African Firm Has Big Hopes For Rebranded Bronco II Surveillance Plane In Americas Market
The aircraft has some vague similarities to the Bronco, but really it's more of an alternative to complex unmanned aircraft than anything else.
A new company called Bronco Combat Systems, or BCS USA, a joint venture between South Africa’s Paramount Group International and American defense contractor Fulcrum Concepts, has unveiled a new light attack aircraft it calls the Bronco II, an homage to the old OV-10 Bronco. The partnership hopes it can break into an increasingly saturated market of modified trainer, utility, and agricultural aircraft with a design it says was purpose built for limited conflicts and low-threat environments.
While BCS has yet to release any specifics about the Bronco II’s capabilities or performance, it is clearly a derivative of the earlier Advanced High Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft, or AHRLAC. Paramount began development of that aircraft, also known as the Mwari, in cooperation with South African aviation firm Aerosud in 2009 and the initial prototype made its first flight five years later. The lead engineers responsible for the Rooivalk attack helicopter had joined together with individuals who had worked on South Africa’s upgraded Mirage III-based Cheetah fighter jet and other aerospace projects to form Aerosud in 1990.
“This is not simply an armed variant of a civilian crop-duster or a modified training aircraft,” Paramount Group International Chairman Ivor Ichikowitz said according to the BCS USA press release. “Every inch of this aircraft is designed for [a] purpose – specifically for the kind of asymmetrical warfare that sophisticated military forces are now being asked to conduct.”
At its most basic, the Bronco II is a pusher engine aircraft with a single turboprop engine in the rear of the center fuselage, as was the AHRLAC. Combined with a cockpit with a large canopy with minimal framing, the crew of two, sitting in ejection seats, has good views forward and to the sides, but limited visibly to the rear.
The aircraft also has a high wing and twin boom and tail configuration that is vaguely reminiscent of the long out of production North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, which, as we noted, provided the inspiration for name of the plane and the joint venture company. The artwork BCS USA released along with its press statement are photoshopped images of one of the prototypes, with the civil registration ZU-PDM, carrying the markings of the U.S. Marine Corps, which was the last branch of the U.S. military to actively operate the OV-10.
It’s not clear how much the final Bronco II might differ from the existing AHRLAC prototypes, if at all. The first iterations of the aircraft were relatively light and compact with a wingspan of less than 40 feet, shorter than that of an MQ-1 Predator drone, and an empty weight of less than 4,500 pounds, less than half that of an A-29 Super Tucano light attack plane.
Paramount said the initial versions, which had a top speed of approximately 315 miles per hour, could stay aloft for seven to 10 hours at a time and had a maximum total range of more than 1,300 miles, but this did not necessarily reflect an aircraft fully loaded with weapons and other additional mission systems on board. Different weapon fits and other payloads could easily limit that performance.
As such, the South African firm initially pitched the aircraft as a cost-effective alternative intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform for smaller countries compared to larger, more complex drones. Now, BCS USA is heavily promoting the idea of the plane as “hybrid” design capable of performing those functions, as well as light attack and close air support missions.
This has been in the planning stages for some time. In 2016, Boeing announced it would help integrate weapons and other systems onto the AHRLAC and bring it to the U.S. market. What happened to that deal and whether Boeing is still a part of the project is unclear. At the time of writing the company has not yet responded to our request for clarification.
However, it does appear that Fulcrum Concepts, a smaller defense contractor that provides various aviation design and modification services, now has responsibility for adding weapons and other equipment to the aircraft. As a light attack aircraft, the AHRLAC was supposed to be able to carry various different kinds of weapons, including precision guided munitions, on up to six under wing pylons, as well as have provisions for an internal 20mm cannon.
There do not appear to be any pictures of the AHRLAC prototypes carrying actual weaponry. The Bronco II artwork shows the aircraft carrying a pair of Belgian-designed FN HMP .50 caliber machine gun pods and four South African-made Mokopa guided anti-tank missiles, which are available with laser, millimeter wave radar, and infrared guidance options. Fulcrum Concepts presently offers a weapons management system it says is compatible with the AGM-114 Hellfire laser-guided missile and the smaller AGM-176 Griffin GPS- and laser-guided missile, as well as various unguided weapons and gun pods.
In an armed reconnaissance or pure intelligence and surveillance roles, the planes would also be able to carry sensors or other equipment in a modular bay in the fuselage behind the cockpit. A prototype AHRLAC did appear at the Africa Aerospace and Defense show in South Africa in September 2016 equipped with an Airbus Argos II electro-optical and infrared video camera turret mounted on its nose. It also carried a Thales Anvi infrared line scanner camera and GEW Technologies radio direction finding system, which can located and track hostile communication signals, in the payload bay.
The pilot could use a helmet-mounted sighting system to direct the nose turret and the line scanner fed into a display in the rear cockpit. Fulcrum Concepts also offers what it calls the Fulcrum Battlestation, which it could potentially configure to fit inside the new Bronco II.
At that event in South Africa, Paramount also told reporters that it had test fitted a sensor turret in the payload bay and fitted the aircraft with a radar warning receiver to the alert the pilots to hostile threats. The prototype did not appear to have any actual countermeasures systems, such as decoy flares.
As of 2017, Paramount said it had already sold two AHRLACs to unnamed customers and could support production of two planes per month at its factory in Wonderboom, South Africa. It’s not entirely clear who BCS USA might be expecting to sell U.S.-made Bronco IIs to, though. In a statement to Flightglobal, the joint venture company said that the faux Marine Corps livery in its marketing literature did not mean it was looking to sell the aircraft to that service or that it had expressed an interest in the plane already.
While the joint venture could be hoping to find a way into the U.S. Air Force’s light attack aircraft experiment, it missed the first round of that evaluation. The service is running another round of tests, but only with the Textron AT-6 Wolverine and Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s A-29 Super Tucano, and it’s unclear when, if ever, it might actually buy any such planes.
U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is running a separate light attack aircraft effort, which is focused more on the particular systems that would go into such an aircraft rather than any particular airframe. BCS USA’s press release did appear to speak directly to the operational capabilities that a pair of modified OV-10G+ Broncos already demonstrated during a SOCOM-sponsored field test in Iraq in 2015.
“The aircraft is a purpose-built, sophisticated airborne Find/Fix/Finish/Exploit/Analyze (F3EA) system able to operate for extended periods in remote theaters with minimal infrastructure and a small logistics and maintenance footprint,” the statement says. “The Bronco II operates at a fraction of the procurement and lifecycle cost of an aircraft with similar mission applications and capabilities.”
During their deployment to Iraq, the OV-10G+ aircraft each had just one dedicated maintainer, with the crew assisting in basic maintenance and other support activities. This allowed SOCOM’s task force in the country to move the planes around quickly to where they would be most useful in “F3EA” missions focused on locating, tracking and striking individual ISIS terrorists.
But from what we know about its capabilities so far, the Bronco II still appears best suited to offer a cheaper and more readily accessible alternative to medium-range, long-endurance drones, such as the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper. It offers more capability than smaller, tactical drones, as well, but would still be cheaper to operate, especially during longer duration missions, than more traditional light turboprop surveillance aircraft. The aircraft's cockpit configuration gives its on board crew a higher degree of situational awareness over those unmanned aircraft, too.
As such, the Bronco II might be an option for other U.S. government agencies, as well, especially those involved in domestic and overseas counter-drug efforts. At the federal level, Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and even the U.S. Marshals, among others, fly a variety of manned surveillance aircraft with electro-optical and infrared cameras and signals intelligence suites to patrol America's borders and monitor criminal activity at home and abroad.
Some state law enforcement agencies have also begun to purchased manned surveillance aircraft and small unmanned aircraft for these missions. The U.S. State Department's own air wing regularly partners with foreign law enforcement agencies conducting counter-drug missions, often planning to eventually gift surveillance and utility aircraft it operates to those groups, an arrangement that could be a particularly good fit for the Bronco II.
And by having a U.S.-based manufacturing facility and an expanded American supply chain for weapons and other mission systems, BCS USA will also be able to pitch the Bronco II as an option for any American ally or partner looking to purchase or otherwise acquire light attack planes through U.S. government military assistance programs. The aircraft could be particularly attractive to countries the United States won't allow to buy more sophisticated drones.
The U.S. military has already facilitated the delivery of A-29s, AT-802L Longsword modified agricultural aircraft, and armed versions of the Cessna C-208 Grand Caravan to other countries. It, along with the U.S. State Department, has also helped deliver unarmed C-208s and other light aircraft to foreign military and other state security forces. Independently, American-based firms, such as IOMAX, have also delivered various light attack aircraft to customers overseas.
With such a crowded market already, the BCS USA is clearly betting that the Bronco II’s distinctive, clean-sheet design will help set it apart from the competition. There is a chance now that the old Bronco may return to the battlefield, at least in spirit, either with a branch of the U.S. military or one of America’s allies or partners.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org