COIN combat wing could be on horizon

Dubai Air Show » 2009
November 12, 2009, 9:33 PM

In late July the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command issued a request for information for what it calls the light attack/armed reconnaissance (LAAR) aircraft. The RFI covers the potential procurement of 100 OA-X aircraft optimized for irregular warfare missions, which could see the U.S. Air Force back in the business
of dedicated counterinsurgency (COIN) that it largely left behind in Vietnam. The last major evaluation of this class of aircraft was in 1980s, when the Piper PA-48 Enforcer was examined.

The new LAAR requirement and the idea of a COIN combat wing has arisen out of combat experience in Iraq and Afghan-istan, where the close-air support-dedicated A-10 Warthog has consistently proven itself as one of the most useful assets. The USAF argues that, while the precision guidance capability and connectivity offered by sophisticated multi-role jets are vital when fighting insurgents, the high performance they offer is an expensive luxury. LAAR is an effort to provide the digital “goodies” and combat effectiveness of the fighter in a platform that is vastly cheaper to acquire and operate and that can perform the mission with a fraction of the ground footprint.

LAAR envisions a two-seat aircraft that can operate from austere forward bases, albeit with a 6,000-foot semi-prepared runway. It needs a long endurance and the ability to provide a platform for a range of ISR capabilities and precision guidance of weapons. That entails the integration of a stabilized night-capable multi-sensor turret and the provision of at least four weapons pylons, including the ability to carry rail-launched weapons such as the Hellfire II. A gun capability is also desirable.

As much of its mission will be performed in hostile areas, LAAR needs to be well-protected. Armor for the crew and vital systems is considered essential, as are self-sealing tanks, zero-zero ejection seats and a comprehensive defensive aids suite. LAAR is expected not only to undertake attack and reconnaissance missions, but also to act as a forward-air-control platform. For this it will need a range of communications equipment, including items such as the Rover video downlink and connectivity with the wider air command network. It will also have to work alongside UAVs such as the MQ-9 Reaper.

LAAR Candidates

Under current planning, the first deliveries of LAAR would happen in 2012, with operational fielding the year after. There are a number of possible platforms that could fulfill the mission criteria. Perhaps the most obvious are the AT-6 and Super Tucano, both derivations of proven turboprop trainers.

Hawker Beechcraft announced a teaming with Lockheed Martin Systems Integration (Owego, New York) to bid for LAAR with the AT-6, a structurally strengthened version of the T-6 Texan II trainer. Lockheed Martin’s integrated mission system is essentially similar to that installed in the upgraded A-10C Warthog. The AT-6 offers six-pylon capability for a range of weapons, including laser- and GPS-guided bombs, freefall bombs, rockets and Hellfires. An avionics prototype is already flying with a CMC Electronics digital cockpit, while a second prototype with the intended 1,600-hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68 engine is taking shape.

Using the same engine, Embraer’s EMB-314 Super Tucano is already performing similar tasks to those required and, as it was designed specifically for this
kind of mission, needs no airframe/engine modifications to meet the LAAR requirements.

It has the added bonus of having internally mounted 0.5-inch machine guns. Last year the U.S. Navy leased a Super Tucano for an evaluation of the type’s suitability for the special forces support role under the Imminent Fury program.

The Super Tucano and AT-6 are seen by many analysts as the front-runners for LAAR, but there are other proposals. Boeing is examining the resurrection of the Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco for the LAAR mission, having inherited the design with its acquisition of Rockwell.

Known as the OV-10(X), the new Bronco could certainly fulfill the LAAR requirements, even if it adhered to much of the original structure and aerodynamics of the OV-10D night- capable Bronco retired by the Marine Corps in 1995. New avionics systems could transform combat capability and the OV-10(X) could even undertake some elements of the light mobility aircraft (LiMA) mission (see box) thanks to its rear-fuselage cargo compartment. Of all the potential candidates, the OV-10(X) offers the best rough-field performance and maneuverability. However, the big drawback is that the type is not in production, which could be problematic given the short timescales envisioned for the program.

Also a candidate for LAAR is the Air Tractor AT-802U, an armed and armored version of the proven agricultural aircraft that was demonstrated at this year’s Paris Air Show. Another OA-X contender is the U.S. Aircraft Corp. A-67 Dragon, a design
similar in appearance to the EMB-312 Tucano. Other possible LAAR platforms include the KAI A-50 and Alenia Aermacchi M-346, both derived from jet trainers and possibly too sophisticated for the intended mission.

While the LAAR/OA-X requirement represents a sizable opportunity in its own right, there is also growing international demand for this type of aircraft, especially in the Middle East. Iraq ordered eight T-6A trainers from Hawker Beechcraft in September, and this could lead to the procurement of up to 36 AT-6Bs for light attack.

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