The Italian air force (AMI) is to become the first European air arm to invest in a gunship capability, as it seeks to make increased use of its Special Operations Forces.

The air arm is converting six of its 12-strong fleet of Alenia C-27J Spartan tactical airlifters into MC-27J Praetorian multi-mission aircraft through a palletized kit system, which has been developed jointly by Alenia Aermacchi, ATK and Selex ES. Key components of the system will include palletized, electronically traversable ATK-produced 30-mm GAU-23 cannon—fired from the port-side paratroop door—electro-optical cameras and a mission system.

The AMI is the launch customer for the program—initially launched at the Farnborough Air Show in 2012—and has made significant progress this year with gun trials in the U.S. Italy plans to purchase three of the kits. Although the full specification has not yet been defined, the MC-27J program allows different levels of fit, from a basic command and control capability up to gunship capability, which will potentially also allow the aircraft to launch precision-guided munitions.

All six of the MC-27J Praetorians will be converted and ready for operations by 2016, when they will be used to support Italy's combined special operations forces.

Gen. Pasquale Preziosa, the Italian air force chief of staff, says the service has been reviewing its requirements and doctrine for what he called “fourth- and fifth-generation conflicts.”

“This [the MC-27J] is the first answer we have delivered,” says Preziosa.

The deal includes development, evaluation, certification and logistic support for the aircraft.

The AMI's go-ahead has shifted development plans for the program. Alenia and ATK will begin work on the first prototype MC-27J shortly. This aircraft will be configured into a basic command and control and ISR-capable MC-27J, and is likely to be sent to Herat, in western Afghanistan to support the final months of Italy's mission to the NATO International Security Assistance Force.

The aircraft will be fitted with a mission system in the rear, and an under- nose electro-optical system and will be used as a long-endurance surveillance platform, similar to the way the U.S. Marine Corps operates the Lockheed Martin KC-130J Harvest Hawk ISR-capable Hercules, which is also in-theater. The Afghan deployment will help to inform the Italian air force on the future development of the gunship variant.

Preziosa said that the capability would likely evolve to add the ability to deliver precision-guided munitions.

ATK has previously said that guided munitions, which could include weapons such as the Raytheon AGM-175 Griffin or the MBDA GBU-44 Viper Strike, will be soft-fired either by opening the ramp and ejecting the weapons out the back of the aircraft, or potentially dropped through a series of launch tubes cut out of the cargo loading ramp. The latter method would allow the aircraft to remain pressurized.

The full price tag of the project is yet to be determined, although Alenia officials have suggested between $80-100 million per aircraft for a fully equipped MC-27J. They claim it could potentially deliver around 70% of the capability of the $200-million Lockheed AC-130J for around half the cost.

The deployed MC-27J would likely supplement an already highly modified C-27J, codenamed JEDI, which acts as an airborne jammer, providing a bubble of protection to convoys on the ground against improvised explosive device attacks by disrupting transmissions from “push-to-talk” radios used by insurgents.

Currently, only a handful of countries operate dedicated fleets of gunship aircraft, and types such as the U.S. Air Force's Special Operations Command fleet of AC-130s are in such heavy demand that they are not always able to meet all their requested taskings. Colombia operates a small number of BT-67 Baslers in a gunship configuration, while ATK is assisting in the conversion of an Airbus Military CN235 into a gunship for the Jordanian air force.

It is hoped that the AMI contract will prompt other C-27J operators to go down the special mission route, including U.S. Special Operations Command (Socom). The companies believe there may be a market for as many as 50 ISR and gunship-equipped aircraft over the next 20 years.