Warplanes: Slow, Cheap And Easy To Use

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February 14, 2017: The U.S. has agreed to provide Kenya with twelve AT-802U light attack aircraft and two AT-504s (two seat versions of the AT-802 equipped as trainers.) The deal is worth $400 million, which comes out to $28.6 million per aircraft. Without military electronics and weapons systems these aircraft cost about $4 million each. Military type sensors, electronics and weapons systems can triple that price. Add in maintenance and training contracts, spare parts, a supply of ammo plus the usual bribes for local officials and the cost per aircraft can easily get close to $30 million. The AT-802s are meant to replace Kenya’s aging (and largely inoperable) F-5 jet fighters.

Air Tractor, the American firm that makes the popular AT-802 crop duster, now offers a militarized version, called the AT-802U. This version is modified during construction to carry military sensors (like the Sniper XR targeting pod) as well as a variety of weapons. These include the GAU-19 three-barrel 12.7mm machine-gun, the M260 launcher (for seven 70mm unguided or laser guided rockets), Hellfire laser guided missiles and the Mk 82 227 kg (500 pound) bomb. This came after years of the military modifying AT-802s for combat, either for reconnaissance or as a ground attack aircraft. The T-802U comes equipped with eleven hard points for attaching weapons and sensors as well as wiring for adding fire control systems for machine-guns and laser guided missiles.

This 7.2 ton aircraft first appeared in 1990 as a crop duster. The AT-802 had a built in 3,100 liters (820 gallons) tank for insecticide or whatever. But it was soon noted that AT-802s performed well for fire-fighting duties (by dropping fire retardant). Cruising speed of the AT-802 is 356 kilometers an hour and endurance is about three hours.

In 2009 a militarized version appeared, with lightweight armor around the cockpit and key components. There was also a bulletproof windscreen. The frame was strengthened to give the aircraft a useful life of 12,000 hours in the air. This militarized version could have one or two seats plus seven hard points for up to four tons of missiles or bombs and a fire control system to handle smart weapons. The UAE bought 24 of these and in 2015 transferred three AT-802s to the Yemeni Air Force and is training more pilots and maintenance personnel to operate these light bombers. There are already some Yemeni (or UAE) pilots operating the Yemeni AT-802s there. In late 2015 the UAE (United Arab Emirates) donated four U.S. made AT-802 single engine aircraft to Jordan for reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Some have also shown up in Libya, used by local forces fighting Islamic terrorists.

The idea for the militarized version came after eight AT-802 aircraft, paid for by the U.S. State Department, were given to Colombia in 2002. These were used to eradicate drug crops under an American anti-drug program. Because the drug gangs began to shoot at these AT-802s some were modified with the addition of the same type of armor (including self-sealing fuel tanks and internal fire extinguishing system) that showed up in 2009 military version. By 2009 the customized AT-802s for Colombia had evolved into what is now the AT-802U, a military versions which has been increasingly popular for reconnaissance and bombing. Responding to all that Air Tractor decided to build new AT-802s as AT-802Us, already customized with armor, bullet proof-glass and other additions that have been added to the basic crop duster models for nearly a decade.

 


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