in Defence / Features

Tactical Texans fit Tunisia to a T

Posted 21 May 2020 · Add Comment

The announcement by US State Department that it has approved a possible $234 million foreign military sale (FMS) of 12 Textron Aviation Beechcraft T-6C Texan II trainers to Tunisia will undoubtedly lead to an improved relationship between the two countries. But, asks Jon Lake, what else could it lead to?

The potential Tunisian T-6C acquisition is intended to improve the defensive capabilities of what the US calls “a major non-NATO ally and an important force for political stability and economic progress in north Africa”.
The US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) confirmed that a potential would include related spares, ground-support equipment, and support (including technical documentation, pilot and groundcrew training and ferry flights).
It would require one contractor representative (from prime contractor Textron Aviation Defense of Wichita, Kansas) and nine US Government personnel to be sent to Tunisia.
The sale would, obviously, further strengthen the bilateral relationship between Tunisia and the US and provide additional opportunities for bilateral engagements.
Tunisia’s selection of the T-6C could also indicate that recapitalisation of the front-line fighter fleet is imminent, and there have already been suggestions that the proposed T-6C purchase could pave the way for a Tunisian acquisition of the AT-6B Wolverine for counter-insurgency (COIN) and light-attack duties.
The Wolverine is structurally reinforced and is powered by an uprated 1,600shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68D engine. It was designed as a dedicated light-attack derivative of the T-6. It is equipped with a datalink and integrated electro-optical sensors and several weapons configurations have been cleared.
The AT-6B is a candidate to meet the US Air Force’s long-running light-attack/armed reconnaissance requirement, which could lead to further export sales. The armed AT-6B would be an extremely useful addition to the Tunisian Air Force inventory, and would replace and expand upon the ground-attack capabilities currently provided by the SF-260WT and the MB326.
There have been reports that AT-6Bs could be supplied to Tunisia in return for basing rights for unspecified US military aircraft.
The Al Quwwat al-Jawwiya al-Jamahiriyah At'Tunisia (Tunisian Air Force) currently operates a number of different aircraft types for training, and several of these also have an operational role.
The air force uses the Siai-Marchetti SF-260 as its basic trainer, though these are also used in the light utility and liaison roles and some can be armed for COIN and light-attack missions.
The air force received nine Siai-Marchetti SF-260CTs and 12 SF-260WT Warriors between 1974 and 1978; the Warriors having underwing hardpoints allowing them to be armed, if required.
About 18 SF-260s remain in use with Nos 13 and 14 Squadrons at Sfax-Thyna, with the SF-260WTs being concentrated within No13 Squadron.
Tunisian student pilots then move on to the jet-powered Aermacchi MB-326, some 10 of which serve with No11 Squadron at Sidi Ahmed. These are the survivors of eight MB-326Bs delivered in 1965, and five MB-326LTs and seven single-seat MB-326KT light-attack aircraft delivered in 1977.
The 12 new turboprop-powered T-6Cs seem most likely to replace these aging jets, filling the gap between the SF-260 and the nine surviving Aero L-59Ts (of 12 delivered) that operate in the lead-in fighter training and light-attack roles.
The L-59Ts equip No16 Squadron at Gafsa.
Though powered by a 1,100hp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68 turboprop engine, the T-6 has jet-like performance and handling characteristics, with a speed of 320mph, an initial rate of climb of 3,100ft (944.8m) per minute and the ability to reach 18,000ft (5,486.4m) in less than six minutes.
The aircraft has a pressurised cockpit and the pilots sit on Martin Baker zero-zero ejection seats, while the tandem seats provide a fighter-like environment for the student pilot in the front seat.
Although the Texan is not a jet trainer, it offers tactical training capabilities that would previously have been confined to more expensive, higher-performance trainer aircraft.
The T-6 was originally developed to meet the US Air Force and US Navy joint primary aircraft training system requirement.
The T-6A was conceived as a relatively minimum change derivative of the commercial off-the-shelf Pilatus PC-9, with minor modifications to meet specific US requirements. These included a vapour-cycle air conditioner and on-board oxygen generation system and an increased canopy thickness. The latter was intended to prevent a 4lb (1.8kg) bird from penetrating the cockpit at a speed of 270kts (500km/h).
The leading edges of the wing, horizontal stabiliser and vertical fin were also strengthened with an additional spar to provide better bird-strike resistance.
The flight controls were modified to improve the aircraft’s flying qualities, while a number of modifications were incorporated to make maintenance easier, and to shorten turnaround times between sorties.
In the event, additional requirements resulted in delays, cost increases (from an initial estimate of $3.9 million to almost $6 million per aircraft), and weight increases, such that the production T-6A weighed 22% more (1,100lbs) than the Pilatus-built PC-9, while parts commonality was limited to the landing gear tyres.
The T-6A made its maiden flight on July 15 1998.
The T-6B was an upgraded version of the T-6A, with a digital glass cockpit (the result of a company-funded avionics upgrade), used by some US Navy units.
The T-6C is an upgraded export variant, with a digital glass cockpit (like that fitted to the T-6B) including a modern Sparrow Hawk head-up display, an upfront control panel, three colour flat panel multifunction displays, and hands-on-throttle-and-stick controls in each cockpit, as well as a data transfer module. The aircraft also features an embedded synthetic air-to-ground and air-to-air training capability.
The T-6C is also fitted with underwing hardpoints (like those fitted to 20 T-6A NTA aircraft delivered to the Hellenic Air Force). This allows it to undertake live weapons training and COIN missions. The underwing hard-points can also accommodate auxiliary fuel tanks.
For many air forces, the advanced glass cockpit of the T-6C would be broadly representative of the cockpits of current front-line combat aircraft. This is not the case in Tunisia, where the air force’s elderly Northrop F-5E fighters are equipped with old fashioned legacy analogue cockpits.
Tunisia ordered 12 F-5s (eight single-seat F-5Es and four two-seat F-5Fs) in 1981, and these were delivered in 1984-85. Five ex-USAF F-5Es were delivered from the US Air Force’s Alconbury-based aggressor squadron in 1989. Some 11 F-5Es and four F-5Fs remain in service.
In the MENA region, Tunisia is set to join Morocco as a T-6C operator. Morocco ordered 24 T-6Cs in October 2009 at a cost of $185 million. These aircraft were delivered from 2011. Iraq operates 15 T-6As, which were delivered between December 2009 and November 2010 to replace Cessna 172 Skyhawks and Cessna 208 Caravans in the training role. These aircraft were grounded for about four years before being returned to service this year.
The possible $790 million sale of 24 AT-6Cs to Iraq was notified to Congress in 2014, but the deal failed to materialise.
The T-6 Texan II has logged more than 3.2 million flying hours around the world, and has been widely exported, though the rival PC-21 has proved more successful in the Middle East. T-6As have been delivered to Canada (26, designated CT-156), Greece (45), Israel (20), and Iraq (15), while the T-6C has been exported to Argentina (10), Mexico (73), Morocco (24), New Zealand (11) and the United Kingdom (10). Some 372 aircraft were ordered for the US Air Force and 339 for the Navy.

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