Confronted with the eventual retirement of the A-10 Thunderbolt II, the U.S. Air Force has been constantly pressured by the U.S. Army and U.S Marine Corps to find a suitable stopgap solution to the potential loss of Air Force close air support (CAS) capabilities. In the Global War on Terror (GWOT), soldiers and Marines, among troops from special operations forces and coalition nations, have come to rely heavily on the life-saving air-to-ground abilities of aircraft flying in the CAS role, including the A-10, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15E Strike Eagle, etc. While Air Force has made known their plans to explore the possibility of creating joint F-16/F-15E strike squadrons, discussions we haven’t heard since 2009/10 on the the often-overshadowed Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance and Light Air Support programs seem to have resurfaced. Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle indicated a willingness to consider introducing an aircraft like the Textron AirLand Scorpion into the Air Force’s fleet inventory as a light attack bird that could carry out both CAS and intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance (ISR) missions, complementing the larger and more heavily-armed F-16s and F-15Es. Though it would only be able to operate in low-risk environments, an aircraft like the Scorpion would be a great asset in the role it was designed to play, as long as there are bigger jets like Strike Eagles factored into the equation.
One example of an aircraft that the USAF had previously considered but removed from LAAR/LAS contention was the Beechcraft AT-6, an armed version of the T-6 Texan II already in use with the USAF’s Air Education and Training Command, as well as the U.S. Navy’s Naval Air Training Command. Built off a Pilatus PC-9, the T-6 has found a home within 8 countries outside the United States, and has experienced growing popularity, especially thanks to the capabilities it provides air forces. What’s more is that it’s easily adapted to a limited operational capability setting, allowing for the use of rocket and gun pods, small bombs and even fuel tanks should the mission call for it. The AT-6, built for LAS with optional ISR add-ons contains a digital cockpit with electro-optical sensors and datalink capabilities, as well as a powerful upgraded Pratt & Whitney PT6A-868D turboprop powerplant. The cockpit features an F-16 type HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) control setup and can employ the Scorpion helmet-mounted cueing system as well, giving the pilots the information they need to know quickly, efficiently and comfortably. Though it didn’t make the cut for the LAAR/LAS program in a controversial move that Beechraft contested immediately after they were notified of their removal, the AT-6, or an further-upgraded version might be given a second look in the coming years. Keep an eye out!