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INDUSTRY REPORT | LIGHT ATTACK

Though Embraer claims that its A-29 Super Tucano is the


most successful turboprop light attack and advanced
training aircraft currently on the world market, it faces
strong competition in the shape of the impressive
Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine.

T
report: Jon Lake
HE WOLVERINE IS a stone for air forces aspiring to a fast jet
structurally-strengthened combat aircraft capability.
derivative of the T-6 Texan The AT-6 was originally dubbed Coyote
II trainer and was designed (at least internally), but it is now known as
for a wide spectrum the Wolverine, or sometimes as the AT-6
of missions including Light Attack. The aircraft is a purpose-built
manned intelligence, surveillance and derivative of the T-6 advanced trainer that
reconnaissance (ISR), training, and light has been fully optimized for light attack
precision attack, while also offering and armed reconnaissance. As such the
non-traditional capabilities for homeland aircraft is built on what Russ Bartlett,
defense and civil support missions. The president of the Beechcraft Defense
aircraft can be used to quickly transition Company, calls the good bones of the
pilots between basic flight training T-6 trainer. It is optimized for inexpensive
missions and complex net-centric light operation, enjoying great commonality
attack and armed reconnaissance tasks, with the United States existing pilot
and can provide an excellent stepping- training infrastructure.

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Nine hundred T-6 Texan IIs have been


Above: An built or are on order (752 of them for use
AT-6 flies by the US Department of Defense), and
alongside an
A-10C during the type serves with, or has been ordered
testing at the by, nine customer nations Canada,
Air National Greece, Iraq, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New
Guard and Air
Force Reserve Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US.
Test Center in
Arizona. JPATS origins
Jim Haseltine
The basic T-6A Texan II was developed
Left: N610AT to meet the US Department of Defenses
during its Joint Primary Aircraft Training System
2010 visit to
the UK for the (JPATS) requirement, which aimed to
Farnborough find a replacement for the US Air Forces
International Cessna T-37B Tweet and the US Navys
Airshow.
Beechcraft/ T-34C Turbo Mentor. The aircraft was not
Jamie Hunter an entirely clean-sheet design, but rather

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HUNGRY LIKE
THE WOLVERINE
was developed from the Swiss Pilatus
PC-9 trainer, itself a more powerful and
refined derivative of the Pilatus PC-7.
More than 250 PC-9s have been delivered
Some of the T-6s delivered have been
armed versions. Twenty of the Hellenic
Air Forces T-6As were built to T-6A
NTA standard, for example, capable of
among turboprop light attack aircraft,
translating into what Beechcraft claims to
be a higher airspeed and Mach envelope
for the carriage and employment of
to Angola, Australia, Bulgaria, Chad, carrying external fuel tanks and a range of external stores than is available on any
Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, unguided weapons including gun pods, other aircraft in its class. But where the
Myanmar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, rocket pods and bombs, while retaining Wolverine really comes into its own is in
Switzerland and Thailand. the federated analog cockpit of the USAFs its proven US combat avionics systems
While the USAFs T-6As had a federated T-6A. Moroccos T-6C has a glass cockpit and sensors, which make the aircraft
analog cockpit, the US Navy T-6B like that used by the US Navys T-6B, and fully compatible with all fielded US Joint
added a digital glass cockpit with has a stores management system and Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) digital
six multi-function displays, hands on underwing hardpoints, while the Mexican voice/data capabilities and their NATO
throttle and stick (HOTAS) controls and T-6C+ has further weapons capabilities. equivalents.
a head-up display, while the CT-156 The AT-6 Wolverine is powered by Furthermore, with its FAA-certified CMC
Harvard II is a version of the T-6A used a 1,600shp Pratt & Whitney Canada Esterline Cockpit 4000 primary flight
by the NATO Flying Training in Canada PT6A68D engine. This affords an and flight management system avionics,
(NFTC) scheme. unequalled power-to-weight ratio and a Lockheed Martin combat mission

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The aircraft deployed to Nellis for two weeks


system as used in the A-10C Thunderbolt
II, the cockpit represents a very F-16-like
environment, with a very similar pilot/
vehicle interface. This, says Bartlett, results
from April 12, 2010, and flew six missions,
in a cockpit that would be familiar to any
F-16 pilot.
totaling 17.5 flying hours. One lasted 4.5 hours.
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Sensors and weapons
On another sortie the AT-6B landed on a remote,
The aircraft is equipped with an L-3 dry lake-bed and refueled on the ground from an
Wescam MX-15Di turret, similar to that
used on the MC-12W Liberty. This contains MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker
color and infra-red cameras, a laser
designator, laser illuminator, and laser Despite these structural and avionics In addition to its own LAAR platform, the
rangefinder, giving the AT-6 an organic changes, the AT-6 Wolverine is said to USAF was expected to procure further
capability to find and designate targets, retain 85 per cent commonality with the aircraft for supply to some US allies who
which the Wolverine can then engage baseline T-6A/B trainer as used by the had neither the budget nor the expertise
using a wide range of precision-guided USAF and US Navy. to operate types like the F-16, and who
weapons thanks to the four Mil Std Todays Wolverine was originally were conducting their own irregular
1760-wired, smart weapon-compatible developed to meet the USAFs Light Attack warfare and counter-insurgency (COIN)
underwing hardpoints. The HMP-400 0.5in and Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) or campaigns.
(12.7mm)-caliber gun pods, Hydra 70mm OA-X requirement of July 2009, building The LAAR requirement did not specify
unguided rockets, Mk81/82 iron bombs, on earlier work dating back beyond 2006. turboprop power, but did place great
GBU-12/58 laser-guided bombs (LGBs), The aircraft has since been developed in emphasis on low operating costs, making
AGM-114K/M/P and R Hellfire anti-tank an iterative fashion. The LAAR requirement a turboprop the most likely solution. It
missiles, BAE Systems/General Dynamics aimed to produce a dedicated light attack specified that the successful candidate
Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System aircraft that would cost less than $1,000 must be derived from an existing, in-
(APKWS), Raytheon/EAI Talon laser-guided per hour to operate, rather than using production aircraft type and dictated
rockets and Orbital/ATK GATR laser- fast jets at far below their full potential that it should be simple enough to be
guided 70mm rockets have already been and costing more than $10,000 per flying operated by a partner nation such as Iraq
cleared for use on the aircraft. It is also hour (the F-15E Strike Eagles operating or Afghanistan.
expected to be able to deliver the Textron cost was calculated at $44,000). The As well as the AT-6 and Super Tucano,
Systems G-CLAW tube-ejected unitary competition was originally expected a new-build derivative of the twin-
area munition. to result in an order for up to 100 LAAR turboprop OV-10 Bronco (proposed by
The Wolverine is fitted with proven machines, with a total purchase price of Boeing), an armed version of Aermacchis
high-end communications and datalink $2 billion. At the time it was anticipated jet-engined M-346 Master advanced
equipment that give full interoperability that some of the 100 LAAR aircraft would trainer, and even Air Tractors AT-802U
in US and NATO command and control equip an initial 24-aircraft USAF squadron a militarized crop-duster were put
environments. and later a whole special operations wing. forward to meet the requirement.

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Left: This pair of Spiral development of an innovative approach between an MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker.
Wolverines (the Beechcraft flew the first of its company- government and industry. Such teamwork The team assessed the suitability of the
second of which
is the newest funded AT-6 prototypes (c/n AT-1, N610AT) promised to be essential for LAAR. aircraft for the training of pilots from
AT-6, N630LA) on September 10, 2009. The aircraft was Although Beechcraft had built its two partner nations.
demonstrates heavily instrumented, being used for AT-6B prototypes with company funds, Spiral Two of the demonstration began
some of the
stores that are envelope expansion and for performance these were soon flying government- in August 2010, and employed the second
being tested and handling qualities assessments with funded sorties as part of a $15.4-million prototype, delivering live laser and GPS
on the type various external stores configurations. The demonstration and evaluation program guidance-aided munitions at the Gila
including
GBU-12s, the second, production-representative, AT-6B run by Detachment 11 of the National Bend test range in Arizona. These sorties
Advanced prototype (AT-2, N620AT), also company- Guard Bureau and the Air National Guard/ included use of the Scorpion helmet-
Precision Kill funded, made its maiden flight on April 5, Air Force Reserve Command Test Center mounted cueing system. It was estimated
Weapon System
(APKWS) and 2010. It was the first to be powered by a (AATC) in Tucson, Arizona. that the aircraft had cost just $1,000 per
0.5in (12.7mm)- 1,600shp engine, the initial aircraft having This program was conducted in four flight hour to operate.
caliber gun had a 1,100shp powerplant. The AT-6B also phases known as spirals. Spiral One, using After displaying the first aircraft at the
pods. Beechcraft/
Paul Bowen had the new mission avionics suite, based the first AT-6B prototype, was flown with 2010 Farnborough International Airshow,
on that of the A-10C. simulated bombs and guns, and included Beechcraft modified it to the full-standard
Inset: A 500lb Even before the second prototype joined participation in the Joint Expeditionary AT-6 configuration by installing the same
GBU-12 laser-
guided bomb the test program, on September 15, 2009, Forces Exercise 10-3 (JEFX 10-3) at Nellis 1,600shp engine that was installed on
is dropped Beechcraft announced that it was teaming Air Force Base, Nevada. This saw the the second AT-6 prototype, giving the
during testing. with Lockheed Martin in responding to aircraft undertaking realistic irregular company two aircraft for a new round of
Beechcraft/
Jim Haseltine the LAAR requirement. Lockheed Martin warfare sorties against ground targets trials in 2011, during which they dropped
Systems Integration in Owego, New York, in mock-war conditions, with a strong 500lb GBU-12 and 250lb GBU-58 LGBs.
Bottom: was appointed as the mission systems focus on net-centric warfare and use of Spiral Three was completed in
Raytheon/EAI
Talon laser- integrator for the aircraft, making use of the datalink. September 2012 at Eglin AFB and saw the
guided rockets the companys experience in integrating The aircraft deployed to Nellis for two employment of more than 265 bombs
have already the A-10Cs precision engagement weeks from April 12, 2010, and flew six and rockets, as well as firing 3,000 rounds
been cleared
for use on modification. Not only was this a relevant, missions, totaling 17.5 flying hours. One from the AT-6s 0.50-cal gun pods. The
the aircraft. state-of-the-art and combat-proven lasted 4.5 hours. On another sortie the trials included test firings of the APKWS
Beechcraft/ precision-strike capability, but it also AT-6B landed on a remote, dry lake- and Talon laser-guided rockets plus a
Jim Haseltine
gave the Owego division experience bed and refueled on the ground from further round of trials with the Gator and 33
Hellfire missiles.
Spiral Four in September 2013 saw the
AT-6 trialing the Single-Channel Ground
and Airborne Radio System Situational
Awareness (SINCGARS SA) Waveform
capability. The SINCGARS SA Waveform is a
software-controlled high frequency radio
designed to provide digital communication
and global positioning services (GPS) in
both fixed and mobile configurations vital
for military armed reconnaissance. The
dual ARC-210 Warrior radios of the AT-6
were configured to securely and directly
communicate simultaneously with three
different Joint Terminal Attack Controllers

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(JTACs). The success of the SA Waveform in


the AT-6 is designed to further advance its
future mission tactics in close air support
(CAS), combat search and rescue (CSAR)
and combat search and rescue task
force (CSARTF).

LAAR exclusion
In November 2011 it was announced
that the Beechcraft AT-6B had been climb and cruise performance, and Above: The
excluded from the LAAR competition, and carried more fuel, while it could carry an Wolverine is
34 equipped with
the USAF confirmed that the Embraer electro-optical/infra-red (EO/IR) turret an L-3 Wescam
A-29 had been awarded the contract on without sacrificing a weapons station. MX-15Di turret
December 30, 2011. The manufacturer continued to highlight under its belly.
Beechcraft/
Selection of the Brazilian aircraft their aircrafts six weapons stations and Jamie Hunter
prompted a series of protests from unlimited 6g airframe, while pointing out
Beechcraft, initially forcing work on the that rough-field, grass and gravel runway Left: The cockpit
of the AT-6 was
A-29 to stop. Embraer was re-awarded the capabilities had been demonstrated. designed with
contract on February 27, 2013, whereupon In response, Embraer pointed to its A-10 pilots in
Beechcraft challenged the award again. aircrafts wider-track, longer-wheelbase mind. Indeed, it
used contractors
This time, though, the USAF pressed undercarriage (with its big, low-pressure from the A-10Cs
ahead, and the United States Court of tires) and greater ground clearance to precision
Federal Claims upheld the Air Forces claim superior rough/uneven runway engagement
modification.
decision to proceed. operating characteristics. It claimed that Beechcraft
In its protests, Beechcraft pointed out the A-29s bigger, taller, wider canopy
that the USAF was spending over $125
million more (or more than 40 per cent) for
what it labeled as a less capable, foreign-
manufactured airplane with weapons
and systems unfamiliar to, and outside
the control of, the United States military.
It charged that the requirement had been
written to favor the competitions aircraft,
and questioned whether the Embraer
aircraft with its foreign-made weapons
can be certified to US military standards
in time to provide the mission-capable
aircraft per the contract.
Hawker Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture
contended that the AT-6 met all threshold
and five of seven objective requirements,
and claimed that it had better take-off,

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gave its crew a significantly better Bartlett, an extremely experienced Beechcraft clearly believes that there is
all-round view. It contended that the former F/A-18 Hornet pilot, still a market to fight for, and, undeterred
aircrafts built-in, wing-mounted FN M3P acknowledged that the A-29 may by defeat, the company has continued to
0.5in-caliber machine guns represented a have marginally better rough-runway develop and promote its own light attack
significant advantage, while the forward- characteristics, and described having offering. Indeed, a third AT-6 (AT-3) flew in
mounted AN/AAQ-22 Star SAFIRE II the internal guns as cool, but claimed August 2013 and was the first production
surveillance and targeting turret offered that Embraers other claimed advantages aircraft, first registered as N630LA on
a better field of view and fewer blind were not relevant, and were not a October 23, 2013. AT-3 has now joined the
spots, and the five-bladed propeller was combat discriminator. He expressed program and it was this example that was
significantly quieter. the opinion that he would prefer to be displayed at Farnborough in 2014, and
In commenting on the contract award, delivering precision-guided weapons at Paris, the Royal International Air Tattoo
the US Government Accountability from height rather than trying to engage and the Dubai Airshow in 2015.
Office (GAO) said that in order to meet its them with guns down in the weeds. Beechcraft remains confident in
proposed offer targets, the AT-6 would In the end, losing the LAAR competition the Wolverine, which it says offers its
have had to experience a 40 per cent did not mean missing out on orders operators a robust and interoperable air
increase in maximum gross take-off running into hundreds of aircraft. Instead, power solution at a fraction of the cost
weight, noting that experience showed 15 aircraft were to be ordered for the of traditional (fast jet) tactical aircraft,
that anything over 20 per cent would Stateside training of allied pilots under with lower operating costs and greater
impose a serious risk of certification LAAR, while just 20 Embraer A-29s were versatility than unmanned aerial systems.
delays, with implications for service life. purchased for supply to the Afghan Air At the same time, the type is fully
The GAO identified a number of other Force under the Light Air Support (LAS) networked, and has advanced survivability
issues and revealed that the AT-6 was program. The Afghan pilots trained features, rendering it less vulnerable than
rated as exceptional, but high-risk, while using their own aircraft, which were many rivals in its class.
the A-29 was rated as exceptional and temporarily operated by the newly re- Iraq, which already operates 15 unarmed
low-risk. activated 81st Fighter Squadron based T-6A trainers and six Special Mission King
When the decision was made, in 2011, at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, LAAR Airs, is understood to be Beechcrafts
there were just two AT-6s flying all having seemingly fallen by the wayside. main target as launch customer for
prototypes and 166 A-29s, which The 20 Afghan Air Force aircraft were the Wolverine. Industry journal Flight
already had a long operational career, built by US-based prime contractor Sierra reported in November 2015 that a letter
making perceptions of relative risk a Nevada in Jacksonville, Florida. Six of the of offer and acceptance for six of the light
critical factor. LAS-winning machines were subsequently attack turboprops was being prepared 35
The best-value element of the ordered for the Lebanese Air Force. for the Iraqi government. The US State
competition had three categories, in Crucially, the USAF has abandoned any Department approved a possible deal for Below left
which capability was the most important plans to form a dedicated COIN air wing up to 24 aircraft in May, and these would to right: The
AT-6 has
factor, followed by past performance, and to procure around 100 LAAR/OA-X/ be delivered in increments of six. demonstrated
with cost in third place. LAS aircraft to equip it. The A-29 seems Securing a launch customer will allow its ability to
The decision clearly still rankles with destined to remain a little-known and Beechcraft to begin the process of military operate from
austere strips.
Russ Bartlett, president of the Beechcraft very short-lived rarity in USAF service, type certification, completion of which Beechcraft/
Defense Company, who told the author limited to training a handful of overseas will make the Wolverine more attractive to Paul Bowen
at the recent Dubai Airshow: We had a air forces. And without the boost in foreign buyers. To this end, the company is
Below: Textrons
superior aircraft that was 100 per cent credibility and momentum that a large believed to be exploring the possibility of offerings in the
technically compliant and for 30 per USAF order would have endowed on the using the new Non-DoD Military Aircraft close air support
cent less money. He pointed out that it selected aircraft, the A-29 and AT-6 seem Airworthiness Accreditation program a sphere include
its Scorpion and
had been a tough decision to protest a destined to slug it out for what remains USAF initiative that will allow companies the AT-6.
decision by our biggest customer. of the light attack and ISR market. to self-fund the certification process. Jim Haseltine

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