Crop-dusters and other civilian planes weaponized for military use

With drops in global military spending, governments facing budget constraints are turning to companies that can revamp their existing commercial planes.

What’s the supercheap weapon of a modern air force? Repurposed commercial aircrafts. Businessweek reports.

Texas-based Air Tractor makes crop-dusters -- big, slow, sturdy, and great for flying low over cornfields and landing on dirt airstrips. Now, the company is affixing armor plating, sensors, and weapons ranging from .50 caliber machine guns to air-to-ground missiles onto planes originally designed to douse cropland with chemicals and spray water on brush fires. They’ve sold 24 of these weaponized crop-dusters to the United Arab Emirates air force.

They’re just one of a growing group of aerospace companies that are adapting planes they already make to meet military needs.

The goal: expand sales to cash-pinched governments looking for alternatives to the costly -- and often lengthy -- process of developing warplanes from scratch.

Global military spending fell 0.5 percent last year, to $1.75 trillion. So being able to compete on price is attracting governments facing budget constraints.

For example, Air Tractor’s AT-802U costs about $2.5 million. Compare that with $137 million for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter being developed for the U.S. and allies. Additionally, militarized versions of commercial planes can also share parts with other civilian planes, which makes them much cheaper to repair.

Here are some other companies that have revamped their existing “off-the-shelf” planes:

  • Brazilian manufacturer Embraer’s Super Tucano was developed from a plane used to train pilots. This won a U.S. Air Force contract.
  • Embraer and Gulfstream have militarized their business aircraft, known for transporting corporate moguls and movie stars.
  • Embraer offers airborne early warning and reconnaissance versions of its ERJ 145 passenger jet, which in civilian life is a mainstay of airlines’ short-haul fleets.
  • Bombardier is marketing modified versions of its Challenger midsize plane as a high-altitude search-and-rescue aircraft, and its smaller Learjets as signal-intercepting spy planes.
  • Duties such as coastal patrols can also be performed by Bombardier’s 80-seat Q400 turboprops that now serve regional airports. (Sales of such models may grow to 20 percent of the company’s aerospace revenue, which totaled $8.63 billion in 2012.)


Images: Air Tractor

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