PARIS --- History shows that military interventions have many unintended consequences. One of them is the heavy weaponry acquired by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghred (AQIM) after the overthrow of the late Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Now Mali has become the first casualty of Libya’s revolution, and the vast, desolated region of the Sahara of which it is part of has become the latest battle ground against Islamic extremism.
In a surprise move that took many off guard, including AQIM, France intervened at the request of the Malian government by air and land against the insurgents.
French counter-insurgency (COIN) operations in Mali are supported by two key factors: 1) Intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) is being carried out by drones including the Harfang, an Israeli Heron unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) derivative and by fixed-wing aircraft such as the Mirage F-1CR, US Predator UAVs and the Royal Air Force’s Sentinel surveillance aircraft.
2) Bombing and close air support (CAS) are being carried out by fixed wing aircraft such as Rafale, Mirage 2000D and attack helicopters like the Gazelle and Tiger.
French air force COIN operations in Mali would be better served by the deployment of a robust, cost-effective, easy to maintain and heavily armed platform. The A-29B Super Tucano, for instance, is capable of flying at altitudes up to 30,000 ft., with a range up to 900 nautical miles (making self-deployment from France to Mali feasible, if not comfortable) and it is competently able to perform six-hour missions. The aircraft can be fitted with extra fuel tanks, multi-function display (MFD) and head up display (HUD) fully compatible with night vision goggles (NVG).
The Super Tucano can also be able to perform a numerous of missions such as providing streaming video, forward air control, escort missions, CAS and ISR. It is also capable of using a wide-range of equipment such as electro-optical, infrared and laser sensors, and it can be armed with guided and unguided rockets, wing-mounted 12.7mm machine guns, Brimstone anti-armour missiles, Mistral air-to-air missiles and guided bombs including AASM “Hammer” 125/250. There is almost no weapon being used by France against AQIM in Mali that can’t be carried by the Super Tucano.
Nor is the Super Tucano alone in its category. Its main competitor for the US-funded Light Air Support (LAS) competition, originally intended to provide 100 armed turboprop aircraft to the Afghanistan Air Corps, is the broadly similar Beechcraft AT 6, derived from the US Navy’s T-6A Texan II training aircraft.
Now upgraded with a more powerful 1600 shp Pratt and Whitney PT6A-68D engine, the AT-6 is a structurally strengthened derivative of the T-6 trainer. Adding to the FAA approved primary flight avionics system by CMC Esterline, Lockheed Martin leveraged A-10C precision engagement modification capabilities in integrating the mission avionics of the AT-6. The result is a plug-and-play mission system architecture that combines state-of-the-art data link, combat communications capabilities, extensive variety of weapons delivery modes and precision weapons tailored for the AT-6.
Employment concepts for both of these light attack aircraft draw heavily on US experiences in Viet Nam, where Douglas AH-1 Skyraiders, T-28 Trojan piston-engined trainers and North American OV-10 Bronco aircraft were used, modified and designed to provide low-technology, low cost and high-accuracy close air support to ground troops.
In fact, the Super Tucano and AT-6 very closely resemble the Cavalier Mustang concept, a turbine-powered light fighter derived in the 1960s from the World War 2 vintage P-51 Mustang fighter, and specifically intended for COIN operations.
One of their major advantages of aircraft like the Super Tucano and AT-6 is their low operating costs, another habitual hurdle for COIN operations. For instance, the Rafale costs roughly $17,000 per flight hour; and the Mirage 2000 5MK2 about $5,000.
Paying more to drop bombs makes absolutely no sense. There is simply no plane that can match the light attack aircraft’s capabilities of mission flexibility, air-to-ground weapons variety, and low operating cost of about $1,000 per flight hour for the Super Tucano.
Currently the Armée de l'Air doesn’t fly any Super Tucanos, but Mali’s neighbors Burkina Faso and Mauritania recently acquired six of them. France can lease one of them (or lease it from Brazil) and run an evaluation program similar to the U.S. Navy Imminent Fury destined to develop COIN/CAS/ISR platform for special operations personnel. The Super Tucano capably exceeded the requirements in Imminent Fury, but the purchase got entangled in U.S. politics, much like the air force’s LAS program.
Aircraft like the Super Tucano and AT-6 are relatively fast, cost-effective, easy to maintain and heavily armed platforms that are capable of working closely with special operations forces. They are the supreme combination for low-intensity conflicts, even in limited numbers.
Mali is yet another proving ground where airplanes of this category can prove to western air forces that they are in fact worthy offensive platforms, combining high firepower with low acquisition and operating costs.