By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog
in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
— President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958.
The rugged, utilitarian, Cessna 208 Caravan aircraft was first proposed as a military gunship at the 1988 Farnborough Air Show in England, where a prototype Cessna 208A (military U-27A) Caravan, #N9698F, was publicly displayed with wing-mounted, forward-firing weapons, and a side-firing, .50-caliber, GAU-19/A Gatling gun on a fixed mount. There were six weapon stations beneath the wings, with Hydra-70 unguided rockets and dual AIM-92B/C Stinger heat-seeking missiles fitted to the aircraft.
The gun was actually tested-fired by the pilot, using a grease-pencil mark on the left side of the cockpit canopy as an aiming point. The prototype used the Cessna’s standard, 675-horsepower, Pratt and Whitney PT6A-114A turboprop engine and three-blade propeller, which was probably an underpowered configuration for all of the extra hardware.
In my published, 2010 war novel, Caravan Hunter, I wrote about a fictional, highly-modified, updated, military-prototype, AC-208B Combat Caravan gunship, with an engine swap for a 900-horsepower, Honeywell TPE331 engine from the MQ-9A Reaper attack drone, and a four-blade, composite, Hartzell propeller, boosting power by 33-percent, with 30-percent more thrust, 54-percent faster climb rate, and 11-percent higher top speed. An alcohol-water-injection (AWI) system raised power by an additional 12 percent for up to four minutes, during difficult takeoffs and emergencies. These are genuine, readily-available modifications, even though the basic story line was technically fiction.
Based upon the 1988 prototype, it retained the six weapon stations, with weapons upgraded over time, to include AGM-114P Hellfire II laser-guided missiles, 70mm Lockheed DAGR missiles instead of unguided rockets, improved, dual AIM-92G Stingers, and a GAU-19/A Gatling gun with an electrically-trainable mount, like those on the much-larger, AC-130J Ghostrider gunship, instead of the original, fixed mount.
A Wescam MX-15D (military AAQ-35/38) FLIR sensor provided day/night targeting, and target illumination for the laser-guided weapons. Indeed, when the full-production AC-208B Combat Caravan was later officially sold to Afghanistan (seven), Iraq (three), and Lebanon (two), between 2014 and 2019, it was normally equipped with just two to four Hellfire missiles, and an MX-15D FLIR sensor, but no gun.
One technological advancement that I added was the Northrop Grumman ZPY-5 VADER (Vehicle And Dismount Exploitation Radar) pod, featuring synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) with a ground moving-target indicator (GMTI), on the left, outboard wing station, facing in the same direction as the GAU-19/A gun. This modern, lightweight radar system enables the crew to detect enemy vehicles and individual soldiers (“dismounts”) on the ground, even in total darkness. The same radar is employed on the U.S. Army’s MC-12S Enhanced, Medium-Altitude, Reconnaissance-and-Surveillance System (EMARSS-V), a highly-modified, Beechcraft 350 surveillance aircraft, since 2019, as well as on other light surveillance aircraft of the Army and Air Force.
Later, in December 2012, Cessna introduced the more-powerful Cessna 208B Grand Caravan EX (costing $2.61 million today), powered by an 867-horsepower, PT6A-140 engine, providing a sufficient power increase, and negating the need for a costly engine swap when performing duties with the extra weight of an armed, attack aircraft.
Therefore, when the U.S. Special Operations Command announced their Armed Overwatch program in March 2021, five companies competed for the lucrative contract to provide 75 aircraft for close air support duties, one of them being MAG Aerospace of Fairfax, Virginia, which offered their MC-208B Guardian, a modified and upgraded Grand Caravan EX. Ultimately, the Guardian was not selected for the final contact on August 1, 2022 (the actual winner was the Air Tractor OA-1K Sky Warden, a heavily-modified, AT-802U crop-duster), however, the technological improvements in this very latest, Cessna 208B attack aircraft are certainly interesting.
The MC-208B Guardian not only has the powerful, new engine, but also an MX-15D FLIR sensor, a four-blade, McCauley composite propeller, and four weapon stations, with dual weapon racks available for each station, so it may carry as many as eight AGM-114R2 Hellfire II missiles, or two seven-shot pods of AGR-20B APKWS-II laser-guided, 70mm missiles, or similar, Raytheon Talon missiles.
Other possible weapons include multiple AGM-176B Griffin-B laser-guided missiles (only 35 pounds each), Hydra-70 unguided rockets, dual AIM-92J Stingers, and the aircraft is equipped with two internal common launch tubes (CLTs) for either AGM-176A Griffin-A (35 lb.) glide bombs, or GBU-69/B (60-lb.) special operations glide bombs, dropped vertically through the cabin floor.
One final consideration is a possible, side-firing gun, as mounted on the 1988 U-27A prototype, and the proposed, 2008-2010 version in my novel. The standard MC-208B has no gun, but a GAU-19A/B Gatling gun is certainly a well-demonstrated option. The GAU-19/A weighed 138 pounds, and was replaced on U.S. Army AH-6M Little Bird special operations helicopters by the GAU-19/B in 2012, weighing 106 pounds, so any weapon in that general weight category is a distinct possibility.
The Colombian Air Force operates at least five AC-47T Fantasma (“Ghost”) aerial gunships, with FLIR sensors for night attacks against roving guerillas and drug smugglers, each armed with a pair of fixed, side-firing, three-barrel, GAU-19/A Gatling guns in .50-caliber. Although, at least one of these nocturnal gunships, tail number 1658, has been openly photographed mounting a fixed, 100-pound, Nexter (French-made) M621 20mm cannon in place of the rear Gatling gun, for harder-hitting firepower.
So, perhaps the latest and best gunship option would be the brand-new, General Dynamics XM915 20x102mm three-barrel, Gatling gun designed for the Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) helicopter, weighing a mere 115 pounds, and firing at either 750 rounds per minute (12.5 rounds per second) or 1,500 rounds per minute (25 rounds per second).
“It shoots fast, it shoots well, and it shoots accurately,” said Army Lieutenant Colonel Cameron Keogh, Chief of Flight Testing for U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, in November 2021. “As a previous attack-and-recon pilot, I like it.” The gun generates 805 pounds of lateral, recoil force at 1,500 rpm, versus 562 pounds of recoil force for a GAU-19/A machine gun, so recoil momentum is about 43 percent heavier with the new, 20mm cannon, but certainly not insurmountable.
Another alternative weapon would be the General Dynamics XM301, the lightest 20mm Gatling gun in the world, designed in 1992 for the proposed, RAH-66 Comanche stealth helicopter, which never entered production, with the entire project cancelled in early 2004. The XM301 weighs a mere 80.5 pounds, and fires at either 750 or 1,500 rounds per minute. The U.S. Army was contracted to receive 1,217 weapons, but it never progressed beyond the prototype stage. In retrospect, however, the XM301 may have been pushing the design limits too far, and was perhaps too lightweight and too fragile, leading to the recent development of the sturdier XM915.
This certainly would not be the first time that side-firing guns were mounted in a Cessna aircraft, aside from the 1988 U-27A prototype. During the Vietnam War, Cessna O-1E/F/G Bird Dog light observation aircraft pilots sometimes carried a variety of field modifications, including at least one side-firing, M60E3 machine gun installation, and an ingenious, one-of-a-kind mount for twin M3A1 “Grease Gun” submachine guns in .45 ACP.
These particular weapons were obviously only effective at very low altitudes, very low airspeeds, and a very close range, which was precisely where U.S. Air Force forward air control (FAC) pilots, nicknamed the “death-bringers” by the Viet Cong, were forced to fly, in order to locate enemy positions within the dense jungles of Southeast Asia.
In fact, Air Force Captain Hilliard A. Wilbanks, an O-1E FAC pilot, actually used his own M16 (or CAR-15) rifle on February 24, 1967, to protect a South Vietnamese Ranger battalion from an ambush by two well-concealed, Viet Cong guerilla units, strafing the enemy positions near Dalat three times from less than 100 feet altitude. On his third pass, he was shot down, and died while being medevacked to a hospital.
Wilbanks was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life, above and beyond the call of duty…Flying through a hail of withering fire at treetop level…(he) inflicted many casualties by firing his rifle out of the side window of his aircraft…Captain Wilbanks’ magnificent action saved numerous friendly personnel from certain injury or death. His unparalleled concern for his fellow man and his extraordinary heroism were in the highest traditions of the military service, and have reflected great credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.”
There are currently only five fully-operational, combat-proven, Cessna AC/MC-208B attack aircraft in existence worldwide, including two remaining AC-208B Combat Caravans in Iraq, two more in Lebanon, and a fifth (#N321NH) with the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) in Florida, formerly assigned to the 6th Special Operations Squadron (“Commandos”) at Duke Field, since 2018. The unit has since relocated to Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, and now flies MC-130J Commando II aircraft.
The seven Afghan examples, now mostly in long-term storage in Tajikistan, were AC-208B Eliminators, each able to fire four Hellfire missiles instead of just two, and the single AFSOC aircraft appears to be an MC-208B (2017 Grand Caravan EX, with four-blade prop) prototype. MAG Aerospace freely admits that MC-208B prototypes have been tested by the Air Force, and by other countries, in very small numbers, and MAG probably possesses no more than two or three completed examples for testing and evaluation.
If any other U.S. unit ever adopts an MC-208B attack or gunship variant, it will likely be the super-secret 427th Special Operations Squadron at Pope Army Airfield near Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg), North Carolina, which already operates at least five Cessna 208B (UC-27B) unarmed, utility aircraft, and at least three or four CASA CN-235M-100 twin-engine transports in direct support of our nation’s most-elite, counterterrorist units.
The 427th SOS also maintains close cooperation with the Air Branch of the CIA’s Special Activities Division, and 427th and CIA aircraft (a CN-235 #66049, and two CIA-leased C-208Bs, #N208NN and N403VP) have been photographed parked alongside one another in the past, most notably at the very remote Basecamp Airfield, Nevada, near Warm Springs, only 75 miles north of the mysterious and Top-Secret, Groom Lake Air Base (a.k.a. “Dreamland”), in late 2001, soon after the horrific, 9-11 terrorist attacks. This out-of-the-way, desert airfield is officially closed to the public, but was still being used by CN235s (#66043) of the 427th SOS in May 2016.
The MC-208B Guardian is a superb, light-attack aircraft already. The only real improvement to the basic airframe would be to replace the four-blade propeller with an MTV-27 (German-made) “Quiet-Fan” composite, five-blade, scimitar propeller for additional thrust and noise reduction for clandestine, special operations missions. Converting it to a side-firing gunship after that would be relatively simple, since previous testing in 1988 proved that it already works.
The only downside is that placing the gun inside the roll-up, cargo door area prevents using the aircraft for parachute jumping by Special Forces teams, or medevac missions for wounded soldiers. It can still carry about six to eight commandos in the passenger cabin, but jumping from the narrower crew door on the right side of the aircraft is somewhat more difficult, and there’s no room for stretchers. Those duties are best left to unarmed, “vanilla” Cessnas, anyway, not for highly-specialized gunships.
In any event, a gunship-configured aircraft would be safer and more effective with a solid, lightweight, composite door replacing the roll-up door, and featuring a modest-sized, firing port with a flexible, synthetic collar around the gun and port ring, as seen on the AC-130J Ghostrider’s GAU-23/A 30mm cannon installation. This minimizes excess airflow, noise, and muzzle blast for anyone inside the passenger cabin.
The Cessna 208 is currently operated in military service by at least 34 nations, including 134 total aircraft, mostly unarmed, for transport and utility purposes. It’s so widely deployed, in fact, that it’s a very common sight around the globe, so a specialized, gunship version will definitely have the element of surprise on its side, with the enemy expecting to see an unarmed, light transport.
The MC-208B is moderately protected, featuring a ballistic armor system made of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) composite laminate to protect the cockpit and occupants, self-sealing fuel tanks with modular armor, an AAR-47 missile approach warning system (MAWS), and ALR-47 chaff-and-flare dispensers for decoying and defeating incoming missiles. But it’s still a slow aircraft, cruising at 186 knots (214 mph), and vulnerable to enemy ground fire, so a low-flying, gunship version, just like the existing AC-130J gunship, is more safely operated at night, under cover of darkness, using its advanced sensors to locate and destroy targets.
In conclusion, the MC-208B Guardian is already a very fine attack aircraft, lightweight, small, and nimble, but it can be readily upgraded into the ultimate, light gunship (let’s tentatively call it the “Guardian-Plus”) with the simple additions of a better propeller system and a side-firing gun. For fast-paced, dynamic, special operations missions, or for allied nations on a budget, the small, relatively inexpensive MC-208B is a very tough act to beat.
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Warren Gray is a retired U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served with three fighter squadrons in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian.