Russia Could Be Developing a Gunship

 - July 12, 2019, 3:48 AM
The VKS (Russian Aerospace Forces) continues to operate a dwindling number of aging An-12 transports. (photo: Russian Ministry of Defense)

Russia appears ready to start a project to build a gunship—an aircraft designed for the operational support of land forces—despite the skepticism of some local experts and cloudy prospects. Earlier in July, the state-affiliated TASS news agency cited “sources in the Russian military-industrial complex,” who said that work on the aircraft has already started.

It will be positioned as an analog of the U.S. Air Force’s AC-130W Stinger II (modified MC-130) and will use a modified version of the Antonov An-12 “Cub” transport aircraft as its platform. The weapon system will include a 57mm automatic gun, as well as some smaller-caliber weapons (probably 30mm) and automatic grenade launchers.

The idea for building a similar type of aircraft was discussed in the Soviet Union as far back as the 1930s. The gunship was based on a Tupolev TB-3 heavy bomber and was equipped with 76mm and two 45mm guns. In order to compensate for their poor accuracy, the weapons fired shrapnel shells, which could target troops and lightly armored vehicles. The firing range of the main caliber weapon reached 18 km, which made the aircraft immune to anti-aircraft artillery. Despite certain successes achieved during the tests of that gunship, the project was terminated at the end of 1930s, as its critics were able to prove that the use of unguided rockets by an aircraft was more effective than flying artillery.

The reasons for the resumption of a gunship project have not been disclosed at the state level. Vasily Kashin, head of the department of international military-political and economic problems of the Russian Higher School of Economics, told AIN that the new aircraft could be suitable for counter-insurgency operations in the Northern Caucasus, Central Asia, and Syria, while Russia hopes to mirror the experience of the U.S. and its successful use of the AC-130.

However, a serious problem that may complicate implementation of the project is the lack of an adequate aircraft. “Currently the main obstacle for this project is the lack of a suitable platform, said Kashin. “The Soviet counterpart of the C-130 was the An-12 and serial production of it was stopped in the 1970s. A number of An-12s are still used in the Russian Aerospace Force but they are old and are expected to be retired early next decade. The replacement for them [Il-276] is in the early development stage and cannot be expected in mass production before the end of the next decade. The only type of military transport aircraft that Russia can produce independently is the Il-76MD-90A, which is too heavy and large for this role.”

In the meantime, other leading Russian experts in the field of military aviation remain skeptical regarding the combat capabilities of the newly designed gunship. Dmitry Drozdenko, a senior editor of Arsenal Otechestva, a leading Russian paper in the field of defense and military aviation, told AIN that such aircraft are primarily suitable for the fight with terrorists.

“These aircraft are effective only against an enemy that does not have air defense weapons, i.e. poorly armed formations, terrorists, and the like," commented Drozdenko. “This is proved by the combat use of the American gunships. In Vietnam, this type of aircraft usually avoided attacking areas that could have air defense weapons—even a cannon. In Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, one of these aircraft was shot down by a Strela-2 MANPADS. This, and other losses suggest that the concept of a flying battery itself is good in terms of fire efficiency and destruction, however, due to its lack of defenses, its use against modern regular troops is senseless.”

Representatives from the main command of the Russian Air Forces were unavailable for comment concerning the program.