Kenya turns to crop dusters to turbo charge its forces
Kenya’s requirement for new light attack/armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft has been dogged by controversy. Jon Lake attempts to unravel a complicated situation.
A unique combination of factors – not least the re-running of the 2017 Kenyan presidential election – has thrown the country’s order for a new light attack/armed ISR aircraft into chaos.
Currently, there is a planned foreign military sale (FMS) of up to 14 L3 Longsword aircraft to Kenya – Longsword is an AT-802 crop duster made by Air Tractor, which is modified by L3 to carry weapons and an electro-optical infrared (EO/IR) sensor, turning it into a light attack aircraft.
However, this FMS has been challenged, not only by the US Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, but also by rival manufacturer Iomax, and by Congressman Ted Budd, whose congressional district includes Iomax’s headquarters.
To see how we reached this situation, it is best to look back a few years.
Kenya has experienced a growing insurgent and terrorist threat from the al-Shabaab jihadist fundamentalist Islamist group, including attacks at Nairobi’s Westgate Shopping Mall in September 2013, which killed 69 people; the Garissa University College in April 2015, with 148 people dead; and the Kenyan military base at Kulbiyow in January 2016, with 57 fatalities.
These and other attacks prompted the country to want to increase its anti-terrorist and counter-insurgency (COIN) capabilities.
However, there had also been a growing recognition that the air force’s ageing Northrop F-5E Tiger II fighters were not well suited to anti-terrorism missions, since they have no meaningful ISR capability and no small precision guided weapons. By contrast, the operational success of the UAE Air Force and Air Defence’s Air Tractor-based Border Patrol Aircraft (BPA), and of armed light ISR aircraft like the Combat Caravan, had been recognised and noted by African air arms, including the Kenya Air Force (KAF).
Accordingly, Kenya submitted a request to purchase six AT-802L aircraft (with an option for additional aircraft) and two AT-504 training aircraft to support the country’s anti-terrorism efforts in December 2015, at a reported approximate value of $243 million.
On January 19 2017, the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified Congress of a possible $418 million sale of up to 12 Air Tractor AT-802L and two AT-504 trainer aircraft to Kenya, plus weapons, technical support and programme management.
The AT-504 is a smaller-span version of the Air Tractor, with side-by-side seating to facilitate pilot training. It is powered by a 750shp Pratt & Whitney PT6A engine, giving a useful load of 2,200kg and a cruise speed of 150mph. It is intended as a pure pilot conversion trainer and has no weapons capabilities. Kenya has reportedly also asked L-3 for weather radar and communications systems to satisfy its unique requirements.
L-3 Communications’ platform integration division of Waco, Texas was listed as the prime contractor because it is the systems integrator for the AT-802L.
Air Tractor originally developed an AT-802U armed model of its crop-sprayer in 2008, in response to the US Air Force’s light attack/armed reconnaissance (LAAR) programme and the growing international requirement for light counter-insurgency aircraft.
A prototype (N427U) was displayed at the Paris Air Show in 2009 but, in the event, it was Iomax that won the lucrative contract to supply 24 armed Air Tractors to the UAE as AT-802 Border Patrol Aircraft.
L3 initially became involved with the conversion of the Air Tractor AT-802L into a light attack/ISR aircraft after the ‘Big Safari’ programme office awarded a 2014 contract to the company for the conversion of four AT-802L ISR aircraft for Yemen.
L3 had made a name for itself as a special mission aircraft conversion specialist through its modification of the King Air 350 into the MC-12W Liberty ISR aircraft.
Unlike the UAE Air Tractor BPAs, the L3-supplied AT-802Ls had no weapons capabilities, and were pure ISR platforms.
With the Houthi invasion of southern Yemen, the four L3-modified AT-802Ls were not delivered to Yemen and were, instead, diverted to Jordan – being delivered there in April and May 2016.
The AT-802L L3 Longsword being offered to Kenya is a further developed aircraft, with updated digital avionics and a redesigned cockpit, and with a new wing, which incorporates under-wing hardpoints for 6,200lb of weapons carriage. The primary ISR sensor is an L3 Wescam MX-15D high-definition electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) turret.
The aircraft has a Garmin G600 avionics suite and an L3 ForceX Widow mission management system, while Moog supplies the stores management system. The crew can use a Thales Scorpion helmet-mounted display.
The Longsword offer to Kenya was originally due to expire in June 2017 but was extended to September 16 2017 because Kenya’s national elections were due to take place on August 8. Unfortunately, Kenya’s Supreme Court annulled the 2017 presidential election and ordered a new presidential election, which took place on October 17. The Longsword offer lapsed, just as objections to the L3 contract reached a crescendo.
Opponents of the Kenyan Longsword deal believe that Iomax could have supplied an equivalent (but significantly more capable and combat-proven) package at much lower cost, and that the uncompeted contract had been awarded to a company with very limited experience in the conversion of this class of aircraft, supplying an uncertified and still-developmental platform.
Iomax alleged this had been misrepresented to Kenya, though, in point of fact, the Longsword had been awarded a supplemental type certificate by the US Federal Aviation Administration for its updated digital avionics and cockpit in June 2017.
It was further alleged that the USAF’s Big Safari programme office (the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio) had favoured L3 (a proven and trusted supplier on Big Safari’s other ISR programmes), in effect encouraging L3 to piggy-back on the success of the similar Border Patrol Aircraft and Archangel platforms developed by Iomax for the United Arab Emirates.
Kenya’s Daily Nation reported that Iomax had said it could provide Kenya with “superior” aircraft, weapons, technical support and program management at a cost of $237 million, which is $181 million lower than the contract ceiling of L-3 Technologies – a claim Iomax was happy to repeat to African Aerospace at the recent Dubai Air Show.
Iomax remains confident of overturning Kenya’s selection of the rival Longsword, and is offering the new Block II version of the Thrush 710-based Archangel, rather than an aircraft based on the Air Tractor.
After building 24 of its AT-802U/AT-802i Border Patrol Aircraft, Iomax’s experience with these aircraft prompted it to switch from the Air Tractor to the Thrush 710 (S2R-660) as the basis of its design. It said it did this in order to be able to incorporate major modifications on the line, which it thought could not be incorporated in green Air Tractors, and which addressed safety and other flaws in the AT-802 design that made it unsuitable for the ISR/COIN role.
These modifications included, but were not limited to, moving the cockpit, while also providing bigger tail surfaces, providing improved brakes, and beefing up some parts of the airframe structure.
Iomax is planning to add an air-to-ground radar, offering either a podded Thales I-Master lightweight ground surveillance radar or a Leonardo Osprey 30 lightweight active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. The latter would be fully integrated into the aircraft internally, with two arrays in the wing leading edges. This would provide synthetic aperture radar (SAR), ground moving target indication (GMTI) and sea surface moving target indication.
Iomax has now delivered 48 of this class of aircraft (BPAs and Archangels), and between them these have delivered 3,500 munitions in combat (of 4,500 weapons delivered in total). This makes experience and combat record a key differentiator.
The official response to objections to Kenya’s selection of the Longsword came in September, when the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) finally issued its report. This said that the GAO had found “nothing untoward” in the proposed January 2017 sale of 12 AT-802L Longsword turboprops to Kenya, and said that Kenya had conducted its own market research prior to selecting the AT-802L, including attendance at air shows and consultation with partner nations, and that Kenya had considered several aircraft models.
The US Air Force backed the GAO, reporting that Kenya had: “made a reasonable choice when it selected the AT-802L aircraft”.
Despite this, the Kenyan order remained unconfirmed at the time of writing and both L3 and Iomax were still trying to win an order.
Stay up to date
Subscribe to the free Times Aerospace newsletter and receive the latest content every week. We'll never share your email address.