The Italian air force has signed a deal with Alenia Aermacchi to develop a gunship variant of its C-27J transport.

It’s called the Praetorian, and it’s meant to blast targets while flying top cover for Italian special forces. The gunship deal was announced on Nov. 18 at the Dubai air show.

The Italian air force will convert three of its existing, twin-engine C-27Js into the MC-27J Praetorian configuration in 2016. Later, a further three aircraft will be modified to carry the Praetorian mission kit—but no date has been specified.

Alenia is partnering with U.S. defense firm ATK to develop the MC-27J. The Praetorian system consists of computers, cameras and unspecified fire-support systems—which could mean side-shooting guns or small missiles dropped out a door or fired from under a wing.

Details regarding the Italian mini-gunships are scarce, but it’s worth noting that the U.S. Special Operations Command had tried to buy armed AC-27Js before Congress pulled the funding in 2010.

Today SOCOM and the Marine Corps possess dozens of gunships based on the much larger, four-engine C-130. These are fitted with a wide range of weapons including 105-millimeter howitzers, 40- and 25-millimeter cannons and Hellfire missiles. The Praetorian’s armament will undoubtedly be lighter than a C-130 gunship’s is.

Alenia says that the new aircraft will be able to act as a command and control post and a communications relay, in addition to pulverizing people and vehicles. The MC-27J will also have an electro-optical and infrared camera, signals intelligence-gathering capability and a video down-link for sharing imagery with ground troops.

The Praetorian project will consist of two phases, according to Alenia. During the first phase, the company will deliver a prototype version of the Praetorian to the Italian air force in the spring of 2014.

Once delivered, the gunship will be put through its paces in an “operational scenario.” The U.S., for one, frequently deploys prototype warplanes to actual combat zones for testing.

The second phase of the Praetorian project will involve manufacturing and logistical support.

MC-27J concept. Alenia art

Meanwhile, SOCOM will take possession of seven C-27Js from the U.S. Air Force, which recently bought 21 of the transports … and then decided it could not afford them.

According to Alenia, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter approved the transfer in late October. U.S. Army pilots will operate the aircraft under the auspices of SOCOM.

The command is already in possession of three of the aircraft. The remaining four are currently being modified to special operations standard, and all seven planes are expected to be in service by April 2014.

Despite the tight schedule, SOCOM has not yet determined the final configuration of its C-27Js, says Benjamin Stone, Alenia’s president and chief executive officer for North America. “We are working closely with the customer to better understand their requirements,” he says.

It is unclear what will happen to the rest of the Air Force’s C-27s. But across the Atlantic in Italy, the diminutive airlifter is getting a new job … as a killer.

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