AT-6 Tested for Light Air Defense Missions

Here’s an interesting little nugget of info that came out of this week’s Air Force Association conference in National Harbor, Md:

Hawker Beechcraft and Lockheed Martin’s AT-6 entry into the Air Force’s light attack competition has been tested by the Air National Guard in the Air Sovereignty Alert (ASA) mission that defends U.S. airspace.

The turboprop plane flew in one of U.S. Northern Command’s Falcon Virgo ASA exercises out of Andrews Air Force Base, Md., last November where it intercepted a slow, Cessna-style propeller plane four times in the skies above Washington DC, said Derek Hess, Hawker Beechcraft’s director of AT-6 development, yesterday during a briefing at the conference.

The AT-6 zeroed in on the Cessna-like plane using radar information that was sent to it via the ubiquitous Link-16 datalink and exchanged text messages with ground controllers and a pair of F-16 fighters. The AT-6 being offered to the USAF comes equipped with a glass cockpit based on the A-10C Warthog’s.

“We successfully completed all four of the intercepts, we had been on station for a little more than two hours, the F-16s had departed, the didn’t have a tanker so they had gone back to land and they asked ups, ‘Ok, are you guys ready to land?’ We said, ‘well, we still have an hour and a half of fuel left. . . We were able to text both ground controllers as well as the F-16. We traded tracks with the F-16s that showed where we were locked to, we could see their radar information piped into the aircraft as well.”

While we usually hear about the AT-6 being proposed for a light ground attack and recon role, it can carry .50 caliber machine guns and will even conduct live-fire tests with the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile in 2012, according to Hess.

The plane participated in the exercise as part of a multiyear evaluation by the Air National Guard aimed at testing the turboprop in a number of simulated combat simulations.

It’s common knowledge that Air Force (ANG and Reserve) F-16s and F-15s have been flying ASA patrols around major U.S. cities since 9/11. Less known is that the skies around DC are also patrolled by U.S. Coast Guard HH-65 Dolphin choppers tasked with intercepting small, slow targets like the Cessna intercepted by the AT-6. Kinda weird since the Dolphin’s primary mission with the Coasties is search-and-rescue.

This test comes after years of warnings by Air National Guard leaders that the ASA mission is being threatened by the fact that many ANG F-16s and F-15s are rapidly approaching the end of their service lives.

However, don’t expect the Guard to start replacing F-16s with AT-6s. The Air Force has recently committed to extending the lives of many of the “legacy” fighters and giving the jets new radars and avionics  to keep them flying until they can be replaced by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In a time of very tight budgets balanced against some very high profile acquisition projects, I don’t see a high likelihood of the service buying the AT-6 to fly ASA.

Meanwhile, remember that the Air Force has apparently pushed back the contract award date for the light attack contest until November (if it goes through with the effort, at all).

The light attack competition pits the AT-6 against Embraer’s Super Tucano and is meant to equip the Air Force with roughly 20 turboprop planes that will be used to help train nascent air forces around the world on how to operate a similar fleet of cheap and easy-to-use light attack craft.

While the Air Force might scale cut spending on all but its most important new weapons programs ( and light attack is not on of those programs), there are still plenty of opportunities to sell the plane to foreign air forces, said Lockheed’s Mike Silva during the same briefing.

“We know that around the world there are significant opportunities for light attack. There are hundreds of light attack aircraft out there today, from A-37s to F-5s, that are obsolete and unsupportable. These countries are going to have to buy something high-end or they’re going to have to buy something that’s more affordable … either jet or turboprop because they’re not going to be able to sustain what they have today.”

  • TLAM Strike

    I’m eagerly awaiting the first mock dogfight between the AT-6 and the F-35…

    F-35 Pilot’s last words: “Oh dear God, he’s out turning me!”

  • blight

    It’s a pretty strange feeling, coming from the lockstep idea that “interceptor=mach2+ jet” mode of thinking. Props and helicopters have had an transitional existenence: SAR used to be slower aircraft until replaced by rotary wing. CAS used to be the domain of the ‘props until the helicopters arrived.

    We’re coming full circle, and to bean counters the question will be “why have helicopters and aircraft for CAS and low speed intercepts? I thought we bought one to replace the other”

  • The only F-16s worth upgrading over the long haul are our small number of Block 5X jets.

    Hoping on the F-35 to come in for the win… well, good luck. And it costs more per hour than an F-16 to fly ASA.

    • Jay

      Agreed – who had the brillian idea replace the tried and true F16 and F15 flying domestic security missions with the moneypit F35? We need a stealth fighter to radar a suspicious cessna over DC?

  • TLAM Strike

    I’m eagerly awaiting the first mock dogfight between the AT-6 and the F-22 or F-35.

    “Oh crap he’s out turning me!”

    If we put an IRST system on it, and reduced its RCS its could be nasty! It pops up on you and suckers you in to a close in dogfight, we got our J-20 killer!

  • Doc61

    Except for the Air to Air missiles, we had a fighter that did a good job for CAS, The F4U Corsair, the P, (Later) F-51 Mustang. Are we re-inventing the wheel here?

    • Zspoiler

      Rember the P-51 based turboprop powered Enforcer.

    • Riceball

      Not really since the production lines for the F4U and every other plane that was flown during WW II have long since closed. All currently flying examples of F4U’s, P51’s, B-17’s, etc. are all relics left over from WW II or right after and are flying only because of the TLC lavished on them by dedicated owners and volunteer groups; none, save for the odd kit here and there, are current production.

      So are we re-inventing the wheel here? Yes and no.

      • Mastro

        That P51 in Reno didn’t look all that impressive.

    • IronV

      The P-47 was the premier air to ground fighter of WWII, but was scrapped to rapidly to be used in Korea. The Skyraider is another example of a great legacy air to grounder. There are others.

  • In case there was any doubt that we are on the way to becoming a third world country; Turboprop Interceptors!

  • jamesb

    Ok…..

    Am I the one that see’s the Air Forces constant ‘go fast’ mission creep here??????

    Give the darn plane to the Army where it belongs helping look over the troops……

    ONLY the US Ar Force could change up the whole darn concept to a ‘go fast’ one….
    The y have f-15’s and F-16′
    s to do intercepts WTF do they need the AT-6????

    • jumper

      Oh boy…

      Yes, give a fixed wing aircraft to the Army, the service least qualified to support it tactically and logistically. “Why do they need the AT-6?????” Never been to Afghanistan I see… but, luckily the article explains exactly why.

      • major.rod

        Why do you feel the army can’t support it tactically/logistically. The Army actually has more “aircraft” than the Air Force and has a BOATLOAD of experience with CAS given what the Apache & Kiowa have been doing.

        Seems I heard this same argument when the Air Force was tyrying to block the Army from getting Predators. That didn’t work either… (THANK GOD!)

        Same obstructionism to get the troops on the ground responsive CAS in the interests of branch parochialism. Heck, your Air Force is having a major discussion over buying JUST a measely 20 of these planes. Thanks for nothing!

        • ImBetterThanU

          Having worked with the Army, they are currently not tactically sound in fixed wing operations. Just the wrong mindset of the fixed wing/battlespace relationship.

          That being said, AF leadership has absolutely forgotten their history and have gone “all in” on unsustainable programs that do not support counterinsurgency efforts.

      • blight

        Trying to imagine the world where the Air Force lost helicopters because they were “least qualified” to support things with rotor blades.

    • Riceball

      Aside from the issue of the Army having not flown any CAS missions with fixed winged aircraft in several decades there’s also the small issue of the Key West Agreements which does not allow the Army to operate armed fixed winged aircraft. So unless they amend or toss out the Key West Agreements there’s no way in hell that the Air Force would allow the Army to get AT-6’s or any other fixed wing aircraft that carries anything more lethal than a smoke rocket.

      • major.rod

        Riceball you hit the nail on the head. “So unless they amend or toss out the Key West Agreements there’s no way in hell that the Air Force would allow the Army to get AT-6’s or any other fixed wing aircraft that carries anything more lethal than a smoke rocket.”

        And hence my comment about branch parochialism and not putting ground pounder’s lives first.

        BTW, ref the Army not flying fixed wing CAS in awhile, until fairly recently the Army had NEVER operated UAVs either. Yes, there’s a difference but it isn’t rocket science. The USAF is just trying to make it sound harder than it is. That same thought process is why the Air Force uses officers to operate UAVs where the Army has NCO’s doing the same thing.

    • tiger

      Because the threat is not a Soviet Bomber, it is a guy in a small plane. The jets are flying at near stall speeds to fly with a Cessna. Thus they have been using choppers than again can’t break 200 knots. You need something in between.

  • jamesb

    Am I the Only one…..

    Gheez I just can’t believe this piece!

  • Paralus

    This program is a sad fig leaf covering what remains of a program intended to provide CAS to US soldiers and Marines. While the idea of a handful of light attack aircraft might wind up patrolling DC is a possibility, the idea of it becoming a program to ‘train nascent air forces’ will never see the light day. Why on earth would a cash-strapped ‘air force’ even bother with a glass-cockpit equipped turboprop when there are less expensive and far more practical planes in existence. And wouldn’t that sort of operation be better performed by Special Operations?

    • jumper

      Which more practical and less expensive planes would these be? Unless you’re planning on re-tooling a P-51 line this is about as cheap and practical as it gets.

    • blight

      Any indig “air force” is likely to start with the jillions of ex-Soviet Hinds and Hips that found their way across the third world. As for fixed wing, there’s always the DEA’s armored crop dusters, but modified for firing weapons.

      I wonder if the Afghans would qualify as the type of customer the Freedom Fighter was originally intended for.

    • tiger

      Actually doing the same role the Skyraider did so well for 2 wars. Fly low, slow, & loiter with more range & firepower than a attack chopper. If your not facing a mig threat, they make sense. They also are cheaper to operate & don’t 10,000 ft of concrete.

  • drball

    So why do we really need an Air Force any way..BTW under Congress rules the U.S. Army is prohibited from using aircraft with foward firing ordnance any way….So buy these aircraft and cut the Airforce….Win/Win…..Also before some wisea$$ said any thing I mean fixed wing aircraft not helio’s….got it…

  • Sanem

    what interests me here is the fact that the T-6 intercepted it’s target without it’s own radar. AESA is nice and all when on the offensive, but over home territory with plenty of AWACS, ground radar and UAV/satellite coverage, interceptors really don’t need such expensive and delicate equipment. better they go for optical and infra-red sensors, it’s cheap, reliable and doesn’t give away your position

    what the USAF needs are UCAV interceptors: take a dirt cheap and reliable engine like the F-100, put it in a cheap and simple delta-wing with plenty of fuel, add 2-4 missiles and maybe a gun-pod, some passive sensors and these’ll defend skies 24/7 at a cost as low as $10 million per model, with limited costs for R&D, training, operating or maintenance

    the US economy is going down the drain fast, a year from now the F-35 will simply seize to be any option at all. I’d suggest Lockheed to start using the tech they got from it to develop such a cheap interceptor, or Boeing/NG will

  • test

    what interests me here is the fact that the T-6 intercepted it’s target without it’s own radar. AESA is nice and all when on the offensive, but over home territory with plenty of AWACS, ground radar and UAV/satellite coverage, interceptors really don’t need such expensive and delicate equipment. better they go for optical and infra-red sensors, it’s cheap, reliable and doesn’t give away your position

    • blight

      Classical interceptor. Just follow the ground controllers instructions to target and destroy it.

    • PMI

      Read the transcripts of the various conversations between ATCs & NORAD during 9/11…domestic radar coverage isn’t as extensive as you’d think.

  • STemplar

    I remember NORTHCOM cmmdr mentioning last year he saw a potential role for these aircraft in these missions. Maybe the USCG might be interested or maybe buy a couple three squadrons for customs or border patrol. They’ve got to be cheaper to fly than Dolphins.

    • blight

      Indeed, and for those times where you don’t need rotary wing you can use a fixed wing turboprop, which is usually a faster platform. It saves the dolphin’s airframe hours for the SAR mission, and for when the air platform actually observes a target.

  • Sanem

    what the USAF needs are UCAV interceptors, an F-100 engine combined with a big delta, some missiles, a gun pod and optical sensors. produced in numbers they could be as cheap as $10 million each. it’ll allso be dirt cheap in terms of R&D, training, maintenance and operating. but big weapon companies don’t earn much money off cheap equipment, so they prefer diamond-plated stuff like the F-35

    not that they’ll have much choice in the matter, the way things are going there won’t even be money to operate F-16’s, never mind to buy brand new F-35’s

    • blight

      What makes you think a UAV won’t be “diamond-plated”? UAVs haven’t been mated to large, powerful fighter-type engines, nor has the delta design being produced yet (CAD time, wind tunnel time awaits!)

    • chaos0xomega

      What makes you think they will be as cheap as $10 million each? Because Predators and Global Hawks are in that price range? Unmanned =/= cheap, what makes those systems cheap is that they are light turboprop aircraft that carry primarily optical sensors. You start adding in radar, gunpods, missiles, and all the avionics that go into that, plus the avionics needed to make it able to maneuver effectively to chase down another aircraft, its going to come out to roughly the same cost as a manned aircraft. The life support equipment, etc. on board manned fighters have additional cost, its true, but not 90 million dollars more…

      And then there is the tradeoff… you replace the roughly 5-10 millions dollars spent to support the pilots with tens or hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, to put the necessary ground and space based communications equipment in place to support them.

    • STemplar

      I think you over estimate the utility of UCAVs for the foreseeable future. The leading edge example right now is the X47/UCLASS program and there is still an open question if they’ll even be able to integrate them into carrier ops. Even once they do it’s really not much more than a re-usable/re-loadable cruise missile. We are no where close to turning CAS or air dominance over to UCAVs, not even close.

  • Letsallbefriends

    Leaving aside the vested industry interests and flyboy egos, I wonder whether lots of cheap, already developed turbo-props would be better than a few super-jets for many of the missions that are actually happening around the world – like shooting up the Taliban, sinking pirates and forcing down drug smugglers’ in light aircraft. Does anyone here know how much one of these things costs compared to one predator when all purchase, personnel and running costs are
    considered? I know the UAVs can loiter longer because there’s no pilot needing a rest stop so the planes need to rotate more, but you don’t need so many mission control people either if there’s a pilot. Some bean counter must’ve tried to work it out.

  • bobdobdob

    It has a shark mouth paint job…. Can’t go wrong there

  • Locum

    2004, Olympic Games , armed AT-6A NTA’s were employed in the air policing task over Greek airspace. There is an annually international conference in Davos, Switzerland.
    Attended by the world’s most influential leaders.
    Air policing here is done with the F-18, F-5 … and Pilatus PC-9.
    It is just a matter of time when terrorists are using UAV’s with explosives.
    In my opinion, slow movers like PC-9, AT-6B or Super Tucano are better suited to intercept slow movers than fast jets.

    • Curt

      Absolutely. And since every F-16/F-15 pilot should know how to fly a T-6, you could assign a couple of AT-6s to each squadron. And then, when you needed a slow flying plane to chase a Cessna, you could send something that could do the job cheaper at a fraction of the price. Win, Win situation

      Think about it,
      -No new pilots, the single most expensive thing in an aircraft!
      -Better capability to intercept the full range of targets!
      -Fewer flight hours on the F-15s and F-16s which will probably pay for the AT-6 by itself.
      -Inexpensive manned plane with a pod to support other homeland defense and disaster releief missions.
      – A ready made cadre of people to help train foreign nations.

      Sure, its a stupid idea, much better to use multiple F-16s to intercept a cessna or escort an errant UAV why you try to regain control.

  • major.rod

    I always find it “bothersome” that the Air Force must emphasize the air to air capability of an aircraft designed specifically for CAS. No wonder the Army doubts the Air Force committment to CAS and yet the Air Force blocks any Army attempt to provide its own.

    • Riceball

      Because there’s this little bothersome thing called the Key West Agreements that says the Army is not allowed to operated armed fixed wing aircraft. I’m not sure how much legal force Key West has but it’s been in force since around the 50’s back when the Air Force first became a separate branch of service and was part of the deal that allowed the Air Force to become its own service branch.

      • major.rod

        Very familiar with the Key West Agreement. That piece of paper keeps us from common sense solutions that puts troops lives first vs. protecting a branch’s turf.

  • Will

    If the ANG can’t afford the AT-6 or the Super Tucano for the ASA mission, then maybe the Border Patrol & the CG can for their law enforcement missions. It also gets around potential legal issues for the ANG to go after bad guys within the borders.

    • tiger

      Actually it’s good fit for the ANG. With A-10 & F-16 retirements, these would be cheaper to operate but still give the part timers flight hours. They can operate from smaller airfields as well. No need for basing a big bases or Airports.

  • JSCS

    F-% unsupportable? F-5 totally supportable, parts availability, weapon load, what do you want it to do? A bunch of companies support the F-5, including Northrup Grumman.

  • Mike Halvorsen

    For a blog that doesn’t want personal attacks, and slander, there seems to be a lot of personal attacks and slander on this topic. Anyway, why a lightweight turboprop, when we already have had something so MUCH better: The venerable A-1 Skyraider (AKA “Sandy”, “Spad”, and “Able Dog”). I’d bet we could resurrect a few at Davis-Mothan…Just an idea from an old Grunt who benefitted from something with the payload of a B-17, and loiter time to spare…

    • tiger

      The Super Tucanco has 40 years of newer tech and in on the shelf now. The A-1’s have likely been scraped by now. Same job with newer lighter planes. Why they even bother with the AT-6 is politics.

      • major.rod

        The AT-6 has very comparable stats and is AMERICAN. Its also in use with the USAF already along with several countries.

        • tiger

          Lock mart has enough of the pie now. There is no need for a lengthy Competition.

  • JSFMIKE

    The one problem I see with this AT-6 concept to perform ASA is time and distance. A slow moving Cessna packed with C4 on a suicide mission is coming from the north. The AT-6 on patrol is on the south side of the city. Question: Will it be able to cover the distance in time to prevent the Cessna from hitting its target? It would depend on the delta distance and delta airspeed between the planes. I’d prefer a jet with afterburner to close the distance, make visual contact, attempt radio contact, and then receive permission to shoot down the intruder. That’s a lot of things that need to be done before the trigger is pushed. At AT-6 speed, there is so very little time.

  • major.rod

    You’re both right but keep in mind the Air Force is squabbling about buying a measly 20 of these where training and CAS should be their primary roles.

  • daveo

    Piper Enforcer anyone, anyone?

    • tiger

      Better yet, Burt Rutan’s fighter idea.

  • Nicky

    What about bringing in the T/A-50 Golden eagle as a compact falcon that can do ASA

  • blackavenger45

    Let the AF do thier thing with the jets and keep the skies clear where necessary. Give the AT-6 to the Army and Marines for CAS, where its really needed without all the million $ electronics. A radio, GPS, targeting sys and LOTS of guns and ordnance with reasonable speed and long loiter time is what they need. The politicians have soured the stew.

    • blight

      I wonder if turboprops can be made to take off from marine amphibs….

  • SJE

    There is such as thing as the right tool for the job. You don’t need an F-22 to check out a Cessna that strayed into restricted airspace.

    Plenty of high tech militaries use old technologies. most US firearms are based on technologies that pre-date the Vietnam war, but they WORK. The Brits and Aussies have no intention of giving up bayonets, whose function is to turn a gun into a sharp pointy thing. Right now, US soldiers are being killed by people with low tech weapons: RPGs, AK-47s and IEDs.

    Its good for the DOD to invest in high technology, but we seem to spend way too much on high tech solutions to problems that can be solved with existing kit, and for much less $.

    Another issue is fuel supply: this is a critical factor in Afghanistan, and one of the US’s weak points. If you can do the job with equipment that is less thirsty, you need less convoys coming through Pakistan that are subject to the whims of our “allies” and attacks by the Taliban en route.

    • tiger

      Since the retirement of the OA-37, Skyraider, OV10, & OV1; there has been a gap in the inventory. Something Cheaper & lighter than a tank killing A-10 but beyond the Rotor performance of the gunships. Few targets require a 30mm DU shell. Drones can not strafe a target. Gunships have speed & altitude limits.

      The Idea of only buying 20 planes though does not make me hopeful.

  • StrumPanzer

    What they need to bring back is the Mudd fighter program that they were working on in the 80s and 90s. This is what the fighter was made for.

  • Nicky

    What ever happen to the F-20 Tigershark. Couldn’t we bring that back and use that for ASA in CONUS. We also could use that to Train Foreign Air force as well

  • Felix

    Several South American contries use Tucano and Super Tucano, plus A-37 to figth drug traffickers ligth aircrafts. This makes some sense as it’s difficult for a high performance jet figther to figth such aircrfat (remember the F-16 trying to shoot down a Bronco in Venezuela tv footage). But this is a scenario very far away from the main mission of the USAF. It might fit Customs, Border Patrol or Coast Guard, and even state militias.
    An important consideration is that this kind of plane lacks the dash speed of an interceptor, so it’s best employed in an offensive role. Like waiting on a known travle route.

    • 88M

      Yes, I think the AT-6B should be purchased for National Guard Units, Border Patrol and Coast Guard. This plane would be ideal for Surveillance, Small airplane interception missions, Light ground attack if needed. Loitering time is greater than a high performance jet and cost to operate per hour has to be much lower.

      Commonality with the current military trainers is a plus.

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