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AT-6B Texan II Shines at JEFX, But the Future Is Unclear

The Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B Texan II is being tested in realistic, mock-war conditions at a time when the U. S. Air Force may have a declining interest in light-armed combat aircraft.

As part of a “demonstration” funded by congressional earmarks and being conducted in two phases – or spirals – the AT-6B took part in Joint Expeditionary Forces Exercise 10-3 (JEFX 10-3) at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Test pilot Lt. Col. Keith “Coma” Colmer deployed to Nellis April 12 for two weeks, and flew six missions, including one mission that was 4.5 hours in length, logging a total of 17.5 flight hours. “The theme of the exercise was irregular warfare,” said Colmer. “Our focus was on net-centric activities, datalink, and so on. We were designed for that.”

Lt. Col. Keith “Coma” Colmer and Hawker Beechcraft program manager Derek “Turk” Hess fly the first AT-6B at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., in April 2010. Air National Guard via Robert F. Dorr.

Colmer belongs to the Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC) at Tucson, Ariz. Spiral One of the demonstration, which included participation in the JEFX, uses the first of two AT-6Bs built. The second aircraft is expected to join Spiral Two this fall.

Colmer landed an AT-6B in a remote, dry lakebed on the Nellis range and refueled it on the ground from an MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker. This test of operations close to, or behind, enemy lines, went “flawlessly,” Colmer said.

JEFX 10-3 also tested whether the Texan II is suitable for rapid training of “partner nation” pilots with no previous AT-6B experience.

Lt. Col. Tom “Narly” McNurlin, AATC deputy for operations, an experienced A-10 Warthog flyer, said, “The test question was, ‘Can I sit somebody in this airplane, give him two or three hours of prep, and have him fly it?’  I went out and executed a JEFX mission accompanying two A-10s and providing air support in an urban environment. When those wheels went up and that airplane went into the air that was my first flight in it.”

The armed Texan II has a lower-fuselage turret for electro-optical and infrared sensors. The aircraft has six hard points for ordnance and podded guns. All of Spiral One, including JEFX 10-3, is being conducted with simulated bombs and guns. Spiral Two of the demonstration – covered by funding added to successive defense bills by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan) and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan) – will begin in the fall and will use real ordnance and machine guns.

One goal of Joint Expeditionary Forces Exercise (JEFX) 10-03 at Nellis Air Force, Nev., in April 2010 was to see whether a pilot could make the transition directly from the A-10C Thunderbolt II to the AT-6B Texan II cockpit. Here, the two aircraft appear together during the Nellis exercise. ANG via Robert F. Dorr.

Just as the Texan II demonstration seems to be in high gear – at the time the Navy’s Irregular Warfare Office is conducting its own demonstration with the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, designated A-29A in U.S. service – interest in a light armed warplane appears to be on the wane.

In 2006, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz said his service would purchase 100 Light Armed Attack Aircraft (LAARs). Schwartz said American pilots would fly them in Iraq and Afghanistan, for around $ 1,000 per flight hour compared with $ 44,000 for an F-15E Strike Eagle.

But under the LAAR program, which is separate from the AT-6B Texan II demonstration, Schwartz now says the Air Force will buy just 16 aircraft and will use the planes only to train allies. The Air Force “will not fly light attack and light mobility planes in missions over Iraq and Afghanistan,” Schwartz said. Participants in the ongoing AT-6B Texan II demonstration hope their leaders will change their minds. Said McNurlin: ” The cost of getting a gallon of gas to an F-16 or an A-10 is one ungodly number. We flew all six sorties at JEFX on half the gas it took one F-16 to fly its first mission.”

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-282">

    Great article. I feel the Air Force needs to reconsider and purchase the original 100 aircraft. With all the budget cuts that have been mandated across defense spending and in the Air Force, it only makes sense to use a plane like the AT-6B. The cost of operations is a fraction of what an F-16, A-10, or F-15? It’s a no brainer. With no opposing air units, there is no question this plane would be able to do the job needed.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-283">

    “With no opposing air units, there is no question this plane would be able to do the job needed.” The sentence in quotes appears to suggest that we’ll be fighting our current wars into the indefinite future and that we’ll still be in Iraq and Afghanistan after the five to ten years it would take the United States to field 100 light attack aircraft. An aircraft in this category would be an excellent thing to have, in many ways ideally tailored to today’s conflicts. But when the U.S. government is borrowing fully 41 cents of every dollar it spends, a critic might ask whether it is a useful luxury we cannot afford.