( In Depth )
the COIN Role
Army Aviation – Counterinsurgency Aircraft – Modest Proposal –
A Canadian Forces AT-6B for the COIN Role in
A Modest Proposal by Steve Daly, CD
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 heli- copter 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
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
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
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
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
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 squadron 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
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
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 demon- stration 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
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 maxiumum
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-156 Harvard IIs.
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
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.
Steve Daly C.D. retired in 1995 after serving 15 years in the CF Air Element. He served at
CFB North Bay (414 Electronic Warfare Squadron), in Baden, West Germany (with 1 Air Maintenance Squadron) and
CFB Cold Lake (with 441 Tactical Fighter Squadron).
For discussions of COIN AT-6s, see Excalibur R&D, LLC's
AT-6C Project, particularly AT-6 -
the Best USAF Investment for the Long War (32pp 192 kB pdf by Maj Brett R. Blake, USAF) and AT-6C - A New Weapon for
Counterinsurgency (25pp 1.95Mb pdf, an illustrated briefing. Primary author, LtCol Edward "Otto" Pernotto,
 Ed: 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.