Observers in Washington believe the U.S. Air Force will make a source selection in its Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft program later this summer after the original deadline passed in June.
The LAS office at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, issued an October 2010 request for proposals that covers 20 aircraft to be used at two bases by the Afghan air force and 15 more for American use. LAS is now characterized as a modest program to “build partner capability” by training Third World air forces. It replaces earlier acquisition plans identified by the abbreviations OA-X and LAAR.
LAS has become a head-to-head competition between the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II (previously identified variously as the AT-6B and AT-6C) and the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, also called the A-29 or AT-29. Both aircraft use the 1,600 shaft horsepower Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68A/D engine – an upgrade for the AT-6 and standard on the Super Tucano.
The AT-6 is an armed version of a well established and very successful trainer, while the Super Tucano is a derivative of a trainer designed from the outset as a tactical warplane.
The LAS program is a scaled-down version of earlier plans that would have produced at least 100 airframes to be piloted by American airmen. Some view the downsizing of the effort as a casualty of the Obama administration’s shift from counterinsurgency toward the more narrowly focused goal of counterterrorism.
The successful LAS bidder will provide not just airplanes but also turnkey training and logistics support. If the AT-6 is chosen, training will be carried out at Salina, Kan., the past home of Schilling Air Force Base. If the Super Tucano gets the nod, training will be conducted at Clovis, N.M., near Cannon Air Force Base, which currently houses a special operations wing.
Lockheed Martin is prime contractor for the AT-6 candidacy, teamed with planemaker Hawker Beechcraft (formerly Raytheon). Sierra Nevada Corp. has the lead on the Super Tucano, in collaboration with Brazilian planemaker Embraer. The AT-6 would be manufactured in Wichita, which often calls itself “the aviation capital of the world.” An Americanized Super Tucano would be assembled at a new facility at Cecil Field in Jacksonville, Fla., using mostly U.S. parts.
The two AT-6s that have been built have participated in a prolonged series of operational demonstrations carried out by the Air National Guard and underwritten by the Kansas congressional delegation. The AT-6 has also been demonstrated for the air sovereignty alert (ASA) or homeland defense mission, which is not part of LAS.
Details are elusive on the U.S. Navy’s recent study of the Super Tucano called Imminent Fury: Apparently, the intent was to demonstrate four airframes, but only one was actually flown after being leased from Xe Corp., the former Blackwater. The Department of Defense funded the program. Both the Pentagon and U.S. Special Operations Command wanted a larger Imminent Fury demonstration, and two successive U.S. commanders in Afghanistan requested the planes for combat in support of U.S. Navy SEAL teams, but funding has not materialized.
Proponents of the AT-6 say the aircraft has proven itself in an austere environment during a Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. They say the AT-6 will be built entirely by American workers and that the Air Force has a ready-made source of pilots and maintainers because thousands have already flown and maintained the trainer version and a parts/program management arrangement already exists. Moreover, about 650 trainer versions are flying today in five nations, with eventual production expected to exceed 800.
The corporate team behind the Super Tucano says that its aircraft was developed “for defense and security operations in the jungle of the Amazon River Basin” and is “capable of performing in harsh environments and delivering weapons like a modern fighter aircraft. Yet, it is highly efficient to operate, and unlike fighters, can remain on station for extended periods of time without refueling.” They claim the wider track of the Super Tucano’s main landing gear make it better suited for operations from unimproved airfields.
Both the AT-6 and the Super Tucano can be delivered with a head-up display (HUD), “hands on throttle and stick” (HOTAS) controls, and night vision goggle (NVG) capability. Both have forward-looking infrared (FLIR) turrets.
The AT-6 has an integrated surveillance/attack mission system derived from the avionics package in the upgraded A-10C Thunderbolt II attack aircraft. The aircraft has flexible, reconfigurable hard points with seven external store stations. It can carry a wide variety of sensors and ordnance and several types of pod-mounted guns. The AT-6 is also outfitted with the CMC Esterline digital Cockpit 4000 avionics and controls suite and L-3 WESCAM’s MX-15Di electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) sensor pod. The aircraft is also equipped with an ALQ-213 EW Management System, ARC-210 radios with secure voice/data and SATCOM (satellite communications). According to former Rep. Todd Tiahart (R-Kan) “the aircraft nearly every U.S. pilot is trained on” is “ideally suited” for light combat operations while retaining about 85 percent commonality in parts and supplies with the ubiquitous trainer version.
The Super Tucano carries two .50-caliber machine guns in the wing with a rate of fire of 1,100 rounds per minute, has five hardpoints under the wing and one under the fuselage. The Brazilian military version has features that can be provided with an LAS variant, including a full glass cockpit with twin LCD (liquid crystal display) multifunction displays (MFDs). The Super Tucano is the longer, larger and heavier of the two aircraft. According to Rep. Allen B. West (R-Fla), the Super Tucano “has logged over 100,000 flight hours, 16,000 of which have been in combat without a loss.” Seven countries are using 173 Super Tucanos around the world today.
Opponents of the AT-6 will emphasize its status as a converted trainer and characterize it as the smaller and less versatile of the competitors. The Super Tucano’s detractors will portray it as a “foreign” aircraft and argue that Embraer is partly subsidized by the Brazilian government. Most observers in Washington believe that either aircraft can perform the LAS mission successfully.
The program as a whole has some enemies in Congress who have threatened to cancel it, but most observers believe it will move forward. Once a contract is awarded, the Air Force will use the LAS aircraft to instruct its own pilots, who will then train airmen of partner air forces flying light attack aircraft.