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.”
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.
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.”