|For a time it looked as if the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might spark
demand for dedicated counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft, the way Vietnam gave new
life to the A-1 Skyraider and spurred development of the OV-10 Bronco.
A little more than two years ago, the U.S. Air Force envisioned operating a
fleet of 100 light-attack/armed reconnaissance aircraft as part of a specialized
irregular-warfare wing, and the Navy was evaluating an organic light-attack
platform for its special operations forces. Now it looks unlikely that U.S.
forces will use COIN aircraft in combat, instead acquiring small fleets with
which to train and equip other nations.
History will likely blame the decline in U.S. interest in dedicated
light-attack platforms on shifting requirements, inter-service rivalry and
pork-barrel politics. But for manufacturers with aircraft to offer, even reduced
fleets mean significant business and an inroad to export orders.
When USAF released the original “capability request for information” for the
Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program in July 2009, it drew responses
ranging from an armed Air Tractor AT-802U to a modernized OV-10(X) proposed by
Boeing. LAAR has since been subsumed into the Light Air Support (LAS)
As outlined in the October 2010 request for proposals, the more modest LAS
covers the procurement of 20 aircraft for delivery to the Afghan air force
beginning in 2013, plus another 15 to meet USAF’s scaled-down LAAR requirement
for aircraft with which to “build partner capability”—i.e., train less-capable
With a ceiling of 55 aircraft and $950 million, LAS is to be an
indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract, suggesting more orders could
follow. Declared bidders are Hawker Beechcraft (HBC) of Wichita with the AT-6
and Sierra Nevada Corp., acting as U.S. prime for Brazilian manufacturer
Embraer’s offer of Super Tucanos assembled in Jacksonville, Fla.
Bidders must offer turnkey training and logistics support: HBC plans to
provide AT-6 training for Afghan instructors and U.S. advisers at Salina, Kan.
Sierra Nevada would perform Super Tucano training at Clovis, N.M., adjacent to
Cannon AFB, while Embraer plans to supply the training devices.
The LAS competition brings together two aircraft with similar capabilities
but different histories. The AT-6 is a development of the T-6 Texan II turboprop
trainer produced for the Air Force and Navy. HBC previously delivered armed
versions of the T-6, but the AT-6 has an integrated surveillance/attack mission
system supplied by Lockheed Martin and derived from its avionics package in the
upgraded A-10C attack aircraft.
The Super Tucano, although related to the earlier Tucano turboprop trainer,
was a new design developed to meet a Brazilian air force
light-attack/advanced-trainer requirement. “The Super Tucano was built for COIN,
to operate in an austere environment, with a comfortable cockpit for long flight
duration and an open avionics architecture to integrate new systems and
weapons,” says Acir Padilha, Embraer’s vice president of military marketing. The
Super Tucano carries two .50-cal machine guns in the wing, has five hardpoints
under the wing and one under the fuselage for a FLIR turret.
Embraer has delivered 152 Super Tucanos, with a backlog of 28 orders that
will continue production through 2012. The Brazilian air force has received 89
of 99 on order, the Super Tucano equipping one training squadron and three
operational units charged with protecting resources in the Amazon and policing
the borders with Bolivia and Paraguay.
Aircraft have been sold to Chile (12), Colombia (25), the Dominican Republic
(eight), Ecuador (18), Indonesia (eight for delivery in 2012) and an undisclosed
African customer (nine). Only the Chilean aircraft are solely for training. The
Colombian, Dominican and Ecuadorean air forces use theirs for counter-narcotics
and close air support missions, with the Colombian aircraft flown primarily at
The AT-6’s capability has been developed over a couple of spirals and
demonstrated with congressional funding support from the U.S. Air National Guard
(ANG). The AT-6 flew with its uprated Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68D engine
in April 2010 and the complete mission-system capability, including full-motion
video sensor, secure communications, helmet-mounted cueing, missile warning and
infrared (IR) countermeasures, was demonstrated late last year. “The system for
the ANG demo was more sophisticated than that required for LAS,” says Derek
Hess, HBC director for light attack.
In addition to flying close air support, forward air control and other
missions for the ANG, the two company-funded AT-6 prototypes have demonstrated
the slow-speed intercept role, including flying in a U.S. Northern Command
exercise in the Washington area. The AT-6 intercepted slow-flying targets using
remote radar data fed to the aircraft.
The Navy, meanwhile, selected the Super Tucano to demonstrate an organic
“find/fix/finish” capability for its special forces using a maneuverable,
long-endurance, low-heat-signature platform. Imminent Fury was a classified
program under which the Navy in 2008 leased a Super Tucano owned by EP Aviation,
part of the former Blackwater security company, to develop tactics, techniques
The plan was to follow the single-aircraft demonstration at NAS Fallon, Nev.,
with the deployment of four Super Tucanos leased from Embraer to validate the
concept operationally, but Congress refused to fund the program. Lawmakers
criticized the Navy and Air Force for not working jointly. Then-Sen. Samuel
Brownback (R-Kan.) and then-Rep. Todd Tiarht (R‑Kan.) also worked to block the
four-aircraft lease, fearing the 100-aircraft LAAR program would go to Embraer
because the AT-6, manufactured in their home state, would not be ready.
Despite a plea for funding from then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Imminent Fury stalled. But Padilha says it
“demonstrated field commanders needed the capability urgently,” and paved the
way for the LAS program to equip the Afghan air force. USAF, meanwhile, is
seeking funding for the first nine LAAR aircraft in fiscal 2012, to be purchased
as part of the LAS contract.
A competitive fly-off between the AT-6 and Super Tucano was conducted at
Kirtland AFB, N.M., in January, one of each aircraft flying three sorties: one
to demonstrate the sensor capability and simulated weapon deployment, one to
show operation from an unprepared runway and one in an aerobatic sortie to
validate suitability for training. The LAS contract is to be awarded in June or
There is a wider resurgence of interest in light attack and armed
reconnaissance platforms for several reasons. One is that the ratio of cost to
performance for surveillance and targeting systems continues to improve, to the
point where they now make sense on a small aircraft.
Another is that many militaries are interested in the “armed overwatch”
capability provided by unmanned aircraft like the Predator and Reaper, but
cannot acquire them because the Missile Technology Control Regime bans their
export in most cases. This has generated demand for sensor- and weapon-equipped
versions of relatively low-cost aircraft ranging from Hellfire-armed Cessna
Caravans to EADS CN-235 light gunships.
The main beneficiary so far is Alliant Techsystems (ATK), which entered the
light attack field in 2008 when its Texas-based aircraft modification unit—the
former Mission Research Corp., acquired in 2004—delivered Cessna AC-208B Combat
Caravans to USAF for use by the Iraqi air force. The Caravans are equipped with
IR/laser-designator turrets and missile-approach warning systems and have a
single-rail Hellfire missile launcher under each wing.
ATK’s newest project is a joint venture with Jordan’s King Abdullah II Design
and Development Bureau (KADDB) to modify a pair of EADS CN-235 military
transports into “light gunships.” The aircraft will be armed with a trainable
30-mm M230 gun (as used on the AH-64 Apache) and equipped with ATK’s STAR
mission system—a big-screen operator console combining surveillance,
communications and weapon functions—self-defense systems and an L-3 Wescam
MX-15D sensor and designator turret. Stub wings above the landing gear sponsons
can carry quadruple Hellfire launchers and 70-mm rocket pods—the latter
potentially laser-guided—and the aircraft will have local armor.
The main role of the gunships will be border surveillance. Advantages of the
platform include persistence, the ability to use small airfields and the fact
that the Jordanian air force already uses the CN-235. (The first two aircraft,
due to be delivered in 2013, were acquired from the Spanish air force.) ATK
hopes there will be more demand for the modification package, and KADDB sees
future aircraft being modified in Jordan.
Beyond the CN-235, ATK is also involved with Mohawk Technologies of Florida
in a venture to return the Grumman OV-1D Mohawk—a COIN aircraft produced for the
Army in the 1960s—to operational use. A demonstrator has been equipped with a
FLIR Star Safire turret and a ventral, trainable M230 gun.