In last month’s edition of FlightCom, I highlighted the first flight of the second AHRLAC prototype and discussed some of the unique aspects and features that have made the programme so fascinating. Without any doubt, launching a brand-new military aircraft in South Africa is an ambitious undertaking with a high level of risk, but also a high reward if everything comes together.
The reasonable question to ask is how competitive the AHRLAC and its armed Mwari combat variant are compared to other contenders in its market space, and whether it’s likely to achieve significant orders in the future.
However, any prediction of market success, particularly for military systems, is inherently uncertain because sales are driven by many more factors than just technical suitability. In most cases a system’s ability to meet the technical requirements is just a foot in the door, with actual acquisition decisions driven by political factors like offsets, ‘home’ manufacture, foreign relations, availability and desirability of financing options, quid pro quos and, unfortunately, at times bribery. These are all outside the scope of this article.
Nonetheless, it’s still worth analysing the technical strengths and weaknesses of the AHRLAC and Mwari, and for which market niches each variant would be best suited. To avoid confusion, the term AHRLAC will be used to refer to all variants.
To correct a misconception, the AHRLAC is not strictly a dedicated light attack aircraft in the same mould as the Textron Scorpion, nor a conversion of an existing trainer like the Beechcraft AT-6 or Embraer Super Tucano, all of which carry more ordnance and fly faster. Nor does it have quite the same payload as the rugged crop sprayer conversions like the IOMAX Archangel or Air Tractor AT-802.
The AHRLAC, rather, is a novel hybrid between classic observation and light strike platforms, like the OV-10 Bronco, O-1 Bird Dog and OV-1 Mohawk, and more traditional attack aircraft, coupled to a modular design that allows its capabilities to be scaled up and down as needed.
For the past few decades, the observation role has fallen out of favour as air forces have focused on high-tech ‘peer threats’ and conventional wars, believing that the huge leaps in the capabilities of sensors and platforms for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), as a result of advances of computing, would meet all needs. But recent global conflicts have created an increasing realisation that observation remains both valuable and must be recognised as a distinct role from pure ISR, especially when it comes to close air support (CAS) and the need to get down low to support ground troops while maintaining a high level of situational awareness.
ISR platforms like UAVs are extraordinarily useful and will remain so, especially for point surveillance, but the imagery they can produce is inadequate for CAS work because the fields of view of their optical sensors are too limited. Some have described it as ‘looking through a straw’, with even newer cameras often only providing a +- 5° view when zoomed in from altitude. Wide area surveillance systems show some promise, but are too new and expensive for wide adoption.
The renewed importance of the modern observation role is reflected in the United States Air Force’s (USAF) OA-X demonstration programme, which focuses on hybrid observation and light attack platforms capable of operating from rugged and unprepared airfields close to the fighting. The USAF has belatedly realised that, even with its gargantuan operational budget, spending over US$100,000 an hour to provide close air support with a pair of fast jet fighters, a tanker, and an ISR asset is neither sustainable nor particularly intelligent in long low-intensity wars like that in Afghanistan. This is especially true when a pair of light attack and observation aircraft could perform the same mission with the same time over target (when staged from forward airfields) at an operating cost of between just US$1,000 and US$5,000 an hour each. And that’s just the operational cost, the acquisition costs are similarly skewed, with a fully-equipped light attack aircraft being available for below US$15 million – far less than the US$60 million or more for a modern jet fighter.
When you include the fact that, thanks to the ongoing miniaturisation of computers and sensors, even light aircraft can carry payloads that were previously reserved for much larger and more powerful platforms, the value proposition of light propeller-driven attack aircraft becomes even more attractive, especially for smaller air forces with increasingly tight budgets, and those faced with long and persistent insurgencies.
What the AHRLAC, and in particular its armed Mwari variant, offers in its class, is a diverse set of capabilities married to an impressive level of modularity.
In the observation role, it is served by its large stepped canopy, high wing and pusher configuration, which provides the best field of view in its class. The side stick has HOTAS integration, and helmet mounted displays are an optional extra. This removes the amount of time pilots need to look inside at their instruments. Most of the other competitors in the space are low-winged, having been converted either from tandem trainers or crop sprayers, which limits visibility down and to the side.
For light attack, the Mwari has a useful load capacity of over 800 kg on six under-wing hard points, enough to carry a variety of smart bombs, rockets, air-to-surface missiles and other ordnance, plus the ability to carry a centreline 20 mm cannon. A stall speed of just 62 kt as well as a 272-kt cruise speed means that it can dash to combat areas at a decent clip and then loiter at low speeds once it gets there.
On top of that, the AHRLAC has 25 separate attachment points around the airframe, on the wings, and on the tail booms for all kinds of sensors and pods, including radar and missile warning receivers, radio and electronic warfare antennas, electro-optical sights, search and weather radars, and countermeasures.
By far the most important feature however, and the one in which most of the sensors and on-board computers will be installed, is the aircraft’s unique multi-mission pod. The entire centre section of the fuselage is a 2 m x 0.9 m x 0.8 m removable mission pod, which carries 800 kg of equipment and sensors in a reinforced frame that can be uninstalled and reinstalled using standard tools in only a few hours. This allows an AHRLAC to be reconfigured between vastly different roles in a fraction of the time it would take other aircraft.
Therefore, you can have a fleet of AHRLACs or Mwaris that are all of the exact same standard, simplifying support or maintenance, but which could perform very different missions from day to day, just by switching in different pods. For instance, an Mwari variant could be fitted with a pod containing a 20 mm cannon and a full combat load on the wings for light attack and CAS missions in the morning, then return to base to be fitted with a sensor-packed pod with wide-area surveillance cameras and radars, and depart on a new mission as a specialised ISR aircraft later on the same day. Or, you could define a mission package that equipped some aircraft in the attack role, one or two in the radio relay role carrying air and ground radios, and some in a dedicated high-altitude ISR role. The rear cockpit, fitted with a large widescreen display, can thus be used by a weapons systems operator directing munitions onto target, a sensor operator fusing together multiple streams of observational data, or even an instructor pilot, as the mission demands.
The capability was already tested on the XDM prototype, which performed multiple real-world border and coastal patrols using a pod fitted with a Thales Avni wide area surveillance camera, GEW Technologies radio direction finder, and computers for additional satellite radios and other equipment.
Another benefit is that the multi-mission pod is integrated, tested and qualified as a unit, not as individual and discrete components on the aircraft. So, it becomes cheaper and easier for air forces to benefit from the ongoing advances in sensors and computers, such as, for example, developing, testing, and qualifying a new sensor pod at a main depot with a single test aircraft and then shipping the pod out to operational squadrons where they can be attached to operational aircraft without any downtime. Compare this to the usual approach, where each individual aircraft has to be withdrawn from use to be modified with the new computers and sensors.
On paper it’s a compelling approach, and according to AHRLAC’s representatives, the first few years of production from their new factory at Wonderboom Airport have already been sold. Yet it’s entering a tough market filled with established competitors with not only proven track records in combat, but significant backing from multinational partners and national governments. For the programme to be a success, the company will have to sell a significant number, not only of the basic AHRLAC patrol and trainer variants, but also the higher-margin armed Mwari combat variant, and it is in this space that it’ll go against the Super Tucano, AT-6, AT-802, Scorpion and other formidable competitors.
Here, some of the compromises in the design may count against it. This includes the inability to carry as much cockpit armour and shielding as the converted crop sprayers, its on-wing load-carrying limits, its slower dash speed than the pure jet Scorpion, and its relative lack of institutional support. The trick for the team will be in finding those niches where the aircraft’s scalability and modularity offers unique value and in creating partnerships that can overcome some of the weaknesses.
It’s thus encouraging that the team has already secured one such partnership, with Boeing, in which the American company will acquire ‘empty’ aircraft and fit them with their own ITAR-compliant mission systems, avionics, and weapons for sale into ITAR markets such as the United States and Western Europe. More such partnerships should be sought, especially with Asian integrators.
In sum, with open architecture, a reconfigurable nose, tandem high-visibility cockpit, and the unique mission pod, the AHRLAC and Mwari present a compelling technical and cost-effective multi-role solution. It will, however, continue to face tough competition in the form of established aircraft and systems, which have already found both customers and combat success, and may appeal to more traditionally-minded buyers.
If this programme succeeds in achieving significant sales, it may ignite something of a revival in the South African aerospace industry. It could provide revenue, exposure and skills to other local providers, and grow South Africa’s capabilities, as those who gained experience working on the programme move on to other companies or start out on their own. And even if the programme doesn’t achieve its sales goals, one hopes at least that those who were involved can still find local support for their hard-won experience and continue to contribute to the local economy.