The turboprop-powered T-6 Texan II began life as a trainer and then morphed into the AT-6 light attack aircraft for the Greek air force. Now, as the AT-6B/C, it is promising to become an inexpensive path to network-centric operations, precision strike and advanced surveillance for other air forces.

Nor is there a foreseeable end to the development potential envisioned for the two-seater. It offers 1,600 shp, 5-6-hr. endurance and an A-10C cockpit—a combination that's being created by the team of Hawker Beechcraft and Lockheed Martin.

As for what a light attack platform should be, the debate is over, declares Daniel Hinson, AT-6 demonstration and test manager and chief test pilot. The answer, he contends, is an affordable manned platform that is toughened to the demands of pilot training and that lends itself to integrating niche features that include precision weapons as well as advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.

“The next great debate will be to define light attack weapons,” Hinson says. “There are weapons in the inventory but they don't take advantage of the platform's long persistence, ISR sensors or the ability to stay overhead and deliver ordnance over and over.”

Producing the right weapons effects is the cornerstone of light attack.

“If you are talking about counter-insurgency target sets, you want to be able to pick the right weapon and place it precisely where and when it needs to be there,” Hinson says. “That requires persistence and network-centric command and control. Users also can take advantage of the turboprop's low cost, austere-field operations and its ability to use small weapons that produce the needed lethality.”

To increase endurance, the team is looking at ways to add fuel without penalizing the aircraft's aerodynamics.

“We're working on putting 325 lb. of extra internal fuel in the wings, which would give another 45 min. to an hour of flight,” says Hinson. “I flew 4.6 hr. and still had 400 lb. of gas. That was with the IR/EO [infrared/electro-optical] turret and external fuel tanks, but not weapons. If the mission is ISR, we can stand out there a long time. Five hours is very doable and four is a pretty good standard. Being able to hang out in the battle with the same guys on station without having to cycle out for inflight refueling provides an amazing [amount of continuity] for an airborne mission.

A second imperative for the AT-6 program is to leverage prior Defense Department spending on people, programs, logistics, platforms and training systems.

“We've taken the EO/IR sensor [feature] out of the MC-12W ISR aircraft and we have integrated all of those capabilities,” Hinson says. “That means the Defense Department is familiar with every part we're putting on the aircraft.”

For actual combat use, the AT-6 is considered to be in the right altitude band to give the best tradeoff between avoiding threats and staying close enough to see the fight.

“We're networked into the land battle with the A-10s and F-16s,” says Derek Hess, director of the AT-6 light attack program. “We will have the ability to exchange still images, nine-line messages and streaming video as well as the flexibility of a helmet-mounted cueing system,” he adds.

“Right now specialized missions are the focus of the interaction of this aircraft and its capabilities. They include joint terminal attack controller training, intelligence processing and dissemination training while serving as a surrogate [unmanned] platform for U.S. peacetime training missions,” says Hinson. “The mission set lends itself to homeland defense missions like border and port security, counter-narcoterrorism, maritime patrol, disaster area imagery or search and rescue.”

Several key pieces—defensive survival equipment (missile warning and countermeasures systems) and the Scorpion helmet-mounted cueing system—are drawing particularly intense scrutiny.

“When you tie it into a network-centric, weapons-delivery platform, the package becomes a significant force multiplier,” Hinson says. “When you talk about having Forward Air Controller-Airborne [FAC-A capabilities] in both [front and rear] cockpits, it is huge. We are A-10-centric, so a second cockpit is something that continues the evolution of capabilities as new tactics, techniques and procedures emerge.”

Another part of the AT-6 concept involves introducing advanced communications. The AT-6 program was able to fly as part of intercept missions using a classified situational awareness data-link network (SADL). As a participant in an air-sovereignty alert, the aircraft detected and intercepted contacts.

“We locked up tracks and intercepted unknown aircraft using the [SADL] network . . . over Washington with air defense pilots on board,” Hinson says. “We can also exercise the full-motion video capability with a digital common multi-band data link. The SADL radio functioned as an A-10 would; therefore any message upgrade that would be integrated into the A-10 could also be integrated into the AT-6.”

Of particular interest is the Link-16 and SADL J16.0, a J-series message carrying an image. The idea is to send images and streaming video via a Rover-compatible system, which is important for ISR and FAC-A missions. Other possible roles include network analysis and long-term electronic surveillance.

“With the J-series messaging on the AT-6, [data] lends itself to exportability throughout the entire fielded infrastructure in any theater you could imagine to include special operations forces on the ground without a lot of support,” Hinson says. “We can establish and make those nodes in the network come to life and immediately distribute intelligence and targeting information beyond the local network.”

Electronic warfare and network attack also become possible with the networked, A-10C cockpit's installation in the AT-6.

“We are a node by virtue of the fact that we are in the network, whether it is distributed by a ground station or a King Air or any of the other systems that are out there,” Hess says. “We have the flexibility to use that node in the network in a variety of ways. That includes using future systems that increase the number and size of antennas or using distributed antennas as nodes in an electronic battle management network. We look forward to a future where we can take advantage of a small aircraft with full network capability, because the potential is enormous.”

There are also interesting matches in the combat arena, particularly when the AT-6B is paired with additional sensors on a larger, standoff support aircraft.

“Light attack aircraft and a King Air-based platform using off-the-shelf data links [offer the ability] to rapidly work data between platforms to generate and prosecute target sets in the irregular warfare environment,” says Hinson.

Moreover, the aircraft's long endurance at low speeds allows it to move closer to the target and monitor its emissions longer.

The ability to get close increases operational flexibility, “particularly since we are not dependent on satellites or external data links or [unmanned aerial system] support vehicles,” Hess says. “We also have self-defenses and armor so that we can afford to take some risk. You also have a man in the back who can step in. There's loads of potential there.”

That brings up the possibility of arming the AT-6 with air-to-air missiles.

“The AIM-120 [medium-range air-to-air missile] would be a stretch, but we certainly have plans for the AIM-9X,” Hinson says. “It's certainly possible.”