This Tiny Plane Is an F-16 for Cash-Strapped Air Forces
The Cessna Caravan is a transport, spy plane and attacker for small air arms
With Washington’s help, one tiny plane has become a popular alternative to high-tech combat aircraft—one that poor air forces can afford to fly.
Over the last decade, the Pentagon has gifted dozens of the single-engine Cessna Caravans—outfitted as transports, aerial spies and attack aircraft—to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
The propeller-driven aircraft guard borders, snoop on militants and attack terrorists in war zones from Iraq to Mauritania. They’re easy to operate and cheap to keep in the air.
The Caravan—also known by the designation C-208—is much slower than a modern combat jet and lacks the endurance of a drone like the Predator. But it makes up for its lack of performance with sheer simplicity and reliability.
Warplanes that are “highly capable in terms of payload, flexibility of use and overall utility are in high demand,” says Richard Jackson, who spent more than 20 years flying for the U.S. Air Force and the Coast Guard.
“I think it’s fairly clear that these sorts of light aircraft provide a low-cost alternative that works for international partners,” adds Dr. Brian Laslie, an Air Force historian.
Which is not to say the U.S. military doesn’t also possess Caravans. The Air Force’s super-secret 427th Special Operations Squadron operates a handful of the planes, probably for hauling cargo and personnel.
The slow-flying C-208 is an “inherently stable” platform for peering through video cameras and and launching missiles, according to Jackson, who still works as a professional pilot. The high-wing aircraft is perfectly suited “for mounting of sensors, weapons and additional fuel,” Jackson explains.
Cessna and L-3 Communications work together to turn C-208s into recon and surveillance planes. In addition, ATK offers the “Combat Caravan,” which adds Hellfire missiles.
To turn the Caravans into flying spies, contractors install a turret containing a night-vision camera in the plane’s belly, plus monitors and other equipment in main cabin.
The AC-208 Combat Caravan combines a similar kit with two underwing missile launchers.
The result is a cross between a low-budget fighter and a Predator drone that happens to have a pilot aboard.
As a bonus, the Caravan is similar to the kinds of planes many air forces use to train pilots. In fact, Afghanistan and Iraq have both also flown their Caravans as basic trainers, in addition to other duties.
As a result, new flyers can quickly progress from practice flights to combat missions, Jackson notes. This saves precious time and money.
Baghdad, for one, is acutely aware of how long it can take to train pilots to fly more high-tech jets. For three years, the Iraqi air force has been getting ready to take delivery of 18 U.S.-made F-16s.
A basic C-208 aircraft costs around $2 million. High-performance fighter jets can cost 25 to 50 times as much. And even a Predator drone is at least twice as expensive.
“The pros of any C-208 variant are its low cost and its ability to perform multiple missions,” Laslie says. “Since it’s a mass-produced civilian aircraft converted for military purposes, it’s very easy to maintain the aircraft and procure parts for it.”
Of course, the Cessna’s price does go up when you add military gear like video cameras, extra radios and weapons. In 2009, Lebanon received a single Combat Caravan as part of a deal worth approximately $27 million, according to a Pentagon report.
But the American funds also paid for spare parts, training and other items. Four years later, the Pentagon’s regional command for Africa sent two basic C-208 transports to Niger for some $11 million, which also included schooling on how to operate and fix the aircraft.
“Although a $4-million mission-built aircraft is not inexpensive, in terms of these types of programs/missions, it is a bargain,” Jackson says. “When you use price as the measure, few aircraft enter the realm with this kind of capability.”
The cost and effort to convert a regular cargo-carrying Caravan into a spy plane or strike aircraft is also relatively low. The Pentagon is currently looking to help Lebanon convert another one of its C-208s into a Combat Caravan.
Just don’t expect the Caravan to survive a major war. While ATK’s AC-208s can deploy decoy flares to confuse incoming anti-aircraft missiles, recent video footage from the AlYaseri Media Channel shows an Iraqi Combat Caravan flying at night.
The aircraft’s crew likely took advantage of the darkness to help them hide from Islamic State militants, who have managed to shoot down more than one low-flying Iraqi helicopter.
“I do believe this aircraft can only be flown in very permissive environments,” Laslie notes.
Still, supplying the tiny Caravans to American allies “allows the U.S. to provide a security presence around the globe at a reduced cost to the American taxpayer,” Laslie says. And this is probably why the flying branch is interested in securing a steady stream of them for the future.
In September, the Air Force Life Cycle Management Command put out a feeler for companies to regularly supply armed Caravans. “Historically, this acquisition has been awarded as a sole-source contract,” the announcement explains.
Under a sole-source contract, the customer deals directly with just one vendor and avoids the time and effort it takes to run a competition every time it needs to re-up.
In August, the Air Force used this method to buy C-208s with camera turrets for Niger and Kenya, as well as spare equipment for another Caravan already in Mauritania.
And if current trends hold, lots more countries could eventually get the cheap and simple spy and strike planes, too.