RCAF CF-156B for the COIN Role?

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 The content is slightly outdated, but is offered here unedited to show how Canada has missed an opportunity.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. [1]

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). [2]


‘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 [3] 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.

[1] Weapons carrying wasn’t even included in the original JUSTAS UAV concept.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.


15 year veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces. I now write to let the thoughts in my head get out where I can see 'em. :)

Posted in Acquisitions, Canadian Forces, RCAF

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Canadian ~ American Strategic Review

CASR has announced that it will cease operations on 31/December/2016.

I have grateful to have been given the opportunity to write for them, and to repost my material on Defence Muse.

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