Fighter jets, strong, agile, highly maneuver, are metal birds with high fire power that can take out enemy targets of both in the sky or on the ground. Twenty first century sees even rise of unmanned combat air vehicle, where to destroy the enemy, there is no need of pilot in the craft. In the era of fast growing technology of stealth and UAV, surprisingly, another field is growing fast, and that is Turboprop!
Turboprop engine is a turbine engine that drives almost all of the engine’s power to move the propeller. On 20 September 1945, a heavily modified Meteor I, powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent turbine engines driving propellers, became the first turboprop aircraft to fly. However, in next some decades except in some fields, turbojet was more popular than turboprop, but now, once again this technology is paving a fast return. And there are some important reasons behind it.
Light-attack turboprops are cheap both to build and to fly. A fighter jet, even if too cheap, still can cost $80m, and if like a Rafale, then more than $200m. . But in contrast the turboprops are highly cheap. Like 208B Caravan costs just $2m. Very cheap to operate, almost 20 times cheaper if compared with a fighter jet. And, unlike jets, turboprops can use normal roads even fields too for takeoff and landing.
Better performance than UAV:
UCAVs have many drawbacks. Not only they are costly to operate but also need high maintenance and good no of man power to operate from ground. But biggest drawback of UACV is, other than the strain on pockets, it requires a hell lot of dedicated staff for a single airframe with inputs from top of the line tech. Even after that, sometimes drones fail to identify the actual target and a single mistake can create serious problems both politically and regarding mission objectives. But, none of them persists in case of turboprops. Fly, identify/shoot, come back (although it requires its input too).
Easily Operable :
Choppers have a great danger while operating dusty terrain, that is presence of layer of dust on rotors and engine. Thus to properly maintain them need a team efficient workers. But maintaining turboprops, by contrast, is so easy they can be maintained, in some cases, even by plumbers.
Not a Turkey shot!
Turboprops are also hard to shoot down. And strong enough to sustain a considerable firepower. In operations against South American drug dealers, turboprops have been used, and despite of being hit by many times by ground fire, neither a single plane has been lost nor a pilot has lost life. Air Tractors, a manufacturer of such turboprops, use several steps for such amazing safety. In their turboprops, fuel tanks have rubber membranes which close around bullet holes to slow leaks.
Such aircrafts can carry a mix of mission specific ammunition, including guided bombs, MGs, rockets, unguided bombs etc. Mission suites can range from dedicated anti armor to a mix of unguided bombs with MG rounds.
Imaging device MX-15, made by L-3 WESCAM, allows a pilot to read a vehicle’s license plate from a distance of 10km. It is featured on Hawker Beechcraft AT-6, a light attack plane.
Many countries having small or limited defense budgets are investing in turboprops. Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco and Venezuela are notable in those nations. But most surprising name it will be United States. The most powerful military establishment in the world too recognizes the value of this new old technology. The USAF wants to buy more than 100 turboprops. Currently US Navy is evaluating the Embraer Super Tucano.
Prospect in India
Many prominent defence experts believe that there should be Turboprops in good no in squadrons strength in Indian Army Aviation, This propeller driven aircraft are very cheap to maintain and operational cost is less than 25% of a T-72 tank! Easily can be used for CAS, COIN and anti armor role. It flies higher than altitude where AAA guns can reach, so easily can punch firepower from that altitude. Easily they can be a cheap alternative of LCH. In case of COIN, in a surprise attack, they can easily take out enemy network tower. Thus they can be deployed for various roles.
The planes can act as a stop gap measure to fill IAF squadrons for dedicated recon/CAS roles thus freeing up the current dedicated platforms for different roles.
One of the biggest prospective users of such frames in India can be our Army Aviation Coprs. Been in existence for about a quarter of Century, the force still lacks dedicated platforms and pilots. Army still has to depend on IAF for CAS role, while such aircrafts can easily fill up squadrons of AAC and provide the required punch at, well, a tiny cost. Such planes can also undertake recon ops for advancing units or even participate in PSYOPS, distributing leaflets over enemy territory. A squadron of such planes under the cover of IAF, during an offensive can seriously hurt enemy armor and static posts.
These slow small cheap propeller-driven planes of old technology now have started to displace fighter jets , and soon, they will find themselves complementing greater role.
Image credits to their respective owners