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Crop-dusters and other civilian planes weaponized for military use

Posting in Aerospace

What’s the supercheap weapon of a modern air force? Repurposed commercial aircrafts. Businessweek reports.

Texas-based Air Tractor makes crop-dusters -- big, slow, sturdy, and great for flying low over cornfields and landing on dirt airstrips. Now, the company is affixing armor plating, sensors, and weapons ranging from .50 caliber machine guns to air-to-ground missiles onto planes originally designed to douse cropland with chemicals and spray water on brush fires. They’ve sold 24 of these weaponized crop-dusters to the United Arab Emirates air force.

They’re just one of a growing group of aerospace companies that are adapting planes they already make to meet military needs.

The goal: expand sales to cash-pinched governments looking for alternatives to the costly -- and often lengthy -- process of developing warplanes from scratch.

Global military spending fell 0.5 percent last year, to $1.75 trillion. So being able to compete on price is attracting governments facing budget constraints.

For example, Air Tractor’s AT-802U costs about $2.5 million. Compare that with $137 million for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter being developed for the U.S. and allies. Additionally, militarized versions of commercial planes can also share parts with other civilian planes, which makes them much cheaper to repair.

airtruck_802U_concept1.jpg
Here are some other companies that have revamped their existing “off-the-shelf” planes:

  • Brazilian manufacturer Embraer’s Super Tucano was developed from a plane used to train pilots. This won a U.S. Air Force contract.
  • Embraer and Gulfstream have militarized their business aircraft, known for transporting corporate moguls and movie stars.
  • Embraer offers airborne early warning and reconnaissance versions of its ERJ 145 passenger jet, which in civilian life is a mainstay of airlines’ short-haul fleets.
  • Bombardier is marketing modified versions of its Challenger midsize plane as a high-altitude search-and-rescue aircraft, and its smaller Learjets as signal-intercepting spy planes.
  • Duties such as coastal patrols can also be performed by Bombardier’s 80-seat Q400 turboprops that now serve regional airports. (Sales of such models may grow to 20 percent of the company’s aerospace revenue, which totaled $8.63 billion in 2012.)

[Businessweek]

Images: Air Tractor

— By on September 3, 2013, 8:58 AM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure