Czech And Israeli Team To Pitch Advanced L-159 Light Attack Jets To The U.S. Military

Czech plane maker Aero Vodochody and Israel Aerospace Industries, or IAI, have teamed up in an effort to pitch variants of the former firm’s L-159 and L-39NG jets to the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps as light attack platforms. But there are significant obstacles in the way of these plans, not least of which is that the Air Force’s isn’t accepting new entrants for its light attack experiment, or OA-X, and the two aircraft don’t meet that either service’s existing, stated requirements anyways.

The two companies announced their partnership, as well as their specific interesting taking part in the Air Force’s program, in a press release on June 12, 2018. In a call with reporters, Giuseppe Giordo, Aero Vodochody’s President and CEO, said that the team could have an advanced version of the L-159 ready by 2020 and that it could build a U.S.-based production line if it secured a major contract with the U.S. military. The firm hopes that the L-39NG will be ready around the same time and that design will also be an option if it meets the official requirements.

“Together with IAI, Aero is ready to offer the USAF a multi-mission aircraft with the best available technology today, with potential for growth tomorrow,” Giordo said in the press release. “Our two non-developmental solutions offer the American Air Force a real choice of low risk, low cost solutions, in aircraft flying with coalition partners today.”

He did not offer any specific details about what the new L-159 configuration might entail. In April 2018, however, Aero and IAI revealed plans to develop a new version of the jet with improved avionics and unspecified “other solutions,” which could include additional weapon systems, according to a report by FlightGlobal.

A pair of L-159E aircraft belonging to the private American contractor Draken International., Draken International

The L-159, also known as the Advanced Light Combat Aircraft (ALCA) or Honey Badger, already includes an IAI Elta Systems multi-mode pulse Doppler radar and an optional data link, both of which allow the aircraft to operate in the light attack role. Iraq, the first military customer for the type outside of the Czech Republic, flew nearly 400 attack mission jets between September 2016 and December 2017, according to official statistics.

Draken International, a private American company, also flies L-159E types as “red air” adversaries and in other training roles under contract to the U.S. Air Force. Earlier in June 2018, the firm deployed some of its Honey Badgers to Kingsley Field in Oregon to help train Air Force F-15C/D pilots.

One of the Iraqi Air Force’s L-159s carrying an unguided bomb ahead of a strike on ISIS terrorists., Iraqi Air Force

Separately, in 2014, Aero unveiled plans for the L-39NG, or Next Generation, which it will offer as a new production aircraft and an upgrade package for any of the dozens of countries still flying the highly successful Cold War-era L-39 Albatross. The updated variant will feature a Williams FJ44-4M turbofan in place of the 1960s-era Ivchenko AI-25TL, new avionics, and a host of improvements to the airframe itself, including enlarged fuel tanks in the wing that eliminate the need for wingtip tanks.

Existing operators employ the older L-39s as jet trainers and light attack aircraft and Aero says the new aircraft will continue to be able to perform both roles. In 2015, Draken announced that it would work with the Czech manufacturer and Williams to market the NG version in the United States, but it is unclear if the company is involved in the new partnership to pitch aircraft directly to the U.S. military.

An artist’s conception of the L-39NG., Aero Vodochody

There’s no question that, at least in theory, the L-159 or L-39NG could offer the U.S. military a cost-effective alternative to more advanced combat jets in lower-threat environments and free those larger aircraft up for higher priority missions in those theaters or elsewhere. Combined with a radar with an air-to-ground mode and a sensor turret containing a mix of electro-optical and infrared cameras or an actual targeting pod, the aircraft could easily conduct a variety of missions, including surveillance and reconnaissance, armed overwatch, and close air support.

Lightweight precision guided-munitions, especially the 70mm Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System II, or APKWS II, a laser guided rocket, would only expand the aircraft’s capabilities and increase the total number of targets it could engage during a single mission. Self-defense suites combining sensors to warn the crew of incoming threats coupled with dispensers able to fire decoy flares and chaff could give the aircraft additional protection against man-portable and other short-range air defense systems.

Giordo believes these self-protection features make the L-159, in particular, a better choice for the Air Force and Marine Corps compared to armed turboprop planes. The Air Force is presently experimenting with Embraer and SNC’s A-29 Super Tucano and Textron’s AT-6C Wolverine and the Marines have expressed interest in acquiring a similar type of aircraft in the past.

The Air Force “cannot afford the risk of flying with turboprops,” he said during the press call. “We do believe that U.S. pilots need to have the best assets in close air support missions.”

An Afghan Air Force A-29 carrying laser-guided bombs., USFOR-A

The problem is that the service’s requirements for its most recent light attack experiments specifically precluded aircraft such as the L-159 and L-39NG, which do not have the desired ability to operate from unimproved airstrips. The Air Force rejected Textron’s Scorpion light jet, which is larger than either of Aero’s offerings, after the first round of the OA-X project for this reason at least.

There is no indication that the Air Force is looking to change its mind on that stipulation or any others that may have prevented Scorpion from advancing to the second round and could apply to the Czech jets. The service may release an official request for proposals, which could lead to a program to purchase a fleet of around 350 aircraft, as early as October 2018.

But the Air Force is undoubtedly eager to avoid the kind of drama that came from loosening up its requirements for the first round of the OA-X experiment. The serviced waived its demands for rough field capability and ejection seats to allow the Scorpion and Air Tractor and L3’s AT-802L Longsword aircraft respectively to join the demonstration. 

So far, the Marine Corps has not yet announced any formal plans to even begin evaluating a light attack aircraft. Since 2016, the service’s annual aviation plans have outlined a need for one, primarily for training purposes, but have also defined the desired plane specifically as a single-engine turboprop.

And Giordo’s insistence that, unlike its turboprop competitors, the L-159 has seen combat in a “real operational war environment” ignores that Iraq is a low-threat environment and that the A-29 has seen combat on multiple continents in the same types of situations. Embraer and SNC are reportedly already working on adding additional self-defense systems to their aircraft to make it more survivable, as well.

That’s not to say there’s absolutely no reason for Aero and IAI to bring their latest offerings to the American market and consider establishing U.S.-based production capacity. It remains largely unclear what the Air Force actually wants from its light attack program and the service repeatedly makes reference to foreign participation.

Even if the companies fail to secure a U.S. military contract for either jet, establishing any sort of formal presence in the American market could position itself as an attractive option for the United States’ allies and foreign partners to procure via the Foreign Military Sales program or some other military assistance mechanism. The U.S. government has already facilitated the sale of A-29s, as well as armed light utility and agricultural aircraft to countries looking to expand their light attack fleets.

An Air Tractor and L3 AT-802L Longsword light attack aircraft, which is a modified crop duster. The U.S. military has facilitated the sale of these aircraft to Kenya., USAF

This appears to be the same logic Bronco USA, a joint venture between South African defense contractor Paramount Group International and American firm Fulcrum Concepts, is following in bringing their Bronco II light attack aircraft to the U.S. market. Bronco USA was also not part of the OA-X competition and made its announcement after the Air Force made clear it would not be considering any more possible entrants.

And Aero and IAI will of course still be able to market the L-159 and L-39NG to any other potential customers. In April 2018, Senegal, which does not have any combat jets at present, signed a deal to buy four L-39NGs for use in the light attack role.

Based on what we know of the Air Force and Marine Corps light attack requirements, though, the two Czech designs will face a number of hurdles to even be considered, let alone winning an actual contract.

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