Two C-235 aircraft have been converted to the AC-235 gunship configuration, above, for the Royal Jordanian Air Force. (Airbus)
ROME — After years in which aerial gunships were synonymous with the US-built AC-130, not one but two new offerings were on display last week in Jordan, reflecting a growing demand from other nations for aerial strikes by slow moving aircraft.
Visitors to the Special Operations Forces Exhibition & Conference (SOFEX) in Jordan got a first look at a pair of CASA C-235 aircraft purchased secondhand from Spain and converted to gunship configuration for the Royal Jordanian Air Force.
The AC-235s sport an ATK M230LF 30mm chain gun — a modified version of the cannon used on the Apache helicopter — which fires from a side opening, as well as pylons on each side of the fuselage that carry guided and unguided rockets and Hellfire missiles.
Conversion of the aircraft was handled by Jordanian firm KADDB and ATK, which is also a partner on the second gunship on display at SOFEX, the MC-27J, a conversion of the Alenia Aermacchi C-27J, which completed its first test flight in full configuration last month, and is being acquired by the Italian Air Force.
Test firings of the cannon while slaved to the onboard targeting system are planned before the summer.
After years of competing in the tactical transport market, CASA and Alenia are set to go head-to-head again in the gunship market, with ATK now considering exports of the AC-235, together with partner KADDB.
Although Airbus’ military aircraft business was not involved in the conversion of the C-235 for Jordan, an Airbus spokesman said the firm was meanwhile carrying out internal studies about producing a gunship variant of the larger C-295.
But ATK and Alenia officials stressed that the AC-235 and the MC-27J are different animals.
While the C-235 is a permanent conversion, the MC-27J is a modular aircraft using loadable pallets, allowing it to be used alternatively as a gunship, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) aircraft and transporter.
“They have different capabilities and are for customers with different requirements; one is a fixed gunship, the other has a roll-on/roll-off multimission capability,” said Dave Sharpin, vice president of Business Development and Strategy at ATK.
Both aircraft feature a 30mm gun, but the GAL-23 on the Alenia aircraft, as used by the AC-130J, has a longer range thanks to its longer, 173mm rounds.
“The MC-27J gun has about double the range of the M230LF gun,” an Alenia official said. “That gives the MC-27J a standoff capability that allows it to stay out of the range of the ground-to-air fire you might see today in Mali or Libya.”
The MC-27J will load a pallet for the gun and ammunition and a pallet to host three operators, along with Link 16, satellite communications, an L-3 Wescam MX-15Di electro-optical and infrared turret mounted under the nose of the aircraft, and an upgraded Selex ES communication system.
The AC-235 hosts an electro-optical targeting system, a laser designator, aircraft self-protection equipment and synthetic aperture radar.
While the AC-235 has been given permanent pylons to carry missiles, Alenia and ATK have no plans to follow suit since the MC-27J must remain convertible.
“We wanted to maintain the cargo mission profile, as well as the ability to switch to C2-ISR or gunship configuration with a ‘low scar’ modification,” Sharpin said.
The Alenia official said developers are mulling the launch of armaments through launch tubes from the back ramp, with the Griffin and the MBDA Viper Strike considered, or through apertures in the fuselage to allow launches while the aircraft is pressurized.
Alenia is also thought to be studying the use of clippable pylons on the wings for precision-guided munitions or rail-launched weapons.
ATK has previously worked on the AC-208 Combat Caravan, which does not feature a gun but fires Hellfire missiles from pylons under the wings. Supplied to the US, the AC-208 in turn was supplied to Iraq and Lebanon.
Iraq received the aircraft in November 2009 and has used them in Anbar Province, while the Lebanese Air Force received its first aircraft in 2010.
“We were looking at gunship capabilities and since we build medium-caliber guns, we considered adding them,” Sharpin said.
The contract from KADDB for the AC-235 came in 2011, then a year later ATK and Alenia announced their partnership on the MC-27J at the Farnborough International Airshow.
“With the AC-235, we integrated the weapons pylons on the side of the aircraft as we saw loading the pylons was much easier. You don’t need the lift capability as you would on the wing,” Sharpin said.
Discussing the need for gunships, the Alenia official used operations in Mali to combat insurgents as an example. “A multimission ISTAR platform with gunship capability and persistence would be effective in this situation,” he said.
US special operations forces studied a possible C-27J gunship configuration before the US order of the aircraft was cut. Now, US operators are once again due to receive aircraft, albeit for paratroop activity. “There are no discussions about a gunship version at this point,” Sharpin said. ■