19 November 2015
By Bilal Khan
As with the C-235 and C-295 piece earlier, you will occasionally find me come across and discuss a very interesting – but little known or appreciated – weapon system. For this article I am going to take a look at the Advanced High Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft (AHRLAC) developed and produced by the South African-based defence conglomerate Paramount Group and aviation firm Aerosud.
In the world of studying military technology our eyes are often drawn towards big-ticket items such as the Lockheed Martin F-35, but today’s wars are fought on many different fronts, some of them not actually requiring fighter aircraft that cost $100 million a unit to buy and $30,000/hour to fly. Rather, these fronts, such as counterinsurgencies, require militaries to be agile and efficient. But make no mistake, the capacity to keep an insurgency under control does not necessarily mean that the state is comparatively powerful, rather, it means that it has the right synergy of people, equipment and doctrine at its disposal to reverse and contain an insurgency.
The costs associated with developing that synergy are being driven down thanks in great part to systems such as the AHRLAC (and its competitors, e.g. the Super Tucano). The basic idea behind the AHRLAC is to offer military and law-enforcement entities access to incredibly affordable but relatively effective close air support (CAS) systems. To understand the value at hand, consider the cost (at least $20,000/hour) of flying a modern fighter aircraft such as the F-16 in order to deliver precision-guided bombs (PGB), especially in a CAS scenario of supporting soldiers during a battle. At some point, it simply becomes expensive and – to be frank – ineffective. An F-16 would need to be deployed from a forward operating base (FOB) and would need some time before it could reach a target; loitering in the skies in anticipation of movement would mount to the already high costs of having the plane in the air and add to pilot fatigue.
The AHRLAC on the other hand can bring over 800kg in PGBs as well as other munitions, such as laser-guided air-to-ground (A2G) missiles and 70mm rockets, at a fraction of the cost. One could potentially acquire AHRLAC units at less than $10 million a piece, and one can operate them to the tune of hundreds of dollars per hour. Not only that, but the AHRLAC – thanks to its short take-off and landing (STOL) capability – was designed to be to operate from areas with unprepared airfields and limited infrastructure (incapable of handling fighter aircraft). Granted a fighter such as the F-16 can bring several times the payload of the AHRLAC, but one will not be able to fly an F-16 as frequently over the COIN theatre as an AHRLAC, not without burning through a lot more money and tiring an expensive airframe anyways.
As for munitions, the AHRLAC was designed to carry modern precision-guided munitions. Granted, it cannot carry not heavy long-range stand-off weapons, but for the mission profile the AHRLAC is geared towards, its munitions inventory is solid. For example, the end-user can load the AHRLAC with multiple Mk-81 and Mk-82 bombs, which weigh in at (approximately) 125kg and 250kg, respectively. These bombs can be adapted into satellite and/or laser-guided munitions (i.e. precision-strike). The aircraft can also be equipped with laser-guided air-to-ground (A2G) missiles such as the 50kg Mokopa anti-tank missile (South Africa’s equivalent to the American AGM-114 Hellfire II).
It should be apparent that the aforementioned are genuinely lethal munitions, but to top off the AHRLAC’s usefulness, the aircraft is also capable of carrying mission specific pods in a specially designed conformal bay. In other words, it need not solely depend on external assets such as ground forces or a separate targeting aircraft to identify targets for engagement (though it can certainly operate in such a networked environment provided the user has the means). From what the AHRLAC commercial brochure states it seems that the aircraft is capable of being equipped with a whole host of equipment in the form of forward-looking infrared (FLIR) pods, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), etc, enabling it to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations as well.
Granted one would not use systems such as the AHRLAC against opposing military forces, but against opponents with inadequate or non-existent anti-air warfare (AAW) capabilities, the AHRLAC is not to be taken lightly. When combined with the availability of armed drones, aerial gunships and/or dedicated attack helicopters, the AHRLAC can be another piece behind a state’s capacity to induce aerial suppression over an area with relatively limited impact to its wallet.
Herein lies another key point. Acquiring a sufficient number of AHRLAC is well within the means of many states, even the ones not known or capable of fielding fighter aircraft such as the F-16. The ability to effectively fight an insurgency (not to be confused with resolving it!) lies within a state’s capacity to synergize its human and material assets into a competently-set doctrine (i.e. not finding itself in a situation where it is using a $100 million jet to fly $30,000/hour sorties to fire $250,000 munitions at repurposed Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks or long abandoned warehouses). The AHRLAC is that kind of material asset.