Africa Addresses Need for Cost-Effective Reconnaissance Aircraft

Written by Ivor Ichikowitz, founder and executive chairman of Paramount Group – Africa’s largest privately owned defence and aerospace company.

Since the First World War, the need for air supremacy has been a central part of conflict, from the earliest fighter aces dogfighting over the trenches, through the Battle of Britain to the modern fast jets patrolling no-fly zones in Libya.

The other constant factor in military aviation is the fact that the role and requirements of aircraft is always changing and evolving. The rise of unmanned drones patrolling the lonely skies of Afghanistan is the latest example of such evolution.

And sometimes these roles fall out of fashion as needs change and then return several decades later.

This is happening today: the changing nature of conflict is seeing a resurgence of aircraft capable of fulfilling the armed ISTAR role: intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. In other words, aircraft which can be your eyes and ears, and a strike threat, in the skies above a conflict zone.

This ability was in great demand during the Vietnam War but then fell out of vogue. Now, with the days of set piece battles confined seemingly to the past and the rise of counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, the ISTAR role is of vital importance again.

Recent and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan are positive proof of this. In Afghanistan, a mix of vast areas of desert and farmland laced with unforgiving mountain ranges, coalition forces have had to adapt their fast jet combat aircraft for the counter-insurgency role.

The UK and France have even been using their valuable fourth-generation Typhoon and Rafale fighter aircraft to search for and destroy soft targets on the ground during the Libyan campaign. At a cost of more than US$100,000 per flying hour there has to be a more cost-effective solution to the COIN role.

The US Air Force realised this when it issued a light armed/armed reconnaissance tender for its new envisaged COIN air commando unit, and a light air support requirement for the Afghanistan National Army Air Corps – with both intended to be in theatre by 2013.

These programmes called for fixed-wing single-engine turboprop platforms, with a number of critical requirements for the winning aircraft to fulfill, including the capability of landing on rough ground without support, dual controls, ejection seats, specific air-to-ground weapons and systems and a defensive-aids system.

Two contenders were adaptations of basic trainer aircraft, the Brazilian Super Tucano and the US AT-6B Texan II, while a third was a modified agricultural crop sprayer. None were designed as armed reconnaissance/counter-insurgency platforms, although an outsider was: Boeing’s reworking of the original North American Rockwell Bronco, dubbed the OV-10X.

The Bronco’s service life began during the Vietnam War and it played the COIN/ISTAR role to a tee. Almost 50 years later, it has proven to be a hard act to follow – continuing to operate with air forces in Colombia, Venezuela, Indonesia and the Philippines, for example.

The US projects have stalled, albeit perhaps only temporarily, but the need for a purpose-built COIN/ISTAR aircraft remains – particularly one that is priced attractively given today’s economic conditions. We hope that believe our new aircraft, AHRLAC (advanced high-performance light attack aircraft) provides the perfect fit.

The two-crew aircraft can stay in the air for up to 10 hours – far longer than fast jets – and carry out forward air control, policing, anti-smuggling patrols, disaster relief and emergency supply to remote areas in addition to the surveillance/counter-insurgency roles.

Meanwhile its highly flexible form of ‘clip-on-clip-off’ payload systems enables it to switch quickly between operational roles. Powered by a P&W PT6A turboprop, it has high cruise and dash speeds, and range of 1,150 nautical miles on internal fuel making it ideal for patrolling large areas.

It can also be deployed in the bush, thanks to its short take-off and landing (STOL) capability from rough, remote landing strips.

AHRLAC can also provide an affordable alternative to unmanned aerial vehicles, in both military and civil applications.

The launch of AHRLAC marks a technological triumph for South Africa and the continent as we will be designing and manufacturing our own aircraft and can benefit from the jobs and economic growth associated with a new era in aviation.

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