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Hawker Beechcraft’s AT-6 Guns For Embraer’s Super Tucano: Rival Planes Compared

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

It’s Texan versus Tucano, take two, and the embarrassed Air Force has got to get it right this time.

With all the claims, counter-claims, and rumors swirling about the controversial contract to buy the Embraer Super Tucano, which the Air Force cancelled unexpectedly on Tuesday and will likely re-compete, Breaking Defense went both to the rival companies and independent sources to distill this definitive guide to the competition, from the two planes’ performance to the manufacturers’ twenty-year history of feuding.

The bottom line? Both leading competitors are offering small, propeller-driven planes that derive from foreign designs but will be built in the United States. Hawker Beechcraft’s AT-6 Texan II (pictured above) is smaller, quicker, and more familiar to U.S. pilots and maintainers because of its similarity to the standard T-6 trainer. The Embraer Super Tucano is a larger plane with a solid track record of operating in tough conditions for non-U.S. air forces. Other contenders, including a militarized crop duster called the Air Tractor AT-800 and a proposal to resurrect the Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco, are out of the running. It’s down to two, and all eyes are on the Air Force.

For the Air Force: Small program, big stakes

The $355 million Light Air Support contract, intended as a (by Pentagon standards) quick and cheap way to get easy-to-operate ground attack planes for the nascent Afghan Air Force, has ballooned into a major embarrassment. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz told reporters yesterday that “Our institutional reputation is at stake.” While the Air Force’s formal court filings from Tuesday say only that the current contract award is “set aside” and the service is merely “reserving the right to conduct a whole new competition” rather than pledging to hold one, it’s hard to see how the service can take any short-cuts and satisfy the intense public scrutiny.

But time is tight to re-compete the program: The Air Force has until September 30th – the end of the fiscal year – to use or lose the LAS funding. It has until April 2013 – the start of the spring fighting season in Afghanistan – to meet its original deadline to field the planes, whose close-support capabilities commanders on the ground first called for in a “Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement” back in 2009. The Air Force and Navy tested Super Tucanos for the job under programs called Combat Dragon and Imminent Fury, but the Senate pulled the funding, reportedly under pressure from the Kansas delegation – which happens to be Hawker Beechcraft’s home state.

For the companies: two decades of dogfights

At $355 million for the first 20 aircraft, up to a maximum of $950 million if the Air Force exercises all its options for additional planes, the Light Air Support program is a modest one by Pentagon standards. Why all the furor? For the makers of the rival airplanes, Kansas-based Hawker Beechcraft and Brazil’s Embraer, this is just the latest battle in a larger war.

“There are so many other issues between Embraer and Hawker that this brings things to the head,” said industry analyst Richard Aboulafia, of the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group, in an interview with Breaking Defense. Hawker’s bread and butter isn’t defense contracts, it’s business jets, and that’s a market into which Embraer has been moving aggressively in recent years, just as the recession dried up sales. For Embraer to move in on the military market too was just too much. Hawker and partners have put $100 million of their own money into developing the AT-6 in hopes of foreign military sales, estimating a global demand for 450 to 550 light attack planes over the next decade (Aboulafia says half that many sales is more realistic). “We’ve invested to have the capability to meet a need in the world market, this is the first significant competition in that market, and we don’t intend to lose,” Hawker Beechcraft chairman Bill Boisture told Breaking Defense. And, unlike in business-jet sales, the intense “Buy American” passions stirred up in Congress also create an opportunity for Hawker to strike back.

This isn’t the first time Hawker and Embraer have gone head-to-head for a military contract. In 1990-1991, both companies entered the competition for the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) contract to provide a propeller-driving training plane for both the Air Force and the Navy – a $7 billion program for over 700 planes. Hawker entered a Swiss design, the Pilatus PC-9, which the Air Force designated the T-6 Texan II (the original “Texan” was a World War II-era plane); today’s AT-6 is basically a T-6 upgraded for combat with a stronger wing, bigger engine, and better electronics. Embraer, with Northrop as its U.S. partner, entered their original Tucano. Hawker won. It was a big blow for the Brazilians. Afterwards they went back to the drawing board and redesigned their plane from the ground up as the Super Tucano – the plane they’re offering the Air Force today.

The aircraft: size matters

Both rivals are offering small, propeller-driven planes that evolved from training aircraft. But within that niche, there are sizable differences – starting with size: The Super Tucano is just plain bigger than the AT-6. That’s a double-edged sword, especially since the two planes have the same amount of horsepower.

“This is a larger, heavier airplane; I didn’t make that up, it’s in the specs,” said Boisture of his rival, the Super Tucano. “[But] it’s got the same engine our airplane has. So what that means is it’s slower, it can haul less payload, it can stay on station less time than our airplane” – a heavier plane burns fuel faster – “and it’s frankly less maneuverable.”

For Embraer and its U.S. partner Sierra Nevada Corporation, however, size is a selling point. For one thing, the Super Tucano’s guns are built into the aircraft, whereas the AT-6 has to mount guns externally in pods, leaving less room under the wing for bombs. Being bigger also allows larger control surfaces – rudders, flaps, tail – so, they say, the Super Tucano is more stable in flight, which is helpful for low-level bombing and strafing runs. The longer fuselage also means the Super Tucano’s landing gear are further apart, an advantage in landing on dirt airstrips in rugged places like Afghanistan. It even allows the “sensor ball” that guides the aircraft’s weapons to be placed further forward for a clearer field of view. Finally, “it has built in growth space, so the aircraft is at the beginning of its growth curve,” said Sierra Nevada vice-president Taco Gilbert. “It’s easy to modify.”

The aircraft: track records

The best test of the competing claims, of course, would be in combat. That’s where the Super Tucano has an edge, with a hundred planes in Brazilian Air Force service, two dozen in Colombia, and smaller numbers sold, according to Aboulafia, to Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Indonesia, and even Burkina Faso. None of these aircraft has seen the kind of combat that’s likely in Afghanistan, but the Brazilians and Colombians have used them against narco-guerrillas like the notorious FARC, which has shot at low-flying aircraft with an arsenal of assault rifles and heavy machineguns similar to the Taliban’s. More conclusive is the evidence of simply operating day-to-day in the demanding environment of the Amazon, where heat, humidity, minimal maintenance, and hard landings on dirt airstrips – even dirt roads – all take a toll on aircraft. While Hawker Beechcraft points out their plane has met and exceeded the Air Force’s requirements in tests, there are only two AT-6 prototypes even in existence, with nothing like the Super Tucano’s real-world track record.

Where the AT-6 has the advantage, however, is in its commonality with the T-6 trainer, which beat out the original Tucano to become the standard plane in which U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots all learn to fly. The two AT-6 prototypes have only a thousand hours of flight time between them, but the T-6 fleet has flown over 3.8 million hours. That means a high comfort level for U.S. pilots and, even more important, for maintenance crews, since T-6 and AT-6 have about 85 percent of their parts in common. If the U.S. were buying a Light Air Support plane for its own use, the simplified logistics alone would make the AT-6 a slam-dunk – but we’re buying it for the Afghans, so it’s not.

The bottom line: American jobs

Of course, while the Air Force is supposed to base its decision on fine distinctions of performance, what politicians and the press care most about is jobs. Hawker Beechcraft has hammered on the theme that buying the AT-6 would create 1,400 U.S. jobs: eight hundred directly at Hawker Beechcraft’s plant in Wichita, another six hundred estimated in the supplier base.

The only published figure for jobs building the Super Tucano? Fifty. Hawker Beechcraft has had a field day with this figure, but Sierra Nevada Corp. says this was just to build the two airplanes specified in an early Request For Proposal the program has grown beyond. “We were in the process of scaling up those numbers when we were issued a stop work order,” said Gilbert. Until Sierra Nevada has solid figures, he said, “we will not inflate numbers, we will not speculate.”

Gilbert will say, though, that “this contract produces zero jobs in Brazil.” Embraer’s Brazil facility will only stamp out the sheet metal for the wings and fuselage, he said, and everything else will be done in the U.S., either at an Embraer facility in Jacksonville, Florida or Sierra Nevada’s in (unsurprisingly) Nevada. In fact, even the planes currently being put together in Brazil use over 86 percent (by value) American-built parts, Gilbert said: “They have to be shipped from the U.S. down to Brazil, so actually this is an easier way to produce this airplane, because we don’t have to ship the parts as far.” That is, of course, assuming they get to build the plane at all.

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