This really was a shocker. The AT-6 program seemed to have been the USAF’s favorite for the Light Air Support competition as the T-6 is already commonly used throughout the USAF as a trainer and it’s systems were well integrated and based closely on the A-10C’s avionics suite. Hawker/Beechcraft had been working very hard at proving the AT-6 throughout the full flight regime, including FARP operations and weapons releases. Now, the word has come that the AT-6 was dropped from the competition without ANY initial explanation, which makes the news that much harder to swallow for the dedicated Hawker team.
I have written at length about my opinions regarding the AT-6. In many ways it seemed to be the Super Hornet of the lot, a great performer when it comes systems integration and a known quantity as far as the airframe goes via the service’s familiarity with its older unarmed cousins, who have provided pilot training for US aircrews for over a decade. BUT the AT-6 was packing a LOT of weight and hardware into a small airframe and wing. The Super Tucano seemed to be the logical choice as the aircraft was larger and originally intended to be a master in the light attack role. It carries more gas and had a larger wing to support a big weapons and sensor load. Whereas the AT-6 had to have a hot rodded PT-6 turboprop installed packing 1600hp instead of the standard 1100hp to meet the USAF requirements. Further, the airframe had to be beefed up for the higher stresses due to a largely increased operating weight over it’s original design. The AT-6 was trying to achieve a specific set of performance goals through raw power as opposed to original airframe design as seen in the Tucano, this may have led to some serious comparative inefficiencies.
I wonder if the USN’s data on the shady “Imminent Fury” program had something to do with it. “Imminent Fury” was a program ran through the USN’s special operations directorate to test the Tucano in the LAS/Special Forces support role. Although the program was very secretive it would seem that all of the information that did come out stated that the Tucano performed brilliantly. In fact it was such a useful too that people seemed to be amazed when the program ended after the test period expired. With how far the AT-6 program came, and how much data was available on its performance during this extensive development period, the USAF may have been able to compare that of the Tucano’s during the very similar tests and found that the Tucano was just a better airframe for the job.
The only other situation I can think of is that the USAF may be cancelling the program due to budgetary pressures and the recent blooming focus on the Pacific where the LAS would have little use. Although this does not mean there is a lack of demand for this aircraft by nations combating insurgencies or others seeking a lower cost attack platform for lower intensity battles that are so prevalent today. The reality is the LAS should have been fast tracked almost a decade ago for use during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The savings in just jet fuel alone by utilizing light attack aircraft that can loiter for hours and sip gas, when compared to their ultra thirsty fast jet cousins, would have been mind-boggling.
Below are the manufaturer’s sites regarding the aircraft. Embraer’s BLOWS AWAY Hawker/Beechcraft’s page. Lots on valid arguments made on both sites and they are really worth taking a look at. In the end, the Tucano seems to be the right platform for the job.