10 November 2007

COIN aircraft, back to the past!

A funny thing happened on the way to Counter Insurgency operations, we stepped back a few decades in aircraft. While jet aircraft have many major pluses on lift and speed, they lack fuel economy, endurance and typically need a large maintenance tail. COIN work requires large loiter times, low maintenance and yet the ability to be around when needed for Combat Air Support. Thus the new generation of COIN aircraft the A-67 Dragon (H/t: Strategypage), by US Aircraft Corporation which is making this mostly for export, but its purposes range across the COIN field.

One of the first reactions I had to looking at the aircraft was: 'They just re-invented the P-51 Mustang!' While unfair due to the modern electronics and aircraft parachute for recovery, these are very similar aircraft. This is one of those areas where coincident evolution of design based on technical specifications will lead you similar outcomes: there are hard and fast design limits that the P-51 was pushing and the A-67 is fitting into for another purpose. Thus, to get an idea of what we are looking at I will use the venerable P-51 Mustang for comparison (one of the late model variants if memory serves... I had picked up the information for general purposes for another idea and didn't keep track of where I had picked it up).

Aircraft Characteristics
A-67 Dragon
P-51 Mustang
Loaded Weight (lbs)7,400
-Max. Takeoff10,20012,100
Powerplant (hp)1,6001,695
Max. Speed (mph)371437
Max. Speed, tactical (mph)346
Cruise Speed (mph)301362
Combat Radius (miles)1,8801,650 w/ext
Ferry Range (miles)
Service ceiling (ft)35,00041,900
Rate of Climb (ft/min)4,8823,200
-Wing Guns6 x .50 cal mg
-other mount
Max. Carry Weight (lbs)3,6002,840

While the A-67 Dragon does have an edge on climb, range and hardpoint external carry, the P-51 makes up for that with a higher operational ceiling, higher maximum speed and direct fire capability. The A-67 gives up direct fire for external load, higher speed for longer loiter and has a higher rate of climb to a lower operational ceiling.

Here the COIN concept takes charge but only slightly, since the P-51 was also made for ground attack and strafing, which 6 x .50 cals could do very effectively with electromechanical gunsights. What could be achieved in the modern era with HUD and computer adjusted firing is unknown, but my guess is that it would be quite spectacular. If the .50 cal could be swapped out, then the actual maximum external carry would be almost identical between these two aircraft.

One thing that the sales brochure for the A-67 is not clear on is the actual range and if that is with the centerline external fuel tank (which is my guess given the performance characteristics of the aircraft), in which case the 200 mile difference adds up to 1.5 hours of airtime. One thing not shown for the P-51 is the combat ferry which is a mode of guns only and maximum fuel, which adds range to the aircraft for a one-way ferry or more effective airtime, that would bring the P-51 well into the loiter time and possibly even carry two relatively light bombs (most likely 2x 250 lb. SDB) or two missiles.

This in no way disparages the A-67 Dragon, indeed the design similarities to the P-51 points out just how successful that design was for its purpose, as a single seat 'Pursuit' aircraft that was also capable of multiple roles in observation and ground attack. While later 'Attack' aircraft variants would show up after WWII, such as the A-1 Skyraider that was also a single seat aircraft for COIN work used up to Vietnam, the P-51 pointed to a design lineage that is nearly eternal for the kind of work it would do. And today's high resolution camera systems and persistent surveillance equipment would only add to the type of platform provided by that original design concept. Something very like the A-67 Dragon.

Still, the lack of robust firepower on-board has proven to be a major design flaw no matter what the combat aircraft is. And with modern, precision missiles and bombs, the ability to get 'lead on target' has always proven to be the final decider in a fight where the odds are evened by one means or another. With electronics and counter-measures to radar and heat seeking missiles, one very quickly gets down to guns no matter if the target is from a MANPAD or a green jet fighter pilot who just never was taught how to deal with planes that slow.


Felipe said...

Hi there, forgive me for dropping in uninvited.. ;)

I don't believe one can comment on the hypotetical "A-67" without taking a look at Embraer's real life AT-27 "Tucano" light attack turboprop. This aircraft has sold over 600 units to countries as diverse as Brazil, UK, France, Kenia, Colombia, Argentina, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Angola, Peru, Venezuela, and the list goes on...

This success story of the 80s and 90s has benn succeded by the much more poerful and lethal A-29 "Super Tucano" that is currently operational in Brazil and Colombia with further orders by Dominican Republic, Chile and Ecuador. The "Super Tucano" can carry IR air to air missiles and can drop laser guidade smart munitions. It has a top notch israly manufactured digital cockpit and plenty available power to drive it in the air.

On the other hand the A-67 is nothing but a "paper airplane" with no clear mission or even a prospective client base. Even if there is a market out there for a Tucano-class turboprop trainer light attack aircraft the US-built existing Beech T-6B Texan II would most certainly be in a much better political, industrial, technical and commercial position to vie for this market niche, that is if you discard the possibility of acquiring used surplus AT-67 aircraft at a very aggressive 2nd hand market price.

Best Regards,

Felipe Salles

A Jacksonian said...

Felipe - My thanks!

The article was intended to look at how aircraft design has limitations due to expected role, mission needs and underlying technology. The compare/contrast with the proposed A-67 to the historical P-51 was meant to serve as a grounding to understand that similarity in mission needs (distance, speed, duration) combined with operational payload yields aircraft that are, fundamentally, very similar even when done decades apart.

This was not meant to be an article going into the depth of COIN aircraft by multiple manufacturers. I am well aware of the Tucano and Super Tucano and other airframes utilized in this role, as well as the slow shift to UAV/UCAV concepts. There will be a fundamental shift between airframes that are manned for this role and those that are unmanned/remotely operated. The human necessary support equipment when not needed yields a different airframe, endurance, speed and payload equation than does a manned one. That will be interesting to see how it plays out over time.

This was a simple analysis on the manned part of the equation WRT to A-67 and P-51. I don't care that the A-67 is a 'paper concept plane', but the thought process going into it and what that yields as a design. Any paper design needs a thorough testing out and manufacturing scale procedure (like the NLOS-C now going into limited production on the ground forces side). And an NLOS-C with Excalibur rounds and sensor rounds can have many of the same COIN functions as an aircraft, but starts from a different platform and purpose, with different mission and design parameters for ground based work (multiple shells time on target) vice sudden strike or interdiction (COIN aircraft). And that concept goes all the way back to artillery spotting by balloon into the 19th century... so a historical analysis between, say, Spitfires helping US artillery units in 1944 and the NLOS-C communicating with a COIN aircraft might show valuable concepts and lessons for that mission and how many factors stay the same even though the technology gets much better. And the ability to put lead on target from aircraft has always been a prime concern be it the rifle armed spotters in baloons all the way to modern systems on aircraft with similar mission needs. Missiles are ever so handy... until they fail... then the most simple and direct way comes back to the forefront time and again throughout decades of combat aircraft design.

I thank you for the feedback.