A crop duster, is usually, an aircraft used for dusting or spraying large acreages with pesticides. Aerial spraying and dusting permit prompt coverage of large areas at the moment when the application of pesticide is most effective and avoid the need for wheeled vehicles that might damage crops.
Agricultural aircraft are highly specialized, purpose-built aircraft. Today’s agricultural aircraft are often powered by turbine engines of up to 1,500 shp (1,100 kW) and can carry as much as 800 US gallons (3,000 L) of crop protection product. Today’s crop dusting business is completely different, with million-dollar turbine-engine planes, intricate GPS systems for planning the row flights and triggering the sprayers, and well-trained, experienced pilots
Since the late 1990s, unmanned aerial vehicles have also been used for agricultural spraying. This phenomenon started in Japan and South Korea, where mountainous terrain and relatively small family-owned farms required lower-cost and higher-precision spraying.
But this familiar technology has become a key part of the aerial arsenal of countries around the world from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East to East Asia. These plane is loaded up with weapons and fortified with armor for deploying in military and security roles. Crop-dusting planes, thus, have proven effective tools in irregular conflicts, able to withstand the stresses of rough rural terrain and simple enough to be a dynamic and economical weapon.
Take the United Arab Emirates. By 2017, it had purchased several dozen of the Iomax Archangel, a plane whose design is based on crop-dusting planes manufactured by Thrush, a Georgia manufacturer of agricultural aircraft mostly for the U.S. market. The UAE has used them in military actions across the Middle East and North Africa. In Yemen, the planes were used against Houthi rebels as part of the UAE’s intervention into that conflict. They were deployed over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt against ISIS affiliates. An analysis of satellite imagery also showed Archangels in the arsenal of a Russian- and UAE-backed general during Libya’s civil war in 2017.
In 2022, U.S. Special Operations Command chose an airplane based on a well-known crop duster to take on its Armed Overwatch mission, conducting counterterrorism operations and irregular warfare in places like Africa. The AT-802U Sky Warden, produced by L3Harris Technologies and agricultural aircraft maker Air Tractor was chosen to meet SOCOM’s requirements. The planes are intended to perform armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions at low cost in permissive environments from austere locations. The Sky Warden can deploy guided weapons including the APKWS rocket, GBU-12 laser-guided bomb, and Hellfire and Griffin missiles; it has a six-hour loiter time at a 200 nmi (230 mi; 370 km) radius. The AT-802 has also been used in counter-drug operations in the USSOUTHCOM AOR by the U.S. Department of State as a delivery vehicle for herbicides and defoliants over narcotics production facilities.
Earlier this year the field was narrowed to three candidates – L3 Harris’ Sky Warden, Textron Aviation Defense’s AT-6 Wolverine and Sierra Nevada Corp.’s MC-145B Coyote. The USAF has employed T-6 trainers for long on which the Wolverine is based. It acquired two AT-6 s in 2020 and the Royal Thai Air Force ordered eight of the single-engine turboprops for light attack duty in 2021. Sierra Nevada’s MC-145, a high-wing, twin-engine turboprop derived from the short takeoff and landing, light cargo and passenger-carrying Polish PZL M28 Skytruck, is already in use with Air Force Special Operations Command as the C-145A Combat Coyote.
The Armed Overwatch program envisions a fleet of up to 75 relatively inexpensive, flexible, fixed-wing aircraft that can deploy to austere locations, with little logistical support to act as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and precision strike assets.
The Air Tractor AT-802 is an American agricultural aircraft that may also be adapted into fire-fighting or armed versions. L3’s Aerospace Systems worked with Air Tractor to transform the classic crop duster into a combat crop duster Dubbed Longsword ready to strike. They’ve modified Air Tractor’s AT-802 crop duster for attack, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
As a light attack aircraft, it could step in to provide air support to American military teams on the ground. It could free up more advanced aircraft like the F-35 to take on other missions.
The cockpit is armored – and so are the fuel lines. In fact, the fuel tanks are self-sealing. The wings have been made stronger and equipped to carry some serious firepower into combat…and these are just a few of the enhancements. The Longsword can provide four weapon hard points per wing that can be loaded up with all sorts of weapons to defeat a range of threats.
One option is highly precise hellfire missiles that can eliminate an individual terrorist or even penetrate advanced armor on vehicles. A few other powerful options include BU-12 Paveways laser guided bombs, 2.75” rocket pods and machine gun pods. There’s also Thales’ Scorpion Helmet Mounting Cueing System that means that pilots can use their head to precisely steer weapons and sensor cueing. Targets can be acquired super quickly and then rapidly handed-off to sensors and weapons.
In addition to reaching forces who need help quickly, another great advantage is that this weaponized crop duster an land with as little as 1,000 yards of runway. And it doesn’t need a formal airport runway to land. Dirt roads and tiny airstrips in remote, hard-to-reach places are all fair game. This flexibility is important – the Longsword can land, refuel, reload and rejoin the fight.