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.