Air Tractor's Crop-Duster, Other Planes Revamped for Military Use

Tiny civilian planes are increasingly being revamped for military use

Air Tractor President Jim Hirsch isn’t in the business of making pretty airplanes. His crop-dusters are big, slow, and sturdy—perfect for flying low over cornfields and landing on dirt airstrips. He’s betting that means they’re pretty well suited to blowing up terrorists, too. 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. It’s sold 24 of the aircraft to the United Arab Emirates air force and last year hired a marketing executive to travel the world in search of additional sales.

Air Tractor, based in Olney, Tex., seeks to join a growing group of aerospace companies that are adapting commercial aircraft 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. “It’s not an expensive, fast, high-flying, shiny fighter plane,” Hirsch explains. Nonetheless, “there are a lot of folks in a lot of places where this does fit as a very economical solution.”

Before adding weapons systems, Air Tractor’s AT-802U plane costs about $2.5 million, Hirsch says. That compares with $137 million for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter, the cutting-edge jet being developed for the U.S. and its allies for use in ground attacks and other missions. Militarized versions of commercial planes also benefit by being able to share parts with their civilian cousins, making them much cheaper to repair.

Being able to compete on price is attracting governments facing budget constraints. Global military spending fell 0.5 percent last year, to $1.75 trillion, the first drop since 1998, according to a study in April from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Western and Central European countries led the cuts, slashing expenditures by 10 percent since 2008, while outlays fell 6 percent in the U.S. Asian and Middle Eastern governments are boosting spending.

Air Tractor originally developed the weaponized crop-duster in the hopes of selling it to the U.S. Air Force, which was looking for a light, armed reconnaissance plane for the Afghan military to use in combating insurgents in remote regions. But Brazilian manufacturer Embraer’s Super Tucano, developed from a plane used to train pilots, was the ultimate winner of that contract.

Rather than scrap the militarized plane, Air Tractor searched for buyers overseas. “This is a very Third World concept,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president at aerospace consultant Teal Group. “A U.S. pilot wouldn’t go in one of these for love or money. When you’re in the First World, you have access to a fantastic jet with amazing and sophisticated equipment and data links to sensors that tell you what to do and how to do it.”

Air Tractor isn’t alone in trying to weaponize existing commercial planes. Embraer and Gulfstream, a unit of General Dynamics, have adapted their business aircraft, more typically seen transporting corporate moguls and movie stars, for military use. 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, the world’s largest maker of corporate jets, 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, says Ben Boehm, a vice president who is leading the weaponization effort. Duties such as coastal patrols can also be performed by the 80-seat Q400 turboprops that now serve regional airports, he says. Bombardier projects that sales of such models ultimately may grow to 20 percent of its aerospace revenue, which totaled $8.63 billion in 2012. “Every single government is realizing they have to reconcile how they spend their dollars,” says Boehm. “There’s a growing trend to look for off-the-shelf, commercially certified product lines.”

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