The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) concept can be traced back to the 1950s. Its emergence reflected broader trends in air power, including the increasing prominence of Counter-Insurgency (COIN) operations, and technological developments in aerospace.
COIN, which accompanied the retreat of European empires, as the result of deepening local independence movements in the 1950s, particularly in Africa, and the corresponding proliferation of so-called Cold War ‘proxy’ conflicts, saw military aircraft increasingly required to operate in austere theatres in Africa, the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East. Regarding aerospace design, the turbojet- and turbofan-powered trainer lent itself to the light attack missions required in such conflicts. A pioneering example of the aircraft that emerged as a result of these two motivations was the Cessna A-37A/B Dragonfly, a light attack derivative of one of the world’s first purpose-designed military jet trainers, the T-37A/B/C Tweet. The A-37A/B saw combat during the United States’ military involvement in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1975, and in Latin America, notably by the Fuerza Aérea Salvadoreña (Air Force of El Salvador) which used the aircraft during that country’s civil war between 1979 and 1992.
Whereas aircraft such as the A-37A/B/C were once simply two-seat trainers outfitted with weapons pylons for ‘dumb’ bombs and unguided rockets, a gunsight, and military communications, the modern LCA is much better equipped, often with options for precision-guided ordnance, targeting pods, a self-protection suite and in some cases, a multimode radar. One aircraft omitted from this article is the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas Mk.1A/2 as this supersonic aircraft was developed as a single-seat fighter and is thus in a different class to ‘true’ LCAs.
Like the A-37A/B/C family, the Aero Vodochody L-39 Albatros family of light jet trainers has a long lineage. First flown in November 1968 it entered widespread service within the Warsaw Pact and with Soviet allies. The L-39ZO armed trainer was further developed for ground attack and reconnaissance duties as the L-39ZA, and as the L-39ZA/MP (multipurpose) with a Western mission computer, avionics and navigation equipment. A version was ordered by Thailand as the L-39ZA/ART, which differs in its use of Israeli avionics made by Elbit. A total of 40 were delivered to Thailand from 1993, of which 30 remain in use. The L-39ZA/ART has an under-fuselage gun pod containing a twin-barrel 23mm cannon and four underwing pylons for a maximum stores load of 2205 pounds/lbs (1000 kilograms/kgs). The L-39ZA/ART constitutes the Royal Thai Air Force’s (RTAF) primary strike capability, and is also used for Lead-In Fighter Training (LIFT). Eventually, the RTAF L-39ZA/ART fleet is expected to be retired in favour of the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50TH Golden Eagle (see below).
Bangladesh is another L-39ZA operator, receiving eight of the aircraft in October 1995. Although primarily used for operational conversion, a Bangladesh Air Force officer confirmed to AMR, “The aircraft can be armed with a cannon, it can carry rocket pods, bombs and even air-to-air missiles.” Speaking in 2012, Bangladesh’s then Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal SM Ziaur Rahman, said: “The L-39 probably has another twelve to 14 years left and ideally we will replace it with an advanced jet trainer that is multi-engined and that has a light air support capability, such as the Yak-130, the Hongdu L-15 or the Alenia Aermacchi M-346.” Beyond Bangladesh, L-39s have been employed exclusively for training by Cambodia, although these are likely no longer operational, and Vietnam (between 20 and 23 survivors from an original total of 38, delivered from 1980).
In terms of Western designs, the SIAI-Marchetti/Alenia Aermacchi S.211/A was exported to the Philippines, which originally acquired a total of 24 aircraft. Delivered from September 1989, the fleet has since been reduced to ten aircraft, of which less than half may still be active. The Philippines undertook the local Project Falcon to improve the combat capability of the aircraft, which resulted in the AS.211 Warrior. This added the gunsight and radios from the retired Northrop F-5A/B Freedom Fighter, and a machine gun pod from Aerotech Industries Philippines. It is possible that the AS.211 is also compatible with Raytheon AIM-9 family Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) and unguided rockets. In its basic form, the S.211 has four underwing pylons for a total of 1455lbs (660kg) of stores. The S.211 was also operated as a trainer by Singapore. A total of 28 aircraft have now been replaced by the Pilatus PC-21 turboprop trainer. Another Alenia Aermacchi product, the MB-339 advanced trainer and light attack aircraft is operated only by Malaysia within the Asia-Pacific region. The eight aircraft delivered from 2009 do not currently have a combat role, and are assigned to the Royal Malaysian Air Force College.
Also operated by Malaysia is the BAE Systems Hawk 200 which offers considerable punch thanks to its Northrop Grumman AN/APG-66H multimode radar. First flown as a prototype in May 1986, the Hawk Mk.208 version was ordered by the Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia (Royal Malaysian Air Force) which continues to operate twelve from an original total of 18 aircraft. Nearby Indonesia currently operates circa 22 Hawk Mk.209s, and both aircraft versions have four underwing pylons for a total load of 7700lbs (3493kgs), as well as wingtip launch rails for the carriage of AIM-9 AAMs.
In the past, BAE System’s Hawk family has competed with the Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet trainer family. The only export customer in the Asia-Pacific for this aircraft was Thailand, which acquired 20 second-hand Alpha Jet-As, with deliveries beginning in 2000. Of these aircraft up to 18 remain in service, and are used for close support by the RTAF’s 231 Attack Squadron. The Alpha Jet-A has a jettison-able pod under the fuselage containing a 27mm cannon, and has provision for four underwing and one centreline pylon, for a total load of more than 5512lbs (2500kgs).
The Asia-Pacific is seeing new entrants into the LCA market in the form of Pakistan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) which offer the Karakorum-8 (K-8) two-seat basic jet trainer and light attack aircraft jointly developed by the Hongdu Aviation Industries Group (HAIC) and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC). A first flight was achieved in November 1990 and the aircraft entered service with the PRC as the JL-8 and with Pakistan as the K-8. In the Asia-Pacific region the aircraft is employed exclusively as a trainer by both countries, but there are three other operators in the region; Sri Lanka uses the aircraft for advanced training, while Burma has used her aircraft in combat. Burma initially ordered twelve K-8s, the last three of which were delivered in September 1999. In June 2010 Burma ordered another batch of 60 aircraft, to be assembled locally using knocked-down kits. In late December 2012 and early January 2013, Burmese K-8s were used during combat against insurgents from the Kachin Independence Army, one of the belligerents in that country’s ongoing internal conflict. Most recently, Bangladesh received nine K-8s, delivered between 2014 and 2015. The K-8 has provision for an optional 23mm gun pod under the fuselage, and four underwing pylons.
In addition to the JL-8, manufacturers in the PRC have developed other LCAs such as the HAIC JL-10 advanced jet trainer and light attack aircraft. A supersonic LIFT version of the L-15 was first flown in October 2010, this being equipped with a fire-control radar. A prototype has been sighted with wingtip AAMs, and the aircraft has seven hard points. The L-15 is likely to be targeted at potential M-346 and Yak-130 (see below) potential customers in the Asia-Pacific. “The L-15 has faced some delays but offers fighter-like performance; in the case of the LIFT version even a supersonic capability. However, its export prospects are hampered by the fact it has not yet entered People’s Liberation Army Air Force service and due to the earlier availability of the Yak-130. So far only Zambia has ordered the L-15, as an improved training version,” Andreas Rupprecht, author of the forthcoming book Flashpoint China: Chinese Air Power and the Regional Balance, told AMR.
Other new Asia-Pacific entrants to the LCA market include KAI with its T-50 Golden Eagle programme, which was launched in 1992. The initial T-50 two-seat advanced trainer was followed by the TA-50 LIFT that first flew in August 2003, and the FA-50 LCA that performed its maiden flight in June 2010. The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) received 22 TA-50s delivered from March 2011. As of 2014, the force has a requirement for 60 FA-50 variants, and placed an initial contract in 2011 for 20 aircraft, followed by a second order in May 2013, reportedly covering the remaining 40 aircraft.
Indonesia selected the TA-50 in April 2011, signing a contract for 16 aircraft valued at $400 million, marking its first export order. Meanwhile, the Philippines announced its intention to acquire the FA-50 in August 2012 and ordered twelve aircraft under the FA-50PH designation in March 2014. The first two examples were delivered to the Philippines in November 2015. Joining the Philippines, in September 2015 Thailand signed a contract for four T-50TH aircraft (based on the TA-50 LIFT), valued at $110 million. The aircraft are to be delivered to Thailand in 2018, and the fleet will likely be increased in future.
According to Mike Yeo, a military aviation consultant and AMR contributor, based in Australia, “The T-50 has gained valuable momentum with recent export successes in Indonesia, the Philippines, Iraq and Thailand. It stands a good chance of further success in the region.” Unlike its direct competitors, the T-50 family has additional variants on offer (TA-50, FA-50). “While this should make it more marketable across different regions, it risks losing an ability to carve a market niche for itself,” Mr. Yeo argues. Both the TA-50 and FA-50 are equipped with an Elta EL/M-2032 multimode radar, a three-barrel 20mm General Dynamics M197 cannon and seven stores stations.
Besides the L-39 family discussed above, the Warsaw Pact also developed the Yakovlev Yak-130, the work on which commenced in the Soviet Union in 1990, with the aircraft taking its maiden flight in April 1996. Russia placed its first order in 2005 and deliveries began in early 2010. After an initial foreign sale to Algeria in 2006, the first export to the Asia-Pacific region was secured in 2013, when Bangladesh ordered 16 aircraft to be delivered by 2016. The first six Bangladeshi aircraft were inducted into service in December 2015. In June 2015 Burma placed an order for an unknown number of Yak-130s. According to Russian aerospace analyst Piotr Butowski, Russia’s Rosoboronexport arms trade company and the Irkut factory are conducting talks offering the Yak-130 to “a dozen Asia-Pacific, African and Latin American countries as well as ex-Soviet states.” In recent years, demonstrations of the aircraft and familiarisation flights have been conducted for Mongolia and Vietnam, among others. The Yak-130 has six underwing pylons for up to 3,000kg (6.614lb) of stores and two more wingtip stations that can carry AAMs or decoy launchers. A 23mm cannon can be fitted below the fuselage. In February 2016, video footage emerged of Belarusian Yak-130s launching Tactical Missiles Corporation (Vympel) R-73 short-range air-to-air missiles. Alenia Aermacchi developed the M-346 Master advanced jet trainer and light attack aircraft as a redesigned and westernised version of the Yak-130. In the Asia-Pacific, twelve of these aircraft have been acquired by the Republic of Singapore Air Force which bases its aircraft at Cazaux airbase in southwest France, where they are used for training.
The M-346’s chances of success in the LCA segment are set to be enhanced by ongoing work by Alenia Aermacchi which aims to challenge the TA/FA-50 family (see above) in the Asia-Pacific, Middle Eastern and North American markets. According to Italian aerospace analyst Giovanni Colla, the company “is close to finalising the design of the improved version, which will be a dual-role training and combat type. Intended for ground attack, tactical support and COIN, this variant will have six hard points for weapons, including the Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) family of air-to-ground ordnance, AIM-9 AAMs, a gun pod, rockets and laser-guided bombs, a targeting and reconnaissance pod, and external fuel tanks.” The new version will also have a more sophisticated weapons delivery system and a ten percent increase in power compared to its predecessor.
While the above aircraft are all in service with Asia-Pacific air forces, several other LCA types are currently being marketed in the region. The Aero Vodochody L-159 Advanced Light Combat Aircraft
(ALCA) was developed as an advanced successor to the L-39 family (see above) and is intended for use as a light fighter and advanced jet trainer, in single- and two-seat versions, the L-159A and L-159B respectively. After 71 examples were built for the Czech Republic, this country’s fleet was reduced to 18 plus six reserves, and the remaining 47 aircraft were offered for sale. Of these, Iraq has taken 15 and US-based civilian contractor Draken International has ordered 21 for training provision.
The LCA concept is now well established in the Asia-Pacific region, and such aircraft are likely to be in increasing demand as air forces aim to reduce overall costs by combining aircraft roles. In this way, LCAs and armed LIFTs are already helping reduce the number of different types within inventories and, for larger air forces, cut down the number of expensive training hours flown by high-end fighters. For smaller air forces, LCAs provide the requisite capabilities for COIN and ground attack missions, with far lower acquisition and operating costs than other modern fighters.