Warplanes: U.S. Air Force Adopts Militarized Crop Duster

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August 20, 2022: The U.S. Air Force component of SOCOM (Special Operations Command) has selected the AT-802U, the military version of the AT-802 crop duster, to become its Sky Warden Armed Overwatch aircraft. By 2009 SOCOM will have five squadrons of Sky Warden. Each squadron will have fifteen aircraft. One squadron will be for training and have as few as ten aircraft while the other five serve as replacements for those lost. One or two squadrons will serve overseas while two or three are based in the United States for training and preparation for overseas assignments.

Air Tractor, the American firm that makes the popular AT-802 crop duster, introduced a militarized version in 2016, 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 comes after the military began modifying AT-802s for military use in 2008, either for reconnaissance or as a ground attack aircraft. The new AT-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 but about a third of the 900 produced so far have been for military use. Most of these are armed for ground attack of surveillance with dozens of them used to destroy drug producing crops by spraying their fields with herbicides and defoliants. The AT-802 has a built in 3,100-liter (820 gallon) 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 with a full load of weapons. Max range for ferrying operations is 2,400 kilometers. That means the AT-802U can self-deploy overseas via a series of flights lasting up to seven hours each.

In 2009 the first militarized version appeared, with lightweight armor around the cockpit and key components. There was also a bulletproof windscreen. The frame and wings were strengthened to give the aircraft a useful life of 12,000 hours in the air while carrying heavy loads of weapons via hard points under the wings. The armed version can operate at night and has a modern fire control and communications system. Top speed is 394 kilometers an hour, cruise speed is 333 kph and minimum speed is 150 kph. Its ceiling is 4,000 meters (13.000 feet). The single-engine aircraft was built for low altitude operations. The military version added self-sealing fuel tanks and armor around the engine and cockpit as well as bullet proof glass. Operating in a hostile area the militarized AT-802 can survive rifle and machine-gun fire from the ground.

The military version is designed to fly about 500 hours a year at a cost of less than $500 per flight hour. More flight hours can be flown each year but that requires more ground support, and increases ground support requires and flight cost per hour. Normally an AT-802 requires 1.7 man-hours of maintenance per flight hour.

The AT-802 is designed to operate from crude and short air strips, or stretches of dirt road at least 366 meters (1,200 feet) long. The first military version can 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. When used just for surveillance, the two-seat militarized version can stay in the air for up to ten hours while carrying only a ton of sensors.

Middle Eastern nations are major users of the armed version. For example, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) bought 24 of these, 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. These aircraft can use GPS and laser guided bombs. 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.

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 the 2009 military version. By 2009 the customized AT-802s for Colombia had evolved into what is now the AT-802U, a military version 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.

Sky Warden replaces 28 older U-28A Draco ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) aircraft based on the smaller single-engine Pilatus PC-12 trainers. These entered service in 2006 to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. The U-28A will continue in service until the end of the decade, mainly for surveillance missions.

 


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