Tuesday, August 19, 2014

August 19 2014 The AHRLAC, Africa’s first home grown military aircraft, has just made its maiden flight. It reminds me eerily of the Edgley Optica—which I flew in (we did crazily dangerous things in it) and featured in my first book GAMES OF THE HANGMAN.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

President Dwight D Eisenhower

AHRLAC is being touted as Africa’s first home-grown military aircraft



Conventional military aircraft are incredibly expensive to both buy and operate. For instance a modern fighter costs around $100 million and perhaps $20,000 an hour to fly. These figures can vary up or down (mostly up where the F-35 is concerned), but they will give you an idea. If you add in the overhead costs of, for instance, an aircraft-carrier, the true costs per flying hour and per sortie are up in the stratosphere.

It costs the U.S. a mind-boggling amount to drop one single bomb. We specialize in Five Star killing.

Need it? Sometimes—yes. Mostly—probably not. 

Helicopters—and rotary aircraft in general—are not quite as pricey, but they are still remarkably costly. For instance the V-22 Osprey had a flyaway cost of around $70 million in 2012 (and if you believe that I have a bridge to sell you). An Apache AH-64 Longbow can be yours for $52-$61 million (or thereabouts). The optional extras drive the price up.

Yes, I have flown in an Apache—and it was an honor—and one of the great experiences of my life.

There are some who have been arguing for years that many missions can be quite adequately performed by significantly simpler and lower cost aircraft. Both the above come into that category—with the main focus of these two being:

  • Reconnaissance—hence the helicopter-like high visibility cockpits and pusher propeller (which means it is at the rear—giving totally uninterrupted vision ahead).
  • Patrolling—the AHRLAC can stay airborne for 7.5 hours and has a low stall speed. Top speed is  roughly 300mph. It can get to the fight fairly fast—and then hang around for hours. Someone to watch over you. Most useful.
  • Light attack—the AHRLAC can carry a weapons payload of nearly 2,000lbs in addition to its crew and fuel.
  • Short take-off 1,800 feet fully loaded.
  • Range 1,100 nautical miles.

I have no information about the costs as yet, but you can assume something like 10 percent of their higher priced relations.  Maybe a little more because military stuff is always over=priced.

Personally, I think this approach makes a great deal of sense—and will appeal to many countries who need such capabilities, but don’t have large budgets. In fact, we would do the same thing if we had any sense. Top of the range military aircraft are needed for some missions—but mostly they are not. But we have a long established tendency in the U.S.—where the military are concerned—to opt for the most expensive solution. It makes the most money for the MICC—Military Industrial Congressional Complex.

The South Africans have quite a tradition of developing their own excellent military equipment (sometimes with unacknowledged outside help—sometimes without). Since they were subject to both embargoes and sanctions during apartheid, they really had to.

Two examples come to mind.

They produced ultra-long range artillery to counter the Soviet backed Cubans, with the aid of George Bull (who got sent to prison in the U.S. for doing what the CIA had asked him to do). 

You’d forgotten the Cubans were in Africa? They were indeed—and in strength. Think the Seventies and Angola in particular. Worth looking up.

Secondly, they came up with mine resistant vehicles to counter their home grown mine/IED threat.

The Casspir, with its V-shaped underside being probably the best known example). It was awesomely effective. It could handle two or more anti-tank mines at once. that’s a serious amount of explosive to cope with—over 25lbs of TNT for two (the Russian TM-46, for instance).

Blown-off wheels and similar damage could normally be fixed in a couple of hours. This vehicle was thought through.

All of this predated the U.S. Army’s decision to buy the flat-bottomed Stryker by more than two decades—but, inexplicably and disastrously, the South African experience was ignored. And it was far from unique.  Mines and IEDs were becoming the norm in asymmetric warfare. Such threats  were entirely predictable—and yet, they were ignored.

A friend of mine—a senior Army officer and a decorated combat veteran—was prone to comment. “The trouble with our general officers is that they don’t  study and know their own profession. We have created a go-along –to-get-along culture—not a professional one.”

Well, we do have some exceptional generals—and the Army excels in some areas—but the evidence is that his broad point is true.

Back to the AHRLAC. If it performs as promised, it should do well.. However, common sense is less than common where the procurement of military equipment is concerned. There is a tendency to ignore required functionality and opt for the latest, greatest, and fastest—even where the country concerned really doesn’t have the money. Buying adequate does not seem to cut it. I tend to think of this as the trophy wife factor. Having cool  weapons—bought on credit through such organizations as the Ex-Im bank—tends to make the heads of small nations feel virile.

Does that make any sense? Absolutely none.

That apart, the AHRLAC’s greatest competition is likely to come from drones—and high resolution satellites. Optica are out of business (a murky story). There are other militarized civilian aircraft, but the purpose built AHRLAC should have the edge there.

A closing point. When evaluating the capabilities of a particular weapons system it is helpful to separate platform from add-on equipment.  You could, for instance, mount Hellfire missiles on a low cost AHRLAC. You don’t have to have an Apache. The same applies to surveillance equipment. That means you can obtain 80 percent of the capability for, perhaps 10-20 percent of the cost.

The military love acronyms. AHRLAC comes from something like Advanced High-Performance Reconnaissance Light-Attack Craft.

Just rolls off the tongue.



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