Drawing considerable attention at the Dubai Air Show has been a mock-up of a new Counter-Insurgency (COIN) and Close Air Support (CAS) aircraft, the Calidus B-350 from Abu Dhabi. The aircraft is a scaled-up version of the B-250 from the same Company, which had the general form and capabilities as the Embraer Super Tucano.
In contrast, the B-350 is very significantly larger, with a wingspan of about 50 feet (15.5 m), and an all up weight of about 20,000 lb (9 tonnes). This puts the aircraft into the same weight and size category as the Vietnam-era Douglas A-1 Skyraider, and the aircraft does, in many ways resemble that aircraft, particularly in the wall-to-wall array of underwing pylons and stores presented on the aircraft at the show. Where it differs, of course, will be in the technology employed in the mission systems, the weapons and sensors, and in the use of a turboprop engine, the 2600 hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PW 127.
Missions and Capabilities
So, what can we say about the mission applications of such an aircraft? Hush-Kit has previously published an article on COIN aircraft, containing this memorable quote:
“The thing about counterinsurgency is it doesn’t work. If you are doing counterinsurgency there’s a strong chance you’re in the wrong, either ethically, tactically or strategically and probably all three. Still, putting big guns on, often tiny, aeroplanes is pretty exciting stuff.” – from a Top 10 of cancelled COIN aircraft
And this comparison of the British and US experience with Counter Insurgency (the ‘Air Policing’ of the 1930s), is from my piece on the BAe SABA project:
“… after the First World War, Britain made a great thing of policing its Empire by air, having worked out that this solution was cheaper, and quicker, than sending ground forces out to deal with trouble spots. In doing so, it was exploiting superior mobility, enabled by the fact that the, generally poorly-equipped, opposition had no effective anti-air weapons other than the possibility of a lucky shot with a rifle. The aircraft used at the time, and indeed up to the Second War, were basically general-purpose biplanes, capable of carrying limited numbers of bombs, and the odd machinegun.
After the Second war, the Empire became the Commonwealth, as Britain set about divesting itself of its colonies. There were, of course, still hot spots to deal with, including troubles in Africa, Malaya and the Middle East, but a wide range of capable aircraft was also available to help manage these, making the development of new types unnecessary. An eventual decision to cease involvement ‘East of Suez’, pretty much took the UK out of the COIN game for a while, although an eye to the export market did result in modest successes with aircraft like the Strikemaster.
In the US, however, a combination of a post-war vision of that Nation somehow being empowered as a World Policeman, National testosterone, and a fear of Communism, led to the US being involved in many conflicts, of scale ranging from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, to the Invasion of Grenada. The Vietnam experience revealed the surprising utility of aircraft like the AD-1 Skyraider in suppressing ground forces, and ever since Vietnam, there has been a healthy succession of US efforts to field similar capabilities, delivered with some quite impressive aircraft, including the Cessna A-37, B-26K Counter-Invader, OV-10 Bronco and, at the extreme tank-busting end, the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
Today, the field remains active, with high-end operators like the USAF and US Marines operating the A-10, AV-8B Harrier and even AC-130 variants, alongside armed UAVs such as the MQ-9 Reaper. The Su-25 Frogfoot provides a good example of a Russian solution to the COIN/CAS requirement, and the L-15B has been suggested as filling this role in future for China. Inevitably, of course, some Armies have preferred to regard Attack Helicopters as the best source of CAS, particularly since these generally fall within the Army command chain.
Client states and smaller Nations are operating a range of other aircraft, notably the A-29 Super Tucano, AT-6 Wolverine and the Ag-plane-derived IOMAX Archangel. The B-350 really represents this latter group of turbo-prop COIN aircraft on steroids, basically following the same general approach, but exploiting the benefits that a larger aircraft offers. These include greater payload-range; a more numerous and more diverse weapon, sensor and defensive aids capability; and greater loiter capability, if used to provide a ‘cab-rank’ style CAS-on-demand service.
So, the Calidus B-350 might well satisfy the needs of Nations requiring a capable air-to-surface strike aircraft to attack a variety of forces and targets, reflecting either internal dissent or external land threats, but lacking the resources required to operate high-end jet-powered solutions, or really capable armed UAVs.
While the latter might seem attractive, there are substantial infrastructure requirements if strike operations are to be successfully conducted with unmanned systems, particularly if this were to be required in a CAS situation, in relatively close proximity to friendly forces. In practice, the two-man crew of the B-350, aided by appropriate target location, tracking and designation equipment, might well provide a more robust solution, at lower cost, than use of a capable armed UAV.
One has, however, to ask – does the capability make sense? And if so, is there a sufficient market to justify the investment required?
Looking at the market side of the question first, it is clear that the UAE has the resources to develop the aircraft to meet its own needs, if it wishes to do so. It has the experience of operating the IOMAX Archangel alongside the AH-64 Apache, and has also had the opportunity to consider the smaller B-250 design from Calidus. It may also be seeking to develop an Industrial position as a regional arms provider.
Would export opportunities exist? Well, it is not hard to envisage a number of countries with Governments that are concerned about insurgency, insurrection, or external threats from non-state actors, or even neighbouring states. However, a moment’s consideration suggests that the attraction of this type of solution may be somewhat limited.
One problem is that, to be viable, air superiority has to be assured, as aircraft in this category would be vulnerable to almost any higher-performance armed airborne threat. Were such a threat to be present, the survivability of a B-350 would be very dependent on the quality of its defensive aids, and on whether it has the ability to carry AAM.
That said, there have been many recent circumstances where conflicts have taken place when air superiority has been assured. But there remains a substantial vulnerability to Man-Portable Air Defence (MANPAD) systems, and these are widely available to almost everyone, not just those with tanks, tilt-rotors and attack helicopters at their disposal.
Despite these concerns, there is no denying the success of the AT-29 Super Tucano, which has achieved widespread sales in South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The B-350 undeniably offers greater potential capability, not just through additional weapons, but also through the ability to carry targeting and other sensors while still retaining numerous pylons available for air-to-surface and anti-air weapons.
It also has the attraction of being a relatively simple airframe, powered by a well-proven turbo-prop engine, with a configuration that should deliver good field performance from unprepared surfaces. Assuming the policy of keeping the technologies in the aircraft free of US-imposed International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) constraints carries over from the B-250 to its larger development, the B-350 may be an attractive proposition to users seeking greater capability than offered by the AT-29 or AT-6.
– Jim ‘Sonic’ Smith