AC-27J: US military outsources first modern-era combat aircraft?

Foreign companies have won US contracts for tankers (asterisk duly noted), VIP helicopters, light transports and light helicopters. All are huge achievements for foreign industry, but it’s important that none of the above are strictly “combat” aircraft. They don’t carry weapons.

Consider that glass ceiling shattered if the US Special Operations Command follows through with its plan to buy its first L-3 Communications/Alenia Aeronautica AC-27J gunship (see blog below).

Earlier this week, I asked Steven Grundman, former head of the Pentagon’s industry policy office and now a vice president for the CRA consultancy, if he expected the US military to ever outsource a combat aircraft to a foreign company.

His reply was prescient:

“When you get the military services in that mode where we need capability for a decreasing amount of money, I think that glass ceiling will get busted. There’s not that many protectionists in the Pentagon.”


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27 Responses to AC-27J: US military outsources first modern-era combat aircraft?

  1. Mike Plunkett 25 July, 2008 at 5:11 pm #

    Depending on your definition of ‘the modern era’, wouldn’t it be fairer to say that the Harrier was the first?

  2. Stephen Trimble 25 July, 2008 at 5:17 pm #

    I would submit the Harrier is a special case. Until very recently, the US didn’t have STOVL jet technology, so there was no other option. The US does have the industrial capability to build at least competitive tankers, helicopters and light transports, so I disqualified the Harrier on those grounds. Feel free to argue with me though.

  3. Royce 25 July, 2008 at 7:42 pm #

    There is no U.S. twin-engined light/medium transport available for use as a gun platform. That’s why the JCA selection was limited to two foreign aircraft and why Congress didn’t balk.

  4. rapier 25 July, 2008 at 8:52 pm #

    ….. Until very recently, the US didn’t have STOVL jet technology …..

    Exactly …..
    In the past they spent quadrillions of dollars in several unsuccessful exotic projects and finally they were forced to buy the Harrier.
    Do you remember the latest ….. the ill-fated (and ill-conceived) North American Rockwell XFV-12A ?

  5. rapier 25 July, 2008 at 9:30 pm #

    Hanged …..

  6. Mike Plunkett 25 July, 2008 at 10:58 pm #

    Stephen: Yes, the Harrier is definitely a special case, but it’s not as though the US saw, slapped their foreheads and exclaimed, “Dang! A jet that can take off vertically! Why didn’t we think of that!” They’d been trying to get their various projects to work all through the fifties and sixties, we just beat them to a practical(ish) solution ;)

  7. rapier 26 July, 2008 at 7:37 am #

    I think we are somewhat OT ….. but here we can see “ALL THE WORLD’S (V/STOL) AIRCRAFT” ….. :-)

  8. John Price 26 July, 2008 at 11:40 am #

    While it’s correct to say “We beat them to a solution”, if it hadn’t been for lots of US Marine support (and of course, funding), nobody would have had Harriers – I remember one 2TAF staff offsah complaining that refuelling and re-arming VTO fighters wouldn’t be possible … And this in the days when the DF/GA squadrons spent a fair amount of time on the move, including big convoys of supporting trucks and bowsers…
    Thanks to the Marines (and I believe, one officer in particular, whose name I unpardonably forget) “we” can be proud of the Harrier …
    Makes yer fink, don’t it ???

  9. rapier 26 July, 2008 at 1:22 pm #

    Stephen, rates Bill’s book reading level at : ages 9-12 !
    I think we all are somewhat older …..

  10. rapier 26 July, 2008 at 1:39 pm #

    John, are you referring to Colonel Tom Miller, USMC ?

    “In 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, Colonels “Tom” Miller and Bud Baker went to England to attend the Farnborough Air Show. While there, they flew the Hawker Siddeley Harrier and returned to the States convinced that they had the answer to the fire support problem. After successfully briefing the Commandant, Colonel Miller became the key man in a campaign to get the aircraft for the Marines. With a mixture of political skill, hard work, and sheer enthusiasm, he overcame the odds and convinced the Navy, the aircraft industry, and Congress that the Harrier was a “must” for the Corps.”

    Source : Globalsecurity

  11. Stephen Trimble 26 July, 2008 at 4:39 pm #

    Aye, but you’re talking to a journalist here. Age 9-12 reading level is pretty much what you get … ;-)

  12. Stephen Trimble 26 July, 2008 at 4:43 pm #

    Lucky your anonymous, because my Brit colleagues would be coming after you for that last sentence! Seriously, thanks for bringing me up to speed. There’s a lot I don’t know know, obviously, about the history of STOVL technology. Some people think Lockheed “borrowed” (stole?) the Yak-141 configuration for the F-35B lift fan system. I’m curious what you think about that?

  13. rapier 26 July, 2008 at 5:12 pm #

    “I think it unfair to say the technology didn’t exist in the US, because clearly it did”

    technology or not technology, the fact is that the Americans, having squandered during three decades, as I said, fantastillions of dollars in innumerables projects (some of which signally failed), were unfortunately not able to field any own V/STOL aircraft.
    It’s a long story ….. but it’s history.
    And the last project, the then promising XFV-12A, docet …..
    With the utmost respect.

  14. Karlo 27 July, 2008 at 12:12 am #

    I agree with Mike Plunkett on this one, the Harrier was definitely the first. The fact that it was substantially different from the UK original by the time it entered service is ‘par for the course’. Hardly any modern combat aircraft entering service
    with the US Armed Forces if it originated from outside the Homeland would end up ex-factory fit, they would all be extensively custom fitted out and maybe modified. The Israelis do it all the time when they take a bog -standard US fighter…

  15. rapier 27 July, 2008 at 9:58 am #

    Karlo, the american Harrier (AV-8B Harrier II) was not only a modified aircraft aimed for USMC use.
    It was a truly second generation Harrier, a joint US-British project (with a RAF variant, GR.Mk 5), which incorporated extensive redesign in several areas.
    Let me quote here “JANE’S ALL THE WORLD’S AIRCRAFT” 1990-91 Ed. page 133 :

    “Compared with the Harrier GR.Mk 3/AV-8A, features of the AV-8B include the use of graphite-epoxy (carbonfibre) composite materials for the wings, and parts of the fuselage and tail unit; adoption of a supercritical wing section; addition of lift improvement devices (LIDs) comprising fuselage mounted or under-gunpod strakes and a retractable fence panel forward of the pods, to augment lift for vertical take-off; larger wing trailing-edge flaps and drooped ailerons; redesigned forward fuselage and cockpit; redesigned engine air intakes to provide more VTO/STO thrust and more efficient cruise; two additional wing stores stations; and the Hughes Angle Rate Bombing Set. Wing outriggers are relocated at mid-span to provide better ground monoeuvring capability, and leading-edge root extensions (LERX) add considerably to the instantaneous turn rate. Combined with an expanded thrust vectoring envelope, the LERX also enhance air combat capability. The landing gear is strenghtened to cater for higher operating weights and greater external stores loads made possible by these changes”.

    Later came the AV-8B Night Attack, the radar-equipped AV-8B Plus and further RAF variants …..

  16. RTLM 27 July, 2008 at 10:41 am #

    Heh! Meet the new DC-3.

  17. Royce 27 July, 2008 at 4:16 pm #

    Regarding the AC-27J, are these in addition to the 24 C-27Js the USAF has been saying it’s going to order for the transport mission?

  18. Stephen Trimble 27 July, 2008 at 4:24 pm #

    The USAF and L-3/Alenia have been clear that the 24 would be used to equip the Air National Guard. There’s been no public conversation to divert either one or more of those to SOCOM to the gunship. This would come on top of that order.

  19. Mike Plunkett 27 July, 2008 at 5:58 pm #

    Since we can’t seem to agree on whether or not the Harrier was a foreign combat aircraft in US service, allow me to submit another, more clear cut candidate: the F-21 Lion, otherwise known as the IAI Kfir.

    Sure, it was only operated by the US Navy for a brief while and it was not intended for use in actual operations, but it was most definitely a foreign combat aircraft procured for use by the US military…

  20. rapier 27 July, 2008 at 7:56 pm #

    Not strictly “combat” ….. but …..
    MH-68A Stingray (a.k.a. AW A109E Power)
    C-27A Spartan (a.k.a. Fiat/Aeritalia G 222)

    Both foreign (Italian) aircraft …..

  21. John S. 28 July, 2008 at 2:41 pm #

    Lucky your anonymous, because my Brit colleagues would be coming after you for that last sentence!

    Bring them on! I didn’t mean to post anonymously. I suppose one could legitimately argue that the Kestrel FGA.1 was not the same aircraft as the P.1127, so the Tripartite Evaluation Squadron did not assist in developing the P.1127 per se, but their work certainly led to the resulting Harrier GR.1/AV-8A.

    Some people think Lockheed “borrowed” (stole?) the Yak-141 configuration for the F-35B lift fan system. I’m curious what you think about that?

    I think that is an unfair accusation. If anything, Lockheed ‘borrowed’ the lift fan concept from the Ryan XV-5A mentioned earlier, although those fans were bleed air driven, not shaft driven. The Yak-141 did not use a lift fan, as far as I am aware it used separate lift engines just like the Yak-38. The only thing left for Lockheed to ‘borrow’from the Yak would be it’s swiveling rear nozzle.

  22. John S. 28 July, 2008 at 3:42 pm #


    As to wasted time and treasure, I think the worst offenders were the US Navy sponsored tail sitters XFV-1 and XFY-1, and the USAF sponsored X-13 VertiJet.

    Let us not even mention the Avro Aerocar!

  23. rapier 28 July, 2008 at 4:21 pm #

    regarding the so called “tail sitters”, you forgot the fourth ….. the French SNECMA C 450 Coléoptère of the late fifties …..

  24. EG 28 July, 2008 at 8:56 pm #

    I am glad to see folks managed to forget about the HU-25 and the HH-65 for the Coasties.
    As far as the Harrier, Camm and Hooker got it right. And Petter didn’t do too bad with the Canberra. The Harrier did benefit from some funding that also produced the VJ-101 and the VAK. As far who got what from where…Aviation seems to consist of new eople trying old ideas with different technology. Oh and BTW, how ’bout that Sherpa for the Army?

  25. John S. 29 July, 2008 at 5:16 pm #


    I was just referring to US wasted treasure. The French of course are free to waste as much of their own treasure as they please!


    You are right on with the helicopters and the Sherpa. Originally, Stephen posited that a possible AC-27J would be the first foreign built combat aircraft, not just a foreign built aircraft, in the US inventory.

    If the B-57 counts, the what about the US Navy T-45 Goshawk?

  26. rapier 29 July, 2008 at 7:53 pm #

    And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, something Soviet ….. pardon, Russian, in the service of United States spaceflight …..

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