PARIS — Finmeccanica SpA and Alliant Techsystems Inc. have finished the first phase of a program to add a portable machine gun to the C-27J cargo plane as they hunt for sales abroad, officials said.
The new aircraft, designated MC-27J, is designed to give customers a system that could be used for both cargo and gunship missions, among others.
As part of an ongoing evaluation to demonstrate the concept, the companies installed a 30mm chain gun made by Arlington, Va.-based ATK to the medium-sized military transport plane made by Alenia Aermacchi, part of Rome-based Finmeccanica, using a standard pallet that can be rolled on and off the aircraft.
“From an aircraft perspective, it’s just another pallet,” Ben Stone, chief executive officer of Alenia’s North America unit, said Wednesday during a press conference at the Paris Air Show. “That’s the key to the design.”
The weapon, a modified version of the GAU-23 automatic cannon, was connected to a targeting system made by FLIR Systems Inc. and fired from the plane in a test flight over the Gulf of Mexico in a range operated by Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. Video of the exercise showed the projectiles splashing into the water in a line near the target.
The first of three phases finished in March, according to William Kasting, vice president and general manager of ATK’s defense group. The second phase, set to finish in 2014, is designed to fully link the weapon and the targeting system, he said. The third phase, expected to wrap up in 2015, would show the ability to launch a precision-guided munition from the rear of the plane, he said.
Officials declined to say how much the plane would cost or how much they’ve invested in developing and testing the technology. They estimated the size of the potential market at 50 aircraft over 20 to 25 years.
The so-called modular design is meant to appeal to potential customers in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and South America, Kasting said. The company is working on getting exemptions for export licenses from the U.S. government, he said.
“Across the world, especially in this market, you really want the aircraft to do more than one thing,” Bruce VanSkiver, director of airlift programs for Alenia’s North America unit, referring to multiple missions.
The aircraft wasn’t designed for any particular military program, but may align with an effort underway in Italy, officials said. It’s based on the C-27J Spartan, which has been purchased by countries including Italy, Australia and the U.S.
Making a case for the U.S. to buy more of the planes, even so-called multi-mission versions, may be difficult, though. The C-27J is in the middle of a battle between the Air Force’s active-duty component, which says it can’t afford to operate the planes Congress keeps funding, and the Air National Guard, which was to receive the brunt of them.
The Air Force is set to follow through with plans to send the fleet — including brand new aircraft rolling off the assembly line — directly to the service’s boneyard at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz. They will sit in storage there unless another federal agency claims them.
The service has spent about $1.6 billion to purchase 21 of the aircraft.