Fighting the enemy with a crop duster air force

War Is Boring:
Erik Prince is as polarizing a figure as exists in today’s world. Usually portrayed somewhere between a shadowy personification of all the ills of a privatized military, and a patriotic businessman, Prince is a man who knows and thrives in controversy.

His various endeavors range from Blackwater to recent Chinese money laundering, and just about everything in between. However, his latest project Airborne Technologies is an attempt to build a private air force of light attack aircraft from the Thrush 510G crop duster.

It is easy, mostly due to Prince’s controversial nature, to simply dismiss the idea as a harebrained scheme from the mind of a man with an interest in bloodshed. However, the Thrush would make for a perfect light attack aircraft in an austere environment, such as the African bush. The argument is a simple one of numbers, ruggedness and capability.

The Embraer Super Tucano, which Peter Doerrie at War Is Boring juxtaposed as the better choice over the Thrush, looks great as a light attack aircraft … on paper. And to its credit, the U.S. Navy had a program to test the Super Tucano as a support aircraft for Navy SEALs deployed abroad.

The Super Tucano is much faster, has better range than the Thrush (1,500 versus the 800 nautical miles of the Thrush), and can climb higher, with a maximum service ceiling of 35,000 feet. The Super Tucano has better avionics capability, and can carry two aircrew, allowing for a sensor operator (the FAA approved a two-person Thrush in 2013, but Prince’s are not dual cockpit).

However, the Super Tucano’s technological edge is also a disadvantage in the market Prince is looking to break into.

The African bush is one of the harshest environments possible on anytechnology. Humidity, dust, unimproved airfields, austere maintenance conditions, and the general difficulty in logistics movement causes advanced tech to work against the user. The biggest drawback for the Super Tucano is its relative fragility, due to this advanced nature, when compared to the Thrush.

For instance, the Super Tucano has an ejection seat. While useful, not only are ejection seats incredibly expensive, but they require highly trained maintenance crews to keep in working order, something all but impossible in a forward austere base.

The glass-cockpit avionics in the Embraer are subject to the nature of the environment, and as any pilot can attest, electronics do not mix well with dust and humidity. Old fashioned “steam gauges” like those in the Thrush cockpit are less accurate, but have better reliability in poor conditions.

Just the fact that the Super Tucano cockpit is pressurized using rubber gaskets, subject to rot if not correctly maintained, shows its disadvantages to an African user. In environments like those on Africa, it is hard enough to keeptrucks running, much less finicky aircraft.
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There is much more.

This is another way to provide close air support for combined arms operations on a budget.  The US military is also reviving some planes used in Vietnam for observation aircraft for similar use against an enemy that is largely stuck on the ground.

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