Keeping Faith with Light Close Air Support

Aero Vodochody is optimistic that Asia Pacific Albatros operators will adopt its latest L-39NG AJT/light combat aircraft. (David Oliver)

David Oliver – The appeal of light, close air support aircraft endures in a region increasingly worried by the likelihood of returning Daesh fighters adding to existing insurgency challenges.

With internal threats from Daesh-linked militants, the light attack aircraft is a sought after weapon for a growing number of Asia Pacific countries. The latest generation of counter-insurgency (COIN) aircraft are specialised variants of basic or advanced training aircraft designed for close air support (CAS) and armed reconnaissance missions in low-intensity operations.

In 2010 the United States Air Force (USAF) issued a Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft requirement for the then Afghanistan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC) to be fielded by 2013. The programme called for fixed-wing single-engine turboprop platform, with a number of critical requirements that the winning aircraft had to fulfil including a rough-field capability without ground support, dual controls, ejection seats, specific air-to-ground weapons and systems, as well as a defensive-aids system.

Two contenders for the LAS programme turned out to be adaptations of basic trainer aircraft, the Brazilian Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the American Beechcraft AT-6B Texan II, while a third was a modified agricultural crop sprayer, the Air Tractor AC-802U. None were designed as armed reconnaissance/COIN platforms.

Finally, on 27 February 2013 Embraer and its partner Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) was awarded a $427 million contract to supply 20 Embraer A-29 Super Tucano aircraft to be built in Jacksonville, Florida, as well as ground-based training equipment, pilot and maintenance training, and logistical support.

The first production A-29 LAS aircraft was delivered to Moody Air Force Base (AFB) in September 2014 prior to training of Afghan pilots and maintainers. AAF A-29 Super Tucanos based in Kabul took part in their first air strike operations against Taliban targets in Afghanistan in April 2016 since when an additional four aircraft have been ordered for the Afghan Air Force (AAF).

A total of 26 A-29 Super Tucanos manufactured in the United States have been ordered by the US DoD for the Afghan Air Force. (USAF)

Powered by a 1,193kW (1,600shp) Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-63-3 turboprop with FADAC, driving a Hartzell five-blade propeller, the light attack version’s armament includes one FNH 12.27mm machine gun in each wing and the provision of a variety of ordnance including two Nexter NC621 20mm canon pods, Mk 81/82 bombs, BLG-252 cluster bombs, LM70/19, or LAU-68A/G rocket pods, on underwing stations. A FLIR AN/AAQ-22 Star SAFIRE multi-sensor laser designator provides the aircraft’s ISR capability. In May 2018 the USAF announced that AAF A-29s had begun using laser-guided bombs and that 96 percent of the LGB strikes had been successful.

In September the US Department of Defence (DoD) extended the AAF’s A-29 procurement contract to cover a total of 26 aircraft to be delivered by 2024.

In February 2016 the Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara – TNI-AU) took delivery of the last four of 16 Embraer A-29B Super Tucanos to be operated in the COIN role with No 21 Squadron based at Malang. The TNI-AU also has a fleet of single-seat lightweight multirole BAE Hawk 209 combat aircraft operated by No 2 Squadron at Pekanburu in the ground attack role. The Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) also operates a fleet of similar Hawk 208s with No 6 ‘Chakra’ Squadron at Labuan.

In November 2017 Embraer announced an order of six A-29 Super Tucanos for the Philippine Air Force (PAF). The Super Tucano was selected as part of the PAF’s ongoing modernisation plan and will be deployed for close air support, light attack, surveillance, air-to-air interception, and COIN missions. Deliveries will start in 2019 to the PAF’s 15th Strike Wing at Lumbia to replace its veteran North American Rockwell OV-10 Broncos. The OV-10 was a twin-turboprop light attack and observation aircraft developed in the 1960s for the COIN role, and was used extensively during the Vietnam War.

While the Super Tucano has been viewed as a natural successor to the OV-10 with more than 250 produced, many air forces in the region have selected light attack variants of the latest generation of advanced jet trainers such as the Yak-130 Mitten and the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle.

The protracted development of the twin-engine subsonic Yak-130 has its origins in the Yakovlev’s Design Bureau’s relationship with Italy’s Aermacchi in 1994. However, this relationship was terminated in 2002 with Aermacchi developing its own advanced jet trainer, the M-346, based on the Yak-130. Assigned the NATO reporting name ‘Mitten’ and powered by two 24.5kN (5,512lb) Ivchenko-Progress AI-222-25 turbofans, the first Yak-130s entered service with the Russian Air and Space Force in 2009 since when a light attack variant has been offered to export customers.

The second pre-production Yak-130 was used to test a range of weapons including 80 mm and 120 mm rocket launchers, a 23 mm gun pod and R-73 air-to-air missiles. (David Oliver)

With nine underwing hard points, the Yak-130 has a weapons payload of 3,000kg (6,615lb) that include a GSh-23L twin-barrel 23mm gun on the centreline station, 250kg free fall bombs, 500kg laser-guided bombs, 80mm and 122mm rocket launchers and Kh-25ML or AGM-Maverick air-to-surface missiles.

By 2016, the Bangladesh Air Force had taken delivery of 16 Yak-130s in the light attack operated by Nos. 21 and 25 Squadrons at Zahurul Haque Air Base role to replace its fleet of Chinese Nanchang A-5C ground attack aircraft although two have subsequently been written-off. The second Yak-130 customer in the region is the Myanmar Air Force which ordered eight aircraft in 2015 and an additional four in 2017, also replacing its A-5C fleet. It has been reported that the Yak-130 has been ordered by the air forces of Laos and Vietnam but this has not been confirmed.

The light attack variant of the Russian Yak-130 advanced jet trainer is operated by the air forces of Bangladesh and Myanmar. (UAC)

The other light attack variant of an advanced jet trainer that is attracting sales from a growing number of Asia Pacific countries is the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) F/A-50. Developed from the T-50 Golden Eagle AJT, the tandem-seat supersonic F/A-50 powered by a single 78.7kN (17,700lb) General Electric F404-GE-102 turbofan first flew in 2003.

Equipped with the Elta EL/M-2032 Multimode Airborne Fire Control radar, the F/A-50 has an internal General Dynamics M197 20mm three-barrel Gatling-type cannon and seven external weapons stations carrying up to up to 3,740kg (8,250lb) payload. Weapon options include Mk.82/83/84 and BLU-109 general-purpose bombs, GBU-31/32/33 guided weapons, LAU-68/131 and LAU-3A/5003 rocket pods and Raytheon AIM-9L air-to-air missiles.

The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) has a total of 60 F/A-50s on order to replace its fleet of more than 100 Northrop F-5E Tiger II aircraft. The T/A-50 is a lead-infighter trainer (LIFT) and a light combat version with Elta radar, weapon delivery software, wingtip missile launch rails and the internal gun. The first export order was from the TNI-AU which in 2011 selected the T/A-50 in preference to the Yak-130 and Aero Vodochody L-159B to replace its BAE Hawk Mk53s.

The Republic of Korea Air Force has ordered a total of 60 KAI F/A-50 light attack aircraft to replace its large fleet of veteran F-5E Tiger IIs. (ROKAF/KAI)

The Philippines Air Force (PAF) also selected the F/A-50PH as its first operational combat aircraft for a decade. Deliveries of an initial order for 16 aircraft were completed in July 2017. The aircraft have already been in operations against terrorist groups and in July 2018 the PAF announced plans to acquire and additional 12 F/A-50PHs in the future.

In 2015 the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) ordered four KAI T-50TH LIFT aircraft which are a modified armed version of the T-50 equipped with some weapon systems used in the F/A-50, but will not be equipped with communication facilities of the Link-16 standard and a number of other systems. A second contract for an additional eight T-50THs was signed in July 2017 which are expected to be delivered by 2020 to replace the RTAF’s Aero Vodochody L-39ZAs.

The supersonic KAI T/A-50 and F/A-50 light combat aircraft have been selected by the air forces of Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. (David Oliver)

Variants of Aero Vodochody’s L-39 aircraft remain in operation with a number of Asia Pacific air forces including Cambodia and Vietnam, and North Korea and Aero Vodochody is making a late pitch to replace them with is latest iteration of its Albatros, the L-39NG Certification is expected in 2019 with first deliveries in 2020. With a lead-time of seven months, the planned production rate is 20 aircraft a year.

Designed primarily as an AJT, the L-39NG can also performed a variety of other roles including light combat, close air support and reconnaissance. Powered by Williams International FJ44-4M engine, the L-39NG’s avionics include an embedded virtual training capability. It has five hard points with a 1,640kg (3,620lb) external weapons payload and an optional gun-pod.

Certification is expected in 2019 with first deliveries is 2020. With more than 3,000 L-39s produced, 400 of which remain in service in 46 countries, Aero is confident that many of them will be future L-39NG customers.

by David Oliver