Thursday, September 17, 2009

The USAF's new Light Strike Aircraft - getting interesting!

Things are beginning to look very interesting in the USAF's request for proposals for a Light Strike Aircraft, about which I wrote a few weeks ago. According to Flight Global's report at the time:

The US Air Force has issued a request for information to identify sources that can supply 100 new fighters to perform light attack and armed reconnaissance roles.

Air Combat Command released a request for information on July 27 that calls for first aircraft deliveries to start in Fiscal 2012 and the first operational squadron to activate a year later.

The requirements call for a two-seat turboprop capable of flying up to 30,000ft and equipped with zero-altitude/zero-airspeed ejection seats, full motion video camera, data link, infrared suppressor, radar warning receiver and armored cockpit. Weapons must include a gun, two 500-lb bombs, 2.75-inch rockets and rail-launched munitions.

That's a simple enough outline: but what's emerging in response to this request for information makes me sit up and take notice. Hawker Beechcraft have proposed a further development of their T-6 Texan II training aircraft to handle this requirement. Aviation Week reported yesterday:

The AT-6 that will be proposed for the US Air Force's Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) requirement, if it becomes a program, will have 1,600 shaft horses under the hood.

In fact, it will have the same more-powerful PT6A-68 on the nose as its major rival for LAAR, the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano. And, as detailed here at AFA by Hawker Beechcraft and new team-mate Lockheed Martin, the AT-6 will be [a] more serious fighting machine than perhaps was first envisioned.

Artist's impression of Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 (image courtesy of Hawker Beechcraft)

In additon to the bigger engine, the aircraft will get the mission system from the upgraded A-10C, with satcom, datalinks, full-motion-video downlink, missile warning, countermeasures, armor and fuel-tank protection. A high-definition color EO/IR sensor with laser designator will be carried on a hardpoint under the fuselage and six underwing stations will carry gun and rocket pods, 250lb or 500lb precision-guided bombs, Hellfire missiles and guided rockets.

The aircraft is being developed in steps. An avionics prototype, AT-1, is flying now with the CMC Electronics digital cockpit avionics and displays. This will be modified towards year-end to integrate and test tle Lockheed Martin mission system. Work has started on a second prototype, AT-2, that will have the big engine and other changes.

There's more at the link.

Now that's interesting! For the benefit of those who haven't studied this category of aircraft much, let's have a look at the history of the field in recent years, and see why this might be a very significant development.

The USAF developed the Fairchild-Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II as a dedicated ground attack and close-support aircraft in the 1970's.

It was never popular with the 'fighter jocks' who ran (and, to a large extent, still run) the USAF, as it's slow, ungainly and 'un-sexy', to coin a phrase. Nevertheless, it's proved enormously effective in combat, from the first Gulf War to the present conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops on the ground reportedly prefer its capabilities to those of any and all other close-support aircraft. (An interesting and sometimes amusing story of A-10 close support in Afghanistan may be found here, if you're interested.)

Taking a leaf out of the USAF's book, the Soviet Union developed its own 'Thunderbolt-ski', the Sukhoi Su-25 close support aircraft (NATO code name 'Frogfoot').

(Oddly enough, in some respects it resembled the Northrop YA-9, that company's competitor to the Fairchild-Republic YA-10, the latter being selected by the USAF and the former discarded without further development. One wonders how much industrial espionage may have taken place . . . ) However, despite being built in large numbers and operated all over the world, the SU-25 has not achieved similar success to the A-10. A large number have reportedly been lost operationally due to various reasons.

No other nation followed the USA and Soviet Union in developing a dedicated (i.e. purpose-designed) 'heavy' ground attack and close air support aircraft. Instead, conventional fighter-bombers were employed for this purpose. Given the slowness and relative lack of sophistication of the A-10, there were demands from the 'fighter jocks' in the USAF for its replacement by the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which was much faster, and multi-role to boot: but the A-10's spectacular performance during Operation Desert Storm proved that no other aircraft could approach its effectiveness in its designed role. Over 300 of the USAF's A-10's are now being upgraded to the 'C' standard, with re-sparred wings and vastly more capable electronics and systems. It's planned to keep them in service for up to two more decades.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian aerospace company Embraer had been working quietly on an idea to suit it's country's needs. Brazil is an immensely large nation, with tens of thousands of square miles of trackless jungles and forests to patrol. Its Air Force needed an economical way to do this. Fast jets were largely useless - they flew too fast to see what happening on the ground, given the very low visibility of jungle terrain, and consumed far too much fuel to be able to cover enough territory.

Embraer took its EMB-312 Tucano turboprop trainer aircraft:

and 'grew' it exponentially into the EMB-314 Super Tucano:

This had a much more powerful engine, a much longer range, the ability to carry weapons beneath the wings . . . in short, it could be described as a smaller, slower, less capable version of the A-10, at a very much lower price. It proved highly successful. Embraer's sold 88 of them so far, to the Brazilian Air Force and other South American air forces. As I reported in July, at least one, and perhaps as many as four Super Tucanos are currently being tested by the US Navy as light strike aircraft to support SEAL operations.

Embraer's naturally eager to see the Super Tucano win the USAF competition for a light strike aircraft, and is expected to partner with a US manufacturer in an effort to win the contract.

Meanwhile, the Raytheon Aircraft Company (today part of Hawker Beechcraft) developed the T-6 Texan II to meet the requirements of the USAF and US Navy for a new primary training aircraft.

They licensed the design of the Swiss Pilatus PC-9, and further developed it to meet USAF requirements. The T-6 is not dissimilar to the Tucano, using the same engine and having similar performance.

As described above, Hawker Beechcraft are now developing an armed version of the T-6, known as the AT-6, to meet the USAF's light strike requirement. Given its use of the same electronics systems as the A-10C, it's likely to be a very capable aircraft indeed. Embraer will doubtless point out that it doesn't have the range or proven operational record of their Super Tucano, but since the AT-6 will be to the T-6 what the Super Tucano was to the original Tucano, I don't think this will be much of a problem. Besides, it's unlikely the USAF will require the very long range (up to 3,000 miles in ferry configuration) of the Super Tucano. Brazil needed such range to patrol the vastness of its jungle-covered interior. The USAF would deploy such close support aircraft to bases no more than a few hundred (perhaps only a few score) miles from where they would be needed. A long loiter time is a valuable asset, but it doesn't have to be that long!

This has all sorts of interesting implications for the USAF itself, and for allied air forces. Consider:

  • The AT-6 will have all (or most of) the electronics of the latest-generation A-10. What its 'big brother' can find and hit, it can also find and hit. Ground troops are going to love that.
  • It's going to be far more cost-effective than a jet aircraft in the low-and-slow, close air support role. From the initial cost of the aircraft (the Super Tucano sells for $9 million, and I daresay the AT-6 will be in the same ballpark - perhaps higher if its electronics are much more sophisticated: but the cheapest jet strike aircraft now being manufactured in the USA costs $40-$50 million), through lower operating costs (an order of magnitude less than a fast jet), this will be a much more affordable solution.
  • The AT-6 can carry the same 'smart' weapons as the A-10 or any other USAF aircraft (it'll have the electronic systems to use them, too). This means it won't have to fly 'down in the weeds' to deliver unguided ordnance, putting itself at risk from hostile fire and endangering friendly forces if it misses its target. It can rely on troops on the ground to designate targets by laser, or by providing GPS co-ordinates, and drop its weapons with great accuracy. It can even designate targets for itself and other aircraft in company, using its own designation systems.
  • The AT-6 will require much lower levels of support than fast jets. Maintenance will be simpler, operating facilities won't have to be so sophisticated - the aircraft could even be flown from rough dirt airstrips, if necessary, and if their undercarriages were strengthened for the purpose, as Embraer did to the Super Tucano. This will be particularly attractive to 'friendly' air forces that aren't as sophisticated as the USAF. Their less-well-trained mechanics and artisans will probably be able to cope with the smaller, simpler aircraft, whereas they'd battle to support a more sophisticated fast jet fighter.

There will be other competitors for the USAF's requirement. Alenia Aermacchi of Italy is making noises about offering its M-346 jet trainer in a light attack version, perhaps in partnership with Boeing, and I'm sure others will come out of the woodwork. Nevertheless, I think that Hawker Beechcraft have a very good idea here. By combining the systems of the enormously effective A-10 (in its latest, upgraded version) with the proven reliability of the T-6, it might have a winner on its hands.



LL said...

The PC-9 is a fine aircraft. There was a point in time about five years ago where I thought I might be able to afford one. Things didn't work out, but I have never lost the bug.

Anonymous said...

Somebody should simply bring out an upgraded version of the old A-1 Skyraider( the"Spad") used in Viet Nam. Four 20mm cannon and a serious payload. What's not to like?

Steve said...

Interesting that they did not point out that it would work well with drones from a targeting / payload partnership.

Neat idea, but this becomes a real paradigm shif tfor USAF. I hope the potential of this aircraft is fully realized!