Dominican Republic A-29 Super Tucano
A pilot and maintainer inspect a Dominican Republic A-29 Super Tucano prior to a night flight. Among its roles, the Dominican Republic uses its A-29s to detect and track illegal drug traffic. (USAF)

In this article Armada focuses on the lighter (and exclusively fixed-wing) end of the light combat and Counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft market, where the focus is on non-traditional warfare and border patrol as opposed to classic air combat tasks.

Back in 2006 the US Air Force (USAF) chief of staff General Norton Schwartz proposed that the service acquire 100 Light Armed Attack Aircraft (LAAR) in order to field a combat wing of the aircraft to support ongoing US-led combat operations in Afghanistan. Thus began a renewed focus on a class of light combat and COIN aircraft that had last seen significant development in the US during the country’s engagement in Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1975. The LAAR initiative was then reined in as part of former US defence secretary Robert Gates cost-cutting measures. Plans for the USAF to acquire a light combat platform of its own were replaced instead by a proposal to assist ‘partner nations’ (such as Iraq and Afghanistan) in learning to operate such aircraft.

Super Tucano
The Embraer A-29 Super Tucano in one of its natural habitats; over the jungles of the Amazon region, in the hands of the Brazilian Air Force. Brazil became launch customer for the Super Tucano in 1995. (FAB)

In order to help select a platform, the US Air National Guard (ANG) conducted a demonstration of the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6BTexan-II (subsequently re-designated in the US the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine) in an effort separate to LAAR. Meanwhile, the US Navy’s Irregular Warfare Office conducted another demonstration, known as IMMINENT FURY, using the Embraer A-29/EMB-314 Super Tucano.

Launched in 2009 as a follow-on to the LAAR programme, the USAF Light Air Support (LAS) solicitation was originally put out to potential vendors in October 2010. In December 2011 the USAF awarded a contract to Sierra Nevada for 20 A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, but in March 2012 the USAF cancelled the LAS contract, with secretary of the air force Michael Donley stating the reason as being that “air force senior acquisition executive David Van Buren (was) not satisfied with the quality of the documentation supporting the award decision.” In May 2012 a new Request For Proposals (RFP) was issued. Finally, in February 2013 the LAS contract, now worth $427 million, was awarded again to Sierra Nevada. 

Market leader

Within the market for turboprop light attack aircraft the EMB-314 Super Tucano and AT-6 Wolverine continue to lead the way. However, the EMB-314 maintains a clear dominance in terms of foreign customers, with around 190 examples delivered to date [including 99 for the Força Aérea Brasileira (FAB) / Brazilian Air Force], and orders for 30 more.

Under the USAF’s LAS programme, 20 A-29s are being provided to the Afghan Air Force. By November 2015 Sierra Nevada had delivered 13 of the 20 aircraft on order, all of which are being assembled at a new plant in Jacksonville, Florida. The type began combat missions in Afghanistan earlier this year.

Smaller numbers of the aircraft have been purchased by Angola, Burkina Faso, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Lebanon, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal. As the major operator of the type, the FAB employs the A-29 within its SIVAM (System for the Vigilance of the Amazon) programme, which includes interception of illegal flights and light attack missions in the Amazon basin. The FAB also uses the type as an advanced trainer. In August 1995 Brazil placed an initial order for 50 single-seat A-29s and 50 two-seaters, later revised to a total of 99 aircraft. The first of these officially entered FAB service in 2004.

A-29
This A-29 is one of the first four examples that were delivered to Afghanistan, arriving at Hamid Karzai International Airport in January 2016. The Afghan Air Force’s first eight combat-ready attack pilots undertook training with the USAF’s 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody airbase, Georgia. (USAF)

Colombia was the first export customer for the A-29, receiving 25 examples from December 2006. These were also the first A-29s to see combat, going into action against communist guerrillas in January 2007. In November 2009 the Chilean Air Force received the first of twelve aircraft, these being the first to feature a full ‘glass’ cockpit, with three displays instead of two. The Dominican Republic received the first of eight aircraft in December 2009. In January 2010 Ecuador began receiving aircraft from an initial order of 24 that was later reduced to 18.

Dominican Republic A-29 Super Tucano
A pilot and maintainer inspect a Dominican Republic A-29 Super Tucano prior to a night flight. Among its roles, the Dominican Republic uses its A-29s to detect and track illegal drug traffic. (USAF)

The A-29 has also attracted interest from private security companies. The US contractor Blackwater (via its subsidiary EP Aviation), now called Academi, acquired one example in 2008 for training. The aircraft was later sold to Tactical Air, was armed and received a forward-looking infrared turret for use in the IMMINENT FURY programme (see above).

African sales of the A-29 comprise three examples for Burkina Faso (delivered in 2011), six sold to Angola in 2012, three to Mauritania, three aircraft ordered by Senegal in April 2013, three aircraft donated to Mozambique by the Brazilian government in March 2014, six sold to Mali in June 2015 and five aircraft sold to Ghana in the same month. The A-29’s presence in Asia was launched by Indonesia, which had received an initial eight aircraft by 2014; Jakarta currently is negotiating a second batch of eight aircraft. In the Middle East, a Lebanese order for six A-29s was confirmed in November 2015. These aircraft will be built in the US by Sierra Nevada at a cost of $172.5 million.

The rivals

Like its Brazilian A-29 counterpart, the AT-6 Wolverine is based on the airframe of a turboprop trainer, in this case the successful T-6 Texan-II, 900 of which have been built or are on order. While the Wolverine was developed to meet the USAF’s LAAR requirement (see above), some of the T-6s have also been delivered in armed configurations. These include 20 Greek T-6As capable of carrying external fuel tanks and unguided weapons, Moroccan T-6Cs that feature a ‘glass’ cockpit, stores management system and underwing hardpoints, and the Mexican T-6C+ that also offers weapons capabilities.

Beechcraft has flown three AT-6 prototype/demonstrator aircraft and despite its loss in the LAS competition, USAF/Air National Guard-funded trials have continued, including test firings of the BAE Systems Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) and Raytheon Talon laser-guided rockets. A potential launch customer for the Wolverine is Iraq, which already operates 15 unarmed T-6A trainers. The US State Department has approved a possible deal for up to 24 aircraft for Iraq.

Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverines
A pair of Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverines toting an impressive load of weapons including laser-guided bombs, rockets and gun pods. Also visible under the fuselage of the aircraft is the forward-mounted FLIR Systems AN/AAQ-22 Star SAFIRE II surveillance and targeting turret. (Beechcraft)

Beyond the established players in the field, there are a number of other entrants in the fixed-wing light combat and COIN category. In South Africa, Pretoria-based aerospace group, Aerosud has developed the all-new Advanced High-Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft (AHRLAC). Developed to fulfil the manned airborne COIN role as well as for use as a surveillance platform, the AHRLAC is also promoted as being ideal for emergency relief and disaster management situations. Aimed as a low-cost solution for developing countries, the aircraft is powered by a Pratt and Whitney Canada PT6A-66 turbine.

Speaking to Armada, Aerosud’s new business development executive Leon Potgieter outlined the programme’s achievements to date: “The AHRLAC has been going along very strong and we have accumulated 150 total hours on the aircraft. We have had zero failures and no breakdown, which is a great testimony to how the aircraft has been built. We have deployed the aircraft on various missions above the normal testing of the aircraft to test operational capability. We are also in the process of building a second aircraft. This aircraft will have more advanced avionics, retractable landing gear, on-board oxygen and will have ejection seats from onset. We are also in the process of partnering up with various suppliers.”

Earlier this year Paramount announced an agreement with Boeing under which the two firms will jointly weaponise and integrate Boeing mission systems and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) payloads for the AHRLAC. Boeing will actively market the aircraft alongside Paramount to target international customers. As part of the marketing drive, the militarised AHRLAC has also received the name Mwari.

Developed on the basis of an agricultural aircraft, the Air Tractor AT-802U was introduced in 2009 and is marketed primarily for the armed surveillance mission. Speaking to this publication, Air Tractor’s vice president of business development Charles Miller revealed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Jordan currently operate a total of 28 AT-802U aircraft. “In addition we have 14 aircraft that have been operating in Colombia, which are armoured but not armed, for the last 15 years. We have a sale for twelve additional aircraft to a Middle East country and have on-going discussions in the Middle East, Asia-Pacific, Africa and South America. We have recently teamed with L-3 Communications to develop the AT-802L model which has several upgrades compared to the U-model.” Mr Miller also explained that the company would continue to market the baseline AT-802U and as well as the new AT-802L, also known as the Longsword.

While Air Tractor has teamed up with L-3 Communications as systems integrator for the AT-802, the original integrator, IOMAX, continues to have a stake in the market. IOMAX was originally contracted by the UAE to supply 24 AT-802, before launching its own Archangel aircraft. IOMAX uses the Thrush 710P agricultural aircraft as the basis for its Archangel, which made its public debut in 2015. The UAE has also acquired the Archangel, and as deliveries have continued, some of the previous AT-802U aircraft have been passed on to allies in the region, including Jordan and Yemen.

IOMAX Archangel
Representing a new development in the light attack/COIN segment are adapted versions of established agricultural aircraft designs. This is an example of the IOMAX Archangel, based on the Thrush 710P two-seat crop-duster. (IOMAX)

Legacy Platforms

In terms of legacy fixed-wing COIN platforms, the Fabrica Argentina de Aviones (FAdeA) IA-58 Pucará is one of the more established, and this twin-engine turboprop entered service in Argentina in 1976. A total of 105 aircraft were completed and delivered to Argentina, Sri Lanka and Uruguay. Currently, FAdeA is working on a Pucará upgrade, which is progressing along two different paths, as Latin American aerospace analyst Santiago Rivas explains. “One upgrade path concerns the avionics, to install an inertial navigation system, a Head-Up Display (HUD) and other systems, which are currently being tested. The other area concerns new Pratt and Whitney Canada PT6A-62 engines.” Argentina hopes to upgrade 20 of its IA-58s to the IA-58H standard by the end of 2020. Mr. Rivas confirmed that the new engines will also be offered to Uruguay, which maintains a fleet of eight aircraft, of which only two remain operational. Facing a shortage of spares for the type, Uruguay is considering the retirement of the IA-58. Ground tests of the new powerplant began in August 2015.

Another Cold War-era COIN aircraft the Rockwell International/Boeing OV-10 Bronco has also returned to prominence in recent years. Under the Combat Dragon II initiative, two OV-10G+ aircraft were modified for a “warfighter rapid-response programme” on behalf of the US Navy. Combat Dragon II saw the OV-10G+s tested for their suitability in a COIN environment, including combat trials against the so-called Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. Modifications included a digital cockpit upgrade and the ability to fire 69.8mm (2.75inches) and 127mm (five inch), the APKWS, and an off-the-shelf sensor turret under the nose.

Turboprop Team

Following the lead of Embraer and Beechcraft, a number of manufacturers of turboprop trainers now offer adaptations of their aircraft for the light attack and COIN roles. The Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) Hürkuş-C is the light attack counterpart to the Hürkuş-A primary and basic trainer and the Hürkuş-B advanced trainer. Ünsiye Nazlı Demiröz, a TAI spokesperson, outlined the status of the programme. “Hürkuş-C is the modified version of Hürkuş-B that will be capable of fulfilling operational requirements of both training and armed reconnaissance missions and compliant with light air support aircraft and light attack/armed reconnaissance aircraft requirements. Hürkuş-C preliminary design activities are on-going … Within the scope of the Hürkuş programmes, fourHürkuş-A aircraft have been produced. A total of 15 Hürkuş-B aircraft will be produced for the Turkish Air Force. Contract negotiations between TAI and different counties for Hürkuş aircrafts continue. We have target markets and potential future customers.”

In the Republic of Korea (RoK), Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) offers its KA-1 as a light attack derivative of the KT-1 Woong-Bee trainer. The manufacturer completed 85 examples of the KT-1 basic trainer for the RoK and had delivered the KT-1B export version to Indonesia. The KA-1 was developed primarily as a Forward Air Control (FAC) aircraft for the Republic of Korea Air Force. Development began in 2000, with the addition of a weapons management system and related cockpit display, HUD, hands on throttle and stick controls and underwing hardpoints. In December 2003 a contract for 20 aircraft was awarded and deliveries of these aircraft were undertaken between August 2005 and October 2007.

Serbia’s Utva, meanwhile, has developed the Kobac (Sparrowhawk) as a light attack version of its Lasta-95 trainer, which is in service with Serbia and has been exported to Iraq (20 examples). Progress on the Kobac, however, has been slow, as confirmed by local military analyst Igor Salinger. “A full-scale mock-up has been completed, using an old Lasta-2 airframe, PT6 turboprop engine and wingtip fuel tanks, and was shown to the public in 2012. So far no sales have been reported.” In the meantime, however, Iraq has begun to operate its Lasta-95s in a COIN role, equipping these aircraft with unguided rockets, gun pods, and ‘dumb’ bombs. Mr. Salinger considers it unlikely that the Kobac project will be completed unless a customer can be found in advance to secure the funding required for development.

The latest entrant in the turboprop trainer market is the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Hindustan Turbo Trainer (HTT) 40, which completed its first flight in May 2016. HAL hopes to build 200 HTT-40s, and has announced plans to export a ‘weaponised’ version. Reports in the Indian media suggest that HAL has identified potential customers including Afghanistan, Burma and certain unnamed African nations.

The renegade

Unique among the aircraft in this study is the Textron AirLand Scorpion, a jet-powered entrant in the light attack/COIN marketplace. Although it is yet to win any orders as a trainer or combat aircraft, the Scorpion has attracted interest from a variety of potential operators. Billed as a lightweight reconnaissance and strike aircraft, the Scorpion was announced in December 2013 and before long was being linked with possible sales to Nigeria and the UAE.

The innovation behind the Scorpion extends to its extensive use of off-the-shelf commercial parts. “We routinely make software updates to the avionics system in days, not months,” noted Dale Tutt, the Scorpion’s chief engineer. Textron AirLand claim an operating cost of just $3000 per hour for the Scorpion, and a unit price of less than $20 million per aircraft.

While a traditional force of fighter aircraft remains the ultimate goal of most combat air forces, aircraft like the Scorpion demonstrate that significant capability can be brought to bear at a fraction of the cost. Furthermore, while certain missions will continue to be dominated by high-performance jets, the performance of lightweight COIN types in recent asymmetric combat environments demonstrates that there is a clear niche in which these dedicated light attack platforms will invariably excel.

by Thomas Newdick