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.”