Note: This was originally published on the Canadian American Strategic Review in July 2008. The content is slightly outdated, but is offered here unedited to show how Canada has missed an opportunity. With even the USAF now looking at light strike/COIN aircraft opportunities Canada is now playing catch-up. It needn’t have been.
The Department of National Defence and the Air Force are examining the acquisition options for new aircraft to fulfil several roles including: helicopter escort (for Chinook medium lift transport helicopters), surveillance (in the form of a medium UAV and the replacement for CT-114 Tutors flown by the Snowbirds Air Demonstration Squadron.
The helicopter escort role is almost always envisioned as a job for another helicopter – our allies generally use Apache attack helicopters. This may be conventional wisdom but nothing says that a fixed-wing aircraft can’t escort transport helicopters. Likewise for the surveillance role. The current assumption is that this role must be performed by UAVs. In many ways, a manned aircraft results in a simpler and more flexible system.
If the premise is accepted that manned, fixed-wing aircraft could perform both the helicopter escort and surveillance missions, then there is a single aircraft model which can satisfy both roles – plus other roles as well – that aircraft is the Beechcraft AT-6B.
A direct descendant of the Swiss Pilatus PC-9, the AT-6B is a dedicated attack version of the US-built T-6 Texan II training aircraft. Suitably modified for Canadian requirements, the USAF T-6 was chosen as the basic trainer for the CF Flying Training School. The CT-156 are leased aircraft with cockpits matched to that of Hawk advanced trainers. Every CF fixed-wing pilot trained since 2000 has 95 hours on the CT-156.
The arguments in favour of commonality (both in training and aircraft parts) and large numbers of available pilots with experience on type is obvious. But, if the CT-156 was joined in CF service by its armed cousin, how would the AT-6Bs fit anticipated roles?
ISR – Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance in the Canadian Context
For Canadian policy makers and the CF, ISR is most appropriately broken down into tactical and domestic sovereignty roles. For the latter role – with Canada’s thousands of kilometres of coastline and lengthy borders – long-endurance UAVs (either MALE or HALE types) are ideally suited. A domestic sovereignty mission is characterized by many hours boring holes in the sky while monitoring the overflown territory. But, the use of weapons is anticipated to be so infrequent that a light payload can suffice. 
Tactical ISR, such as hunting IED teams in Afghanistan or monitoring the Pakistan border for infiltrating Taliban fighters, is a much different role. Weapons employment is almost a given, hostiles will be detected and engaged. For detection, COIN aircraft may be aided by a circling sensor platform or by the COIN aircraft’s onboard sensors. A usefully large and effective weapons load is essential to counter IED placing teams.
Endurance beyond weapon availability is not needed – indeed, this reduces the utility of a COIN aircraft – and empty pylons is the signal to replace the platform on-station. Employing weapons in close proximity to civilians or friendly troops requires excellent situational awareness (SA). Unfortunately, this is an SA level that cannot currently be met by UAVs. Certainly some UAVs are employed in this manner but a limited weapon selection with limited SA means that some targets are not hit, or not hit appropriately.
The AT-6B provides the necessary situational awareness and matches the tactical ISR role ideally. The sensor fit is almost identical to that fielded by UAVs currently being employed in tactical ISR. The AT-6B’s large canopy provides the two-man crew with a wide field of view, improving SA over the battlefield. The weapons fit includes all the missile and guided bomb types fielded by current UAVs. But the AT-6B can add guns, rockets, or specialist pods (such as PSYOPS leaflet dispensers or add-on sensors). 
‘Little Friends’ – Fixed-Wing Escorts for CH-147 Chinook Transport Helicopters
It seems a straightforward assumption that helicopter escorts must necessarily be helicopters themselves. This ignores the nature of the Helo Escort role. These escorts provide firepower to dissuade hostiles on the ground from engaging the transports. To do this, the escort needs a sufficient speed advantage to ‘sweep’ potential ambush spots along the flight path before it rejoins the formation. The transports are at their most vulnerable once landed. Here, the escorts – whether rotary or fixed-wing must circle the landing area to avoid becoming targets themselves.
A Canadian Forces AT-6B – let’s call it a ‘CF-156B’ – would need unimproved airfield capabilities (ruggedized, long-travel undercarriage with lower-pressure tires for rough- field operations). But the AT-6B already has the correct speed range and endurance to escort Chinooks for most missions. And ‘CF-156B’ weapons fit would be comparable to the Apache and certainly superior to any helicopters that the CF could field quickly.
As a helicopter escort, the ‘CF-156B’ has other advantages over rotary-wing escorts. In flight, the fixed-wing aircraft is much quieter than a helicopter. It is also much faster. At low altitude, top speed of a ‘CF-156B’ would be 498km/h (584km/h at altitude). The Apache, by comparison, cruises at 260km/h (its never-exceed-speed is only 365 km/h).
Of course, such comparisons are selective. Attack helicopters are well-armoured and, if needed, can hover over targets. Impressive though the Apache may be, however, to do what it does requires three times the engine power of a ‘CF-156B’. Needless to say, the ‘CF-156B’ also has superior range (2777km with external fuel versus 1900km for the Apache). So, the ‘CF-156B’ can travel further and get there quicker on much less fuel.
Other ‘CF-156B’ Roles – Pilot Currency, Liaison, and Forward Air Control (FAC)
Pilot currency and liaison flights are another area where the low cost
per flying hour of the ‘CF-156B’ would be beneficial. By basing these aircraft at the two primary CF fighter bases, staff pilots (ie: the pilots assigned to base staff positions instead of squadron flying positions) could use ‘CF-156Bs’ to maintain flying hours and active pilot status. The ‘CF-156Bs’ would also be available to fulfill liaison type missions (in the past, these missions were performed by Base Flight CT-133s).
For the uninitiated, the question might arise of what are the organizational benefits of maintaining pilot currency for squadron staff officers. As mentioned, recently-trained CF pilots have 95 hours experience on the CT-156 Harvard II trainer. Fighter Wing staff officers would be current on the ‘CF-156B’ itself. In other words, the flying hours spent on liaison missions and keeping these pilots current on ‘CF-156Bs’, provides a cadre of experienced ‘CF-156B’ pilots ready to deploy overseas as and when required.
The type has already proven suitable in the Forward Air Control role (Australia flies similar Pilatus PC-9s in the FAC role). Forward Air Controllers coordinate Close Air Support. Airborne FAC involves a slower aircraft circling to give its observer a good enough view of a battlefield to direct ‘fast jets’ onto ground targets. The built-in sensors and raised rear cockpit seat makes the ‘CF-156B’ ideal for FAC. Training of FAC teams is another obvious role – transition from CT-156s could not be easier for potential FAC crews plus low flying costs make the type affordable for training ground-based FAC teams.
The ‘CF-156B’ would still have utility in the post-Afghanistan Canadian Forces. As a manned ISR platform, the type can perform effectively alongside UAVs in sovereignty roles and, with its sensors, can even participate in SAR operations. The real strength of the ‘CF-156B’, however, would be in future peacekeeping roles where compliance is an issue. Unlike UAVs, a manned platform is always less likely to get shot at. This will be doubly true when that aircraft is also an armed platform that might just shoot back.
The Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project and the Future for CF COIN Aircraft
Canada’s famed “Snowbirds”, or 431 (Air Demonstration) Squadron, cannot continue to fly their CT-114 Tutors. The aging Tutors are no longer in service with any other unit of the CF. Nor are the CT-114s representative of the type of aircraft that a potential Air Force recruit might fly or work on. Replacement choice has almost invariably revolved around the Hawk variants, the feeling being that jet-powered aircraft are more suitable.
Australia once again provides an example to the contrary. Their PC-9 trainers, as well as flying in the FAC role, also equips the Roulettes air demonstration team – the Royal Australian Air Force’s popular equivalent to the Snowbirds.
Following the RAAF air demonstration team example might have another benefit. For some years, DND has discussed replacing 431 Sqdn’s Tutors. The Snowbird Aircraft Replacement Project first appeared in 2003 but, thus far, SARP has failed to attract the funding to procure Tutor replacements. Tying the SARP purchase to the needed COIN aircraft acquisition could have a double advantage – one financial, the other political.
To realize SARP, funding in the range of $600M is required. Political considerations have prevented allocation of these funds so far. Obviously, the politicians are leery of providing enough money to purchase a Snowbird replacement while Canadian troops in the field need support. Combining procurement funds could avoid that appearance.
Overcoming CF COIN Aircraft Procurement Hurdles – Funding the ‘CF-156B’
Applying the promised SARP budget to a larger ‘CF-156B’ buy provides economies of scale. AT-6B acquisition costs are quite reasonable. The AT-6B is currently avail- able from Beechcraft for approximately $10M each. ‘Canadianization’ would be minor, mainly ensuring maximum commonality with the CT-156s already in Canadian service.
To satisfy both COIN and SARP requirements, about fifty ‘CF-156B’ aircraft would be required  at a cost of approximately $500M – $550M. Support costs would still have to be factored in, but the cost-per-flight-hour and the maintenance requirements have proven to be quite inexpensive on the Canadian Forces’ fleet of CT-156s.
Investing in an aircraft like the ‘CF-156B’ today would put Canada on the leading edge in the NATO alliance. Many NATO allies are only now studying whether they should be investing in COIN aircraft to fight in low-intensity conflicts. Canada can be a leader in the field – the ‘CF-156B’ could be supporting Canadian troops in Afghanistan while other NATO members continue discussing the options for COIN aircraft procurement.
There is currently sufficient expansion capability in the Beechcraft production line to ensure rapid delivery of new AT-6B types. Once bought, there are few impediments to bringing ‘CF-156Bs’ up to operational readiness. The commonality of this aircraft with the in-service CT-156 means that pilot conversion is easy and maintenance is in place.
 Weapons carrying wasn’t even included in the original JUSTAS UAV concept.
 Weapons payload is closely matched to aircraft endurance. The AT-6B will need to re-arm about the same time that it needs to refuel. There will be no “toothless tiger” hovering over the battlespace with empty wing pylons but 10 hours of fuel remaining.
 This total of fifty ‘CF-156Bs’ assumes 16 aircraft for a Tactical Fighter squadron at CFB Cold Lake, 16 aircraft for a Tactical Fighter squadron at CFB Bagotville, 12 aircraft for 431 (Air Demonstration) Squadron ( The Snowbirds), plus another 6 spare aircraft.