The United States Air Force is expected to announce soon the winning entry in its Light Atttack/Armed Reconnaissance program, with the winner getting to build 100 aircraft. The two contenders are the Hawker Beechcraft/Lockheed Martin AT-6 (based on the T-6 Texan II trainer) and the Embraer/Sierra Nevada A-29/EMB-314 Super Tucano.
This is not the first time the Texan II and the Super Tucano have faced off in a USAF competition. Back in the 1990s, the T-6 beat out the EMB-312H Super Tucano, a variant of the standard EMB-312 Tucano, to become the primary trainer for both the USAF and the United States Navy.
Embraer went on to develop the EMB-314 Super Tucano based on the -312H design, and successfully marketed it to several other South American countries. Indeed, the Super Tucano was put to use successfully by Columbia in raids on FARC bases.
Also, the Navy tried out a leased copy of the Super Tucano for the SEALs in 2009, and by all accounts, liked it so much that they wanted additional planes. That, however, fell through due to lack of funding.
Beechcraft, for its part, wasn’t standing still. The T-6 was designed from the outset, at the insistence of the Hellenic Air Force, to fulfill the light attack role. The current AT-6 prototypes expand on this potential, featuring uprated engines, additional hard points to mount weapons, and armor protection mandated by the LAAR program.
The first question to answer is whether what is essentially a manned version of the MQ-9 Reaper is necessary. Both the AT-6 and the Super Tucano have similar weapons performance to the Reaper, though the manned planes are a bit faster and have far less endurance. While each flight of either plane would involve aircrew going into, potentially, harm’s way, there won’t be a datalink between the platform and those controlling said platform that can be broken into and compromised. In the era of hyper-sensitivity over collateral damage, having an unjammable link between the human activating the weapons release and the weapon being fired is worth the risk.
I’m not privy to any flight testing that has been done, so I can’t answer whether the modifications made to the T-6 have radically changed the flight characteristics of the AT-6, or how hard the integration of USAF-specific avionics has been for either type. Assuming neither was a significant issue, the fact that just about every pilot that came up in the last 10 years flew the Texan II means familiarity with the basic flight envelope would tend to tip the scales in its favor, especially when the mission turns into a two-way shooting match.
Another item that would seem to tip the scales in the favor of the AT-6 is the ejection system. The AT-6 seats are designed to safely handle a far wider range of crew, especially women, than the A-29′s seats. Of course, that may well be able to be rectified by Embraer with a minimum of fuss.
That leads me to the sourcing. Yes, neither leading company is a government-controlled entity, but Embraer is a foreign entity. There is a reason why the Pentagon has typically required foreign entities that win procurement contracts to use American sources for both assembly and major parts; we don’t feel like being held hostage to the whims of another country.
That is not just an idle threat, either historically or specifically to the use of this plane in a manner that Brazil does not appove. After Columbia used its Super Tucanos in a cross-border raid on FARC facilities in Ecuador, Brazil cut diplomatic relations with Columbia for a while. On the historic end, France blocked Israel from access to Dassault Mirage 5 jets it had already paid for back in 1967.
The Air Force needs to choose a plane that will get the job done. It does also, however, need to make sure that it can use the plane more than once.