The US military has fought the Taliban in Afghanistan for 16 years now, and frequently has done so from the skies with Hellfire strikes by Predator and Reaper drones. Now the US is buying the Afghan military something with the same sort of sensors, loitering time and firepower—except humans will have to sit in their cockpits.
The US Air Force has inked a new deal with aerospace and defense company Orbital ATK to provide seven AC-208 Eliminator attack and reconnaissance aircraft. The Eliminator is a militarized version of the Cessna 208 Caravan, the aircraft used by the FBI and various contractors to fly aerial surveillance in the US—including flights over Baltimore in 2015 after the death of Freddy Gray in police custody.
The contract for the Eliminators was originally issued last September, and part of the $86 million is coming out of fiscal-year 2017 funds. The original sole-source contract was for $69.4 million, but was expanded in the award made this past week.
Like the surveillance planes flown by the FBI, the AC-208s carry electro-optical and infrared cameras for surveillance. Unlike the civilian surveillance planes, the Eliminators' sensors have integrated laser designators for targeting weapons: four Hellfire missiles and two 70mm rocket pods, as well as ballistic panels to protect the crew and equipment from small arms fire, a missile warning system and missile countermeasures.
Eliminators have already seen service with the Iraqi Air Force and Afghanistan, and will join the 20 Super Tucano attack planes the US has provided the Afghan Air Force. Six more Super Tucanos are still on order.
The two types of turboprop-powered attack aircraft are supposed to make it simpler for the Afghan military to train pilots and maintain aircraft. There's already some familiarity with the Cessna 208 Caravan airframe in the Afghan air force—the service currently owns 24 of them for use as transport and utility aircraft.
Aside from four C-130 transports, a Boeing 727 used for VIP transport, and 18 Pilatus PC-12 turboprop transports used mostly in support of special operations units, the rest of the Afghan Air Force consists largely of helicopters—Russian Mi-17 utility and Mi-24 attack helicopters, McDonnell Douglas MD 500 Defender light attack helicopters, a few Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawks and 10 Bell UH-1 Hueys. The Afghans also have three HAL Cheetal helicopters from India.