Warplanes: Instant Air Force For the Impoverished

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February 19, 2018: The United States has found an inexpensive and effective way to supply allies with aircraft well suited for counter-terror operations and when it was called on to help rebuild the Chad air force it applied these solutions. It all began in July 2017 when a severe storm (high winds and heavy rain) hit the main airbase of the Chad Air Force. Three (of six) helicopters were destroyed or heavily damaged and several hangers were torn apart. The flying debris from these structures damaged a MiG-29, a PC-12 and two Su-25s rendering these aircraft inoperable until repaired.

Chad, a key ally in the fight against Boko Haram in Nigeria and Islamic terrorists throughout the region, had lost most of its airpower. Located in central Africa, south of Libya, had joined with its neighbors, France and the Americans to better deal with the Islamic terrorists, smugglers and bandits that have long been a problem and are often the same people. Chad has some of the most experienced ground troops and these soldiers depended on air support from a fellow Chadian. The U.S. had faced this situation several times in the previous decade and had developed proven solutions.

By the end of the year the Americans delivered two Cessna 208B aircraft equipped for surveillance and reconnaissance with more to come. These 208Bs (and similar AT-802U armed, with laser designators and Hellfire laser guided missiles) had already proved themselves when provided to Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya.

Interestingly the U.S. Air Force has not been interested in using the 208s or 802s. But nations who needed effective air power in a hurry and had limited financial and human (pilots and ground crew) resources these commercial aircraft, which were used worldwide in remote areas for crop dusting (AT-802) or moving people and freight (208B) were an ideal solution. Both aircraft can be equipped with surveillance cameras and sensors that are about as easy to use as a smart phone app. Adding a laser designator and fire control hardware for laser guided missiles is the next step. But what these poor countries need the most is aerial reconnaissance and surveillance. These single engine prop-driven aircraft are easy to learn to fly (all pilots initially learn to fly on similar aircraft. Same with ground crews. A good truck mechanics can keep these aircraft going.

These two aircraft are much cheaper to purchase and operate than the much more complex and expensive aircraft Western air forces use. Oddly enough the For the United States cost was not the only issue.

Since the 1990s the kinds of wars the United States has been involved with involve more surveillance than actual use of weapons. In fact, since 2001 only about seven percent of sorties resulted in a weapon being used. When you make that adjustment the ability of a heavy bomber (B-1B or B-52) to carry a lot of smart bombs backfires, because most, if not all, of those bombs will return unused. While an F-16 carries fewer bombs or missiles, it is still more expensive per flight hour to operate (about $23,000 versus $58,000 for the B-1B). Even the A-10 costs about $18,000 per flight hour. A UAV like Predator or Reaper costs one to three thousand dollars an hour. The smaller aircraft or UAVs become more than 90 percent cheaper to use. This was a major embarrassment for the fans of big bombers and fast jets. The 208Bs and 802s do the job for far less.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. successfully adapted civilian aircraft like the Cessna Caravan 208B and Air Tractor AT-802 for reconnaissance or armed with laser guided missiles, for air support. This arrangement was cheap and easy to use, which suited allies like the Afghans and Arabs (not just the Iraqis). The 208B is a large, single engine, aircraft that is mainly used to carry up to 14 passengers or 1.3 tons of cargo. The four ton 208B has a cruising speed of 317 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for about six hours per sortie. The 208 has been in service since the mid-1980s and over 2,000 have been built. New ones cost about $2 million each but there are lots of much cheaper used 208Bs out there. It was found that equipping 208Bs with laser targeting equipment and two Hellfires was very effective at providing ground support.

Even more effective was a militarized crop duster, the Air Tractor AT-802. Cruising speed of the AT-802 is 356 kilometers an hour and endurance is about three hours. The militarized version (802U) has 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. It can 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. Militarized commercial aircraft like the 208B or Air Tractor are more like a UAV when it comes to flight hour cost.

The U.S. Air Force has been conducting a search for what they call OA-X. This is to be an inexpensive dual use (training/attack) aircraft. The air force would prefer a jet, and many new jet trainers are designed with this alternate attack or surveillance duty in mind. Some new aircraft, like Scorpion, have been designed for the competition but there are existing aircraft like the AT-6C that can do the job. Non-jets like the A-29 Super Tucano are also proposed. While the 208B and AT-802 are OK for impoverished allies, the American aviation leaders want something more, well, presentable. That is another issue that someone should do something about but that never seems to happen.

Aircraft the U.S. is willing to consider for their own use are armed trainers, either powered by jets or turbo-props. The Brazilian A29 Super Tucano already has most of the market for such warplanes. This five ton, single engine, single seat aircraft was built for pilot training, but also performs quite well for counter-insurgency work. The Super Tucano is basically a prop driven trainer that is equipped for combat missions. The aircraft can carry up to 1.5 tons of weapons, including 12.7mm machine-guns, bombs and missiles. The aircraft cruises at about 500 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for about 6.5 hours per sortie. One of the options is a FLIR (infrared radar that produces a photo realistic video image in any weather) and a fire control system for bombing. Several nations are using the Super Tucanos for counter-insurgency work. The aircraft is also used for border patrol by the United States. The Super Tucano costs $9 million each, and come in one or two seat versions. The bubble canopy provides excellent visibility. This, coupled with its slow speed (versus jets), makes it an excellent ground attack aircraft.

The U.S. sold more than two dozen AT-802s and the UAE provided these to Yemen and Libya for use against Islamic terrorists. This allows local forces to have their own air support with pilots talking to their troops on the ground and providing timely and very effective ground support. Thus even wealthy Gulf oil states see the advantages of these inexpensive, simple and effective aircraft.

 


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