once.


One of the nice things about the way the Army paints its helicopters is that no one can catch a side number and rat you out for flathatting…


It may seem a little foolish to use a multi-million dollar tank hunter to chase after a cheap wooden boat, but you don’t see me complaining.


I’ve posted previously about the groundpounders favorite plane, the A-10. But that isn’t the only airplane that grunts like. One of the most impressive planes in the Air Force is the AC-130U Spectre gunship.

With its incredible sensors and awesome firepower, the AC-130 can put “warheads on foreheads” in close contact to friendly troops. While the AC-130 is the premier close support platform for troops in contact, that isn’t what it was originally designed for.

The gunship is a relatively new platform, the first models having been conceived in the early 1960s in Vietnam. The original gunships were converted C-47 transports. By removing some windows and mounting three 7.62mm Miniguns in the cabin to fire out the port side, the transport was converted to a gunship that could lay a withering fire on enemy troops below. The idea of using side firing guns had a wierd genesis. An Air Force officer met a missionary who had delivered small items to Amazonian tribes by lowering a bucket out of a Piper Cub while doing a “pylon turn.” This was a tight turn around a central point. The effect was to leave the bucket virtually motionless while the plane was moving at 65mph. The Air Force officer figured this would be a good way to aim guns from a troop support. Soon after, the AC-47 was born.

The AC-47, aslo known as Spooky, or “Puff the Magic Dragon” worked well supporting the small outposts and Special Forces camps in Vietnam. Its ability to loiter overhead for long periods and lay an incredible curtain of fire on troop concentrations made it perfect for supporting these camps. Puff also carried a large supply of parachute flares to deny the enemy the cover of darkness. It was a cheap, low cost solution to the problem of providing support. Anyone who has seen the John Wayne movie “The Green Berets” has seen Puff in action. As a follow-on to the Puff, C-119s were were modified with 4 miniguns and called AC-119G Shadows.

But the Air Force had another problem in Vietnam, one not so easily solved. The North Vietnamese were moving supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail virtually unopposed at night, in convoys of hundreds of trucks. Existing fighters and fighter bombers were ill suited to finding and  destroying these convoys hidden by dense jungle. The converted transport was the solution. By adding night vision devices, forward looking infrared, and increasing the armament to include the 20mm M61A1 Vulcan, an interim truck hunter was born. This aircraft, the AC-119K Stinger also had two jet engines added to compensate for the much greater weight of the sensors and weapons. The Stinger’s ability to fly low and slow and loiter over the trail made it an excellent truck hunter, but this was still only an interim solution.

The ultimate planned gunship had always been based on the C-130. It wasn’t until there were sufficient C-130s in service that a conversion program began to produce what became known as “The Spectre.” The larger, far more powerful C-130 had the load lifting ability to add a far more sophisticated sensor array and a vast increase in armament. In addition to 7.62mm Miniguns and 20mm Vulcans, the AC-130A had two 40mm Bofors cannons and a whopping 105mm cannon. This was some serious truck busting capability.

After the Vietnam war, the need for truck hunting had diminished, but the obvious value of the AC-130 kept it in the inventory to support troops on the ground. Further development has lead to the current model, the AC-130U. The “U-Boat” or “Spooky” is armed with a 25mm Gatling gun, 40mm Bofors, and the 105mm cannon. Some research has been done on adding a 120mm mortar in place of the 105.