Armed Crop Dusters Are Becoming a Hallmark of U.S. Military Aid
Planes are ideal flying spies and attackers for small air arms
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
Defense contractors and air forces around the world are finding crop dusters carrying powerful cameras and deadly weapons make ideal flying spies and attackers. The relatively simple planes are particularly well suited to fighting insurgents and terrorists who lack advanced anti-aircraft weapons.
On Jan. 23, 2017, the U.S. State Department approved a sale of this type of plane to Kenya. Worth approximately $418 million, the complete package included up to a dozen Air Tractor AT-802L light attack planes, along with two AT-504 trainers, unspecified weaponry and other support services.
In a statement, the Pentagon’s top arms broker pointed out the aircraft were able to use small runways, lob guided bombs and missiles and were relatively cheap and easy to keep running. The Air Tractors would give Kenyan troops in Somalia another valuable weapon against Al Shabaab militants, the press release added.
But beyond Kenya, these tiny ground attackers are fast becoming an important hallmark of U.S. military aid.
By 2017, the notion of an armed crop duster was decades old and owed its existence to the War on Drugs. In the early 1980s, the State Department — which has its own, surprisingly big air arm — took on the job of spraying herbicides over illegal coca and opium poppy crops in Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Initially, a small fleet of modified OV-10 Broncos carried out these obscure and often dangerous missions. Originally designed as observation and light strike planes, pilots found them unable to handle the new plant-killing job, according to an article in the aviation journal Chandelle.
State’s drug-busting fliers ultimately turned to plane maker Ayres to build a special version of the Turbo Thrush crop duster. The new “Narcotics Eradication Delivery System” planes, or NEDS, had additional armor around the cockpit and fuel and chemical tanks, bullet-proof windows and other protective features.
With its turbo-prop engine, the NEDS had a maximum speed of 250 miles per hour, but could fly up to 1000 miles on one tank of gas. Able to cruise at speeds under 100 miles an hour, the planes could stay in the air for up to 7 hours at a time.
But the planes still couldn’t fight back against drug traffickers and other militants on the ground. So, State joined together with the U.S. Army to see about giving the NEDS some firepower.
In response, engineers at Ayres cooked up the Vigilante. The new plane could carry gun packs, bombs, rockets or other weapons on one of four under-wing pylons. Night vision cameras and video recording equipment were also an option, according to Chandelle.
We don’t know what happened to the project, but State never got the tiny attackers. By the early 2000s, it had retired the nine NEDS and turned them over to other countries, such as Colombia.
Even so, the concept never really went away. In 2008, Air Tractor debuted its AT-802U, which was similar in many ways to Ayres’ earlier prototype.
Powered by the same PT6A engine as the Vigilante, the AT-802U had a top speed over 240 miles hour when flying without any weaponry. The planes could lug 4,500 pounds of guns, bombs, rockets and surveillance gear on six racks — four under the wings and another two underneath the fuselage.
Air Tractor built the demonstrator in hopes of getting at least one of two up-coming U.S. Air Force contracts. At the time, the service’s plan was to buy a standard light attack aircraft it could give to American allies and set up its own squadrons with the planes to train friendly aviators.
Budget cuts and politics ultimately scuttled both projects. The basic requirements were still there though.
In June 2014, the Air Force signed a contract with defense contractor L-3 Communication to send four AT-802s to Yemen. While initial plans mentioned armed versions, the final deal called for planes carrying cameras only.
After the government in Sana’a collapsed in February 2015, the Pentagon diverted those planes to Jordan. The Jordanian Air Force was already flying armed AT-802s, similar to Air Tractor’s U model.
Yet another firm, North Carolina-based plane maker IOMAX, had originally modified those planes for the United Arab Emirates. The re-purposed crop dusters were clearly finding a growing number of eager customers — many of whom were friends with the United States.
At the same time, retired U.S. Navy SEAL and long-time private military contractor Erik Prince was devising his own secret plan to arm Turbo Thrushes for South Sudan, according to a report by The Intercept. Though Prince felt it was his idea first, the U.S. government had been experimenting with the small planes for more than two decades by that point.
Regardless of who came first, the basic utility of the planes was clear to many. Back at the Air Force, the service had a growing need to train crews trained on how to fly the tail-sitting planes.
In June 2016, an official picture emerged of Air Force advisors working on an AT-802 at an undisclosed location. Unnamed sources told IHS Janes that the Americans were from the 711th Special Operations Squadron, a reserve unit dedicated to working with allied air arms, on a deployment to Jordan.
Three months later, the Air Force put out a notice asking interested private companies to submit information regarding training on the AT-802 and other “tailwheel” aircraft. Under the proposed deal, the private teams would work with the 919th Special Operations Wing, which includes the 711th.
Pentagon “training venues do not exist to support the requirements of … pilots in tailwheel aircraft,” one document describing the potential contract explained. Companies could offer to hold the practice sessions inside or outside the United States.
In addition to basic flying courses, the Air Force also wanted to train its advisors to launch three types of guided weapons, the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, the GBU-59 bomb and the Cirit rocket. The Pentagon arms gunship helicopters and drones with the laser-guided Hellfire and has facilitated their sale to partners around the globe.
The GBU-58 is a small, 250-pound Paveway-series laser-guided bomb. Defense contractor Raytheon specifically designed this version for light attack aircraft like the AT-802, which might not be able to carry larger 500- and 1,000-pound variants.
The Cirit is a Turkish-made, laser-guided 70-millimeter rocket. In addition to the Turkey’s military, the United Arab Emirates — which has armed AT-802 and IOMAX’s much improved Archangel derivative — is the only other country to buy these weapons.
We don’t know what sort of information the Air Force got in response to their request. In the meantime, armed Air Tractors continued to pop up in conflict zones.
In January 2017, sources told War Is Boring that American mercenaries working for another of Prince’s ventures were flying AT-802s from the United Arab Emirates on missions in Libya. He denied any involvement.
But we do know that, after decades of experimentation, the Pentagon seems increasingly interested in sending these types of planes to American allies.