Currently, the air forces of a number of countries operate light turboprop attack aircraft, which are primarily designed to intercept light aircraft, patrol borders, and fight all sorts of rebel movements and illegal armed groups. The desire to reduce the cost of development and operation has led to the fact that the bulk of the anti-guerrilla aircraft currently in use are based on two-seat training or even agricultural vehicles. In terms of combat effectiveness, such light attack aircraft are comparable or even superior (during anti-insurgency operations) to combat helicopters.
Turboprop attack aircraft demonstrate better combat survivability than rotary-wing aircraft. The indisputable fact is that a turboprop aircraft has a high flight speed, it is more difficult to get into it from a rapid-fire anti-aircraft gun, and it can leave the firing zone faster. The aircraft does not have such highly vulnerable elements as a tail boom with a tail rotor and a main rotor, which means that with an equal level of security, the aircraft will have better combat survivability. In most cases, due to design features, a light turboprop combat aircraft emits a lower thermal signature than a helicopter equipped with a propulsion system of similar power. This circumstance is directly related to the probability of being hit by missiles with a thermal homing head.
When choosing turboprop attack aircraft, many Third World countries were guided by the cost-effectiveness criterion. Although helicopters are capable of being based on "spots", and small aircraft require a runway several hundred meters long, the cost of one flight hour of a light combat aircraft with a turboprop engine is several times less than that of an attack helicopter capable of carrying the same combat load as more than pays for the costs of building field airfields. Duration and labor costs are of great importance in preparation for a repeated combat mission. In this regard, attack aircraft built on the basis of TCB or agricultural aircraft are unconditionally in the lead. Due to their higher fuel efficiency, turboprop aircraft are able to stay in the air for much longer and are better suited for reconnaissance, patrol and search and strike missions.
Comparing turboprop combat aircraft with jet attack aircraft, it can be noted that at a "working" speed of 500-600 km / h, in the absence of external target designation, there is often not enough time for visual target detection (taking into account the pilot's reaction). With a larger "payload", jet attack aircraft, created to combat armored vehicles and destroy fortified positions in a "big war", acting against all kinds of insurgents, often spend it irrationally. In this case, the analogy with a sledgehammer and a hammer is appropriate. With a certain skill, small nails can be driven in with a sledgehammer, but a hammer is much better for this.
Hopes that remotely piloted aircraft would supplant combat aircraft during counterguerrilla operations turned out to be untenable. UAVs (in the absence of a developed air defense system for the enemy) are perfect for observation, reconnaissance and targeted strikes. It is known that during sorties, the American MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper, as a rule, carried no more than two AGM-114 Hellfire guided missiles. The increased ammunition load on board the drone seriously limited the flight duration. There are cases when, to destroy a "hard" target detected by an unmanned aerial vehicle operator, it was necessary to call manned combat aircraft or drones equipped with adjustable 227-kg GBU-12 Paveway II bombs. Due to the limited number of weapons on board, unlike a manned attack aircraft, the drone is physically unable to "press down" fire and hamper the actions of a large group of militants carrying out an attack on a checkpoint or base in a remote area. UAVs are more a means of reconnaissance and surveillance, and in terms of their strike potential during anti-insurgency operations, they cannot yet compare with manned aviation... In addition, any large serial drone equipped with aviation weapons, with all its merits, is seriously inferior to a turboprop attack aircraft in flight speed, vertical and horizontal maneuverability. In connection with the desire to make the drone as light as possible, its airframe has less strength, which is the reason for the UAV's inability to perform sharp anti-aircraft maneuvers. Combined with the camera's narrow field of view and significant response time to commands, this makes them very vulnerable to fire and susceptible to even minor damage.
However, the main difficulties in creating a truly effective reconnaissance and strike remotely controlled aircraft are mostly associated not with the airframe and propulsion system, but with the possibility of using advanced remote control and data transmission systems. For example, in Russia until now, a drone has not been adopted, which would have the same capabilities as the American "Reaper" or "Predator". It is known that the United States has a global control system for UAVs via satellite channels. The main direction of the actions of American unmanned hunters in any part of the world is carried out by operators located at Crich AFB in Nevada.
UAV MQ-9A Reaper on the runway of Creech airbase
A similar Chinese facility is located at Anshun Air Base in Guizhou Province. The main control center of the RPV and the satellite communication station is located here.
The lack of satellite channels limits the combat range of unmanned combat aircraft, which forces the use of another RPV for relaying radio signals, or place antennas for control points on high masts and natural heights. In addition, the American authorities impose serious restrictions on the supply of combat drones and control systems, and even the closest allies of the United States cannot always acquire them, and much cheaper Chinese counterparts are still inferior to the products of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. In these conditions and taking into account the shortcomings of RPVs, the command of the air forces of many small and not too rich states chooses, if not so high-tech, but much easier to use light turboprop combat aircraft.
As mentioned in the previous part of the review, during the combat use of widespread turboprop attack aircraft EMB-314 Super Tucano they were very often equipped with guided aircraft munitions, which can be used outside the effective range of anti-aircraft fire, thus avoiding losses.
This approach was implemented in the creation of the AC-208В Combat Caravan reconnaissance and attack aircraft, which was designed by Orbital ATK Inc. in 2009 based on the lightweight turboprop transport-passenger Cessna 208 Caravan. For observation and armed reconnaissance, the aircraft is equipped with the L3 Wescam MX-15D optoelectronic system, which includes: a high-resolution daytime color TV camera, a nighttime IR camera, a laser rangefinder-designator, color LCD displays and a computer complex for the weapons control system. Onboard there is also digital data transmission equipment to ground points and other aircraft connected to the combat control system, the AAR-47 / ALE-4 onboard jamming system, the AN / AAR-60 enemy missile launch warning system, radio stations and means navigation. Also provided is laser equipment, which in automatic mode is capable of dazzling the IR seeker of MANPADS missiles, but aircraft in this configuration were not transferred to the customer. The US government has allocated $ 65,3 million to purchase five AC-208Bs for the Iraqi Air Force. This amount also includes the cost of purchasing spare parts and training specialists.
AC-208В Combat Caravan Iraqi Air Force
The aircraft with a maximum take-off weight of 3629 kg is equipped with a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-114A turbofan with a capacity of 675 liters. from. The maximum flight speed is 352 km / h. Cruising -338 km / h. Ceiling - 8400 m. "Combat Caravan" is able to stay in the air for almost 7 hours. When performing standard search and strike missions, a pilot and an operator are usually on board. However, when using the AC-208B as a flying air command post, there are jobs for three more people on board.
The armament of the AC-208В consists of two AGM-114M / K Hellfire air-to-ground missiles with a firing range of up to 8 km. The Iraqi government is known to have ordered 500 Hellfire missiles.
It is possible to suspend blocks with 70-mm NAR, but this is not used in combat conditions. Also remained unrealized project "gunship" with a 30-mm cannon in the doorway.
The composition of the avionics and armament of the AC-208В Combat Caravan allows you to perform reconnaissance tasks, identify the enemy and track him, as well as strike at the detected targets. Crew workplaces are covered with ballistic panels to protect against small arms weapons.
Combat Caravan made its combat debut in January 2014 when the Iraqi Air Force began using it against insurgents in Anbar province. At the first stage, US Air Force specialists provided assistance in the operation of the AC-208B. One plane crashed in March 2016.
In March 2018, the US Air Force signed a contract worth $ 86,4 million. The contract provides for the supply of eight AC-208В Combat Caravan aircraft and spare parts, as well as the training of flight personnel. The aircraft are intended for the Afghan Air Corps. Afghan pilots were trained at Fort Worth, Texas. Also in 2018, Orbital ATK Inc. was acquired by Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems.
Currently, the AC-208D Eliminator (AC-208 Combat Caravan Block 2) aircraft has been created for the Afghan air force. This machine is equipped with a Honeywell TPE331-12JR 900 hp engine. from. and improved avionics. According to the information provided by the manufacturer, the price of one aircraft is $ 8 million, while the cost of a flight hour is $ 415. Which, of course, is very attractive for the third world countries. For comparison: the price of the popular A-29 Super Tucano turboprop attack aircraft is about $ 18 million, the cost of its flight hour is about $ 600.
As of mid-2020, Iraqi and Afghan AC-208B aircraft have spent several thousand hours in the air and delivered more than 200 missile strikes. Aviation experts note that these machines are a good alternative to drones during counter-terrorism operations. The combination of the ability to stay in the air for a long time and the altitude above the reach of fire from small-caliber anti-aircraft guns and MANPADS guarantee the possibility of long-term control of a vast territory and invulnerability from air defense weapons that may be at the disposal of illegal armed groups.
Aircraft AC-208В Combat Caravan UAE Air Force
In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, the UAE and Lebanon became the customer of the AC-208B Combat Caravan. The UAE Air Force had two aircraft in 2019. According to available information, by 2022, it is planned to convert 4 general-purpose aircraft Cessna 208B Grand Caravan into a strike version for the Lebanese Air Force. Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso are consulting on the delivery of the Combat Caravan strike reconnaissance aircraft. Due to its relatively low cost and acceptable operating costs, this machine is very attractive for poor countries. However, in addition to purchasing aircraft, potential customers will have to negotiate with the Americans on the purchase of guided missiles, which significantly limits the number of potential buyers.
The demand for counterinsurgency aircraft has led to the development of lightweight turboprop attack aircraft based on the Air Tractor AT-802, which is used in agricultural and firefighting aircraft. This aircraft features a high-rise cockpit that provides good visibility, high maneuverability and good controllability at low altitudes.
In a combat situation, Air Tractor AT-802 aircraft were first used in Colombia in the early 2000s, when these machines were cultivated with coca plantations with defoliants. It is clear that the plantation guards could not indifferently watch how they were deprived of a source of income, and fired at the Air Tractors from all the barrels they had. The militants of the drug cartels and leftist rebel groups had not only light small arms at their disposal, but also large-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns and RPG-7 grenade launchers, so flights to destroy drug-containing plants were a great danger. The situation was aggravated by the fact that "on the combat course" when spraying chemicals AT-802 flew without maneuvering at low speed. After the planes began to return with bullet holes, emergency revision had to be carried out in the field. The cockpit was covered from the sides and bottom with improvised armor - bulletproof vests, and the fuel tanks were filled with neutral gas. However, passive measures to improve survivability were not limited to. On "sorties" flying sprayers accompanied EMB-312 Tucano attack aircraft.
The experience of using AT-802 aircraft in Colombia prompted Air Tractor specialists to create a specialized anti-insurgency aircraft that must meet the requirements of the Light Attack / Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program launched by the US Air Force. The LAAR program also included AT-6B Texan II, A-29 Super Tucano and OV-10X Bronco turboprop combat aircraft.
The light AT-802U attack aircraft, designed for close air support, aerial reconnaissance, observation and correction of ground forces, was first presented at the Le Bourget air show in 2009.
The two-seater aircraft has a maximum take-off weight of 7257 kg. Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67F turboprop 600 hp from. capable of accelerating it in horizontal flight up to 370 km / h. Cruising speed - 290 km / h. Practical flight range - 2960 km. Glider resource - 12000 hours. The cost of an aircraft fully equipped with electronic systems is approximately $ 17 million, and operating costs are approximately $ 500 per hour of flight.
The AT-802U turboprop attack aircraft, created jointly by Air Tractor and IOMAX, differs from an agricultural aircraft in the presence of bulletproof armor for the engine and cockpit sides, bulletproof cockpit glazing, protected fuel tanks and a more durable airframe. The aircraft retains the ability to install a tank with chemicals and sprayers. In the compartment where the tank is installed, it is also possible to transport various goods, place additional equipment and fuel tanks. For weapons and containers with sighting and search systems and anti-aircraft missile countermeasures, the aircraft has 9 hardpoints. The armament includes both guided and unguided aircraft weapons weighing up to 4000 kg: 7,62-12,7-mm machine guns, 20-mm cannons, blocks with 70-mm NAR and bombs weighing up to 227 kg, as well as guided AGM-114M Hellfire and Roketsan Cirit laser-guided air-to-ground missiles.
The use of guided munitions is provided by the AN / AAQ 33 Sniper xr optoelectronic sighting system, operating in the visible and infrared ranges. A combined (IR and television) camera L3 Wescam MX-15Di is intended for observation and search of targets. It is located in the lower front hemisphere on the turret and is equipped with an airplane-to-ground communication link operating in a protected mode with ROVER video receivers, which allows image transmission in real time. The equipment of the AN / AAQ 33 Sniper xr complex operates in the visible and infrared ranges. The aircraft crew has the ability to search, detect, recognize and automatically track ground (surface) targets at ranges of 15-20 km in all weather conditions and at any time of the day, laser illumination and guidance of guided aircraft weapons.
"Combat tests" of the AT-802U took place in Colombia, where a turboprop attack aircraft was used to escort the unarmed AT-802. Apparently, the AT-802U was used by the US Bureau of Drug Enforcement Aviation (also known as INL Air Wing). INL Air Wing has about 240 aircraft and helicopters operating in Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Iraq, Mexico, Pakistan and Peru.
Another attack aircraft developed on the basis of an agricultural aircraft is the Archangel BPA, created by the IOMAX company. The Archangel was based on the Thrush 710 aircraft, which is structurally very close to the Air Tractor AT-802. The Thrush 710 aircraft develops a speed of 35 km / h and has the best ratio of weapon weight and fuel capacity. Archangel with a takeoff weight of 6720 is capable of covering 324 km at a cruising speed of 2500 km / h and staying in the air for 7 hours. In the armed version, the patrol time is 5 hours.
The main emphasis in the creation of the Archangel BPA aircraft was placed on the use of guided weapons, and it does not carry small arms and cannon weapons. In this respect, its capabilities are higher than that of the Air Tractor AT-802U. Six underwing hardpoints can accommodate up to 16 70-mm Cirit missiles with a laser guidance system, up to 12 AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, up to six JDAM or Paveway II / III / IV UABs. The Archangel in the strike version is capable of carrying more weapons on external suspension than any other aircraft of the same weight category. It is designed for independent search and destruction of small groups of militants, when the use of combat helicopters, jet fighters or attack aircraft is difficult from the point of view of combat effectiveness or inexpedient for economic reasons.
Earlier, IOMAX specialists developed sighting and reconnaissance equipment and a complex of weapons for the Air Tractor AT-802U aircraft, and, having gained the necessary experience, the company's management decided to independently create an anti-guerrilla aircraft. Compared to the AT-802U, the aircraft offered by IOMAX is equipped with more advanced avionics. "Archangel" can carry a container with electro-optical reconnaissance and search equipment manufactured by FLIR Systems. The aircraft has a centralized system of radar radiation and missile attack warning sensors.
On the Archangel BPA Block I modification, the two-seat tandem cockpit has dual controls and is equipped with color multifunctional indicators for the pilot and operator in the rear cockpit.
Archangel BPA Block I armament operator's dashboard
The Archangel BPA surpasses the AT-802U, which was originally created as a classic light attack aircraft, in its search and reconnaissance capabilities and flexibility in the use of guided weapons. Thanks to its sophisticated airborne electronic system, the Archangel is equally effective in covert operations, in providing close air support and in routine patrol flights. Most of the body armor on the Archangel BPA is quick-detachable and mounted depending on the nature of the task being performed. It is reported that some elements of protection can withstand the impact of bullets of 12,7 mm caliber.
In July 2014, the Archangel Block 3 reconnaissance and strike made its first flight. This modification of the Archangel outwardly differs significantly from the earlier versions and has improved aerodynamics. After the aircraft began to be supplied to foreign customers in the US Air Force, it was assigned the designation OA-8 Longsword.
Intelligence-strike aircraft Archangel BPA Block III
The aircraft received a "glass cockpit" and an even more advanced sighting and navigation system and weapons. The two-seat cockpit for the pilot and weapon operator has been moved forward and raised, which has improved forward and downward visibility. This also freed up space in the aft fuselage for the placement of electronic units of avionics and other equipment. A more rational layout made it possible to increase the volume of fuel tanks.
Archangel BPA Block III cockpit dashboard
The Archangel BPA Block III pilot has a CMC Esterline Cockpit 4000 avionics kit that is compatible with night vision equipment. The weapons operator's cab has three multifunctional displays and a front UFCP control panel.
The dashboard of the operator's cabin of the armament of the Archangel BPA Block III
For observation and search of targets on the Archangel BPA Block III aircraft, a suspended container with an integrated optoelectronic system L3 Wescam MX-15 / Star SAFIRE 380 HLD is used, capable of operating in poor visibility conditions and at night. Thales I-Master and Leonardo Osprey 30 radars are supposed to monitor land and sea surfaces. However, due to the high cost, this option has not been implemented in practice.
Suspended container with optoelectronic system
When creating the Archangel BPA Block III aircraft, great attention was paid to protection against air defense missiles with a thermal homing head used in MANPADS. Compared to the AT-802U, the aircraft's thermal signature is significantly reduced, which should reduce the likelihood of the TGS being captured. When flying in areas with a high risk of using modern MANPADS, in addition to heat traps, a suspended container with laser equipment can be used to blind the homing head.
Suspended container TERMA AN / ALQ-213
The standard means of protecting the aircraft from anti-aircraft missiles is the TERMA AN / ALQ-213 suspended equipment, which automatically detects the launch of missiles, radar and laser irradiation, fires radar and heat traps, and also helps to build an evasion maneuver.
Perfect reconnaissance and search systems installed on the latest modification of the "Archangel" allow you to detect targets and destroy them with guided weapons, without entering the short-range air defense system. At the same time, the latest modification of the Archangel BPA Block III fully loaded is quite expensive - more than $ 22 million, and the cost of its flight hour is almost $ 800.
The Bulgarian company LASA at the Paris Air Show-2017 demonstrated the light reconnaissance and attack aircraft T-Bird, the main purpose of which is to support operations against illegal armed groups.
The T-Bird anti-insurgency attack aircraft is based on the Trush 510G turboprop agricultural aircraft. The T-Bird is offered as a cheaper analogue of the AT-802U and Archangel BPA, and is mainly focused on the use of unguided missiles and small arms and cannon weapons. It is stated that the cockpit and a number of components are protected from rifle-caliber bullets fired from a distance of 300 m.The T-Bird electronic equipment was created by the Austrian company Airborne Technologies and includes a Self Contained Aerial Reconnaissance (SCAR) suspended container, information display displays, a set of equipment and Airborne Lynx Command and Control System communications.
Information on the sale of AT-802U and Archangel BPA aircraft is rather contradictory, and different sources do not agree on the number of aircraft delivered to customers. Iomax said it has already delivered 48 sets of equipment for AT-802U and Archangel BPA aircraft, which were accompanied by 4500 aircraft weapons.
It is known that the operators of the AT-802U and Archangel BPA, in addition to the American anti-drug agency, are the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. "Agricultural attack aircraft" were used in hostilities in the territories of Yemen and Libya. In January 2017, the US Department of State approved the sale of twelve Archangel BPA to Kenya. Angola, Niger and Cote d'Ivoire expressed interest in purchasing these aircraft.
The demand for light counterinsurgency and patrol aircraft stimulates not only the rework of training, agricultural and general aircraft, but also the creation of specially designed machines from scratch. On July 26, 2014, a prototype of a light multipurpose turboprop aircraft AHRLAC (Advanced High Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft) took off from the runway of the South African Vanderboom airfield for the first time.
The first flight prototype was used to confirm the declared characteristics of the aircraft, and the second prototype, known as the ADM (Advanced Demonstrator), is intended for testing weapons and electronic sighting and reconnaissance systems.
The second flight copy of the AHRLAC aircraft
This aircraft has an unusual appearance and is an all-metal cantilever two-seat high-wing aircraft with one Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-66 turboprop engine with a capacity of 950 hp. with., with a reverse sweep wing and a pusher propeller, which is located at the rear of the fuselage between the beams of the tail. This layout was chosen to provide the best forward and downward visibility.
The aircraft has a very modest size and weight. Length - 10,5 m, height - 4,0 m, wingspan - 12,0 m. Its maximum take-off weight is 3800 kg, while the flight duration may exceed 7,5 hours. The practical ceiling is 9450 m. The maximum flight speed is 505 km / h. Take-off distance - 550 m. Six underwing hardpoints can carry various aircraft weapons with a total weight of up to 890 kg, including a 227-kg Mk 82 bombs. A 20-mm built-in cannon can also be installed.
The South African company Paramount Group began building the AHRLAC aircraft in 2009. This machine was originally conceived as an alternative to combat UAVs, but later it was decided to create an unmanned version. In 2016, it became known that the American corporation Boeing entered into an agreement on joint development and production of the AHRLAC aircraft. In accordance with this agreement, Boeing undertakes the creation of avionics and an aiming and navigation system. At the same time, potential customers (depending on their preferences and financial capabilities) are offered at least three options for sighting and search equipment, which differ in their capabilities. It is known that the strike version of the AHRLAC aircraft in South Africa received the designation MWARI.
Earlier, the Paramount Group reported that the base version of the new aircraft is estimated at $ 10 million, while the modification with a full set of combat capabilities - up to $ 20 million.In February 2018, it was announced that the improved AHRLAC design, created in cooperation with American companies Leidos and Vertex Aerospace was named Bronco II. In May 2020, this turboprop attack aircraft was offered to the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as part of the Armed Overwatch program.
Articles from this series:
Light turboprop attack aircraft: the experience of Vietnam
Service and combat use of Argentine turboprop attack aircraft IA.58A Pucara
Service and combat use of OV-10 Bronco turboprop attack aircraft after the end of the Vietnam War
Combat use of turboprop attack aircraft in the 1970-1990s
Combat use of EMB-314 Super Tucano turboprop attack aircraft