Sunday, 29 December 2019

Update About Modern Light Attack Aircraft

Amusingly this subject was one of my quasi-intermittent rants when I was maintaining my Milgeek blog on a regular basis. I was quite strident about my assertion that what the RAF 'really needed' (at that time, at the height of the Afghan intervention) was a low-cost, low-tech attack aircraft that was germane to the type of targets being encountered in the likes of Hellman (i.e. mud huts)...

Anyway...

Fast forward to 2019 and it seems the penny has finally dropped, although, to be fair the idea of a 'cheap' turboprop bomber did have its champions within the defense community back when I began droning on about it. The United States Air Force is (finally) actually undertaking tests of a couple of the most likely candidates for any future 'light force'.

Light Attack Aircraft

Link: Defense News, 18 October 2019 - 'US Air Force officially buying light-attack planes'.

It turns out that there are quite a few aircraft manufacturers who seem to be betting that this possibility - hoping that there might be a nice fat payoff when/if the USAF decides on a full-scale procurement (and that other nations might follow suit). Ker-ching! $$$$$$$$$$$$$$

Hot front runners - and competitors - for any such golden goose are the Textron Aviation AT-6 'Wolverine' and Embraer A-29 (EMB 314) 'Super Tucano'...

AT-6 Wolverine Light Attack
Textron Aviation AT-6 'Wolverine'. Picture Credit: © 2019 Textron Aviation Inc. All rights reserved.
A-29_Over_Afghanistan
An Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucano soars over Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 14, 2015.
The A-29 is the Afghan Air Force's latest attack airframe in their inventory.
(U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr., Released)

Yes, there is definitely a convergence of technical/design solutions here (in fact, there are other similar 'solutions' on the market, like the Calidus B-250 (Bader) and the Pilatus PC-7, et al). BUT, and the point of this post, there are now a plethora of innovative and interesting light attack aircraft designs being touted on the world defense marketplace.


Here's my Top Five Alternative '21st Century Typhoons'...


1. The IOMAX Longsword/Archangel (USA)


IOMAX Longsword

Now, (if you are an aircraft fan) you may get a vague feeling that you sort of recognize this plane's profile but may not be able to put your finger how you know it. Well, if I said you were more likely to spot this little plane flying low over a farmer's field then you might twig...

Yes, the IOMAX Longsword is a militarised version of the Air Tractor AT-802 agricultural aircraft!

How and why some bright spark thought that this flying tractor would make a good light attack aircraft I do not know EXCEPT any good company is always on the lookout for new marketplaces (and Air Tractor must have seen the light attack market blossoming) AND the airplane is inherently designed to fly at low level with great stability. Also, it's rather strange high cockpit layout is designed to enhance 'target' (er, fields) visibility for precision 'bombing' (crop spraying)!

I really like this design, and by all accounts so do the military pilots who have tested it. It is one of the few 'light strike' designs out there that from the get-go is designed to deal with ground objectives, rather than being converted trainers...Even if those objectives are more usually corn or forest fires! :)

So well has the feedback from military evaluation tests gone that IOMAX has tweaked the original design (called the Longsword) and produced an absolutely fantastic looking little strike plane - which, to me looks like the love child of a Stuka and a Sturmovik, which can't be a bad thing - and they have called this aircraft the Archangel...

IOMAX Block 3 Archangel


Link: The IOMAX S2R-660 Archangel / (AT-802)-OA-8 Longsword article on Thai Military and Asian Region

2. Textron Aviation Defense Scorpion (USA)


Just so you don't think I something against jets I've included a cute little contender for the light strike category - the Textron AirLand Scorpion.

Textron AirLand Scorpion


The Scorpion looks very much like a conventional jet trainer - like the Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet or the BAE Hawk - except for the twin tail and the awkward-looking 'straight' wings. It's like a compilation of different aircraft parts glued together to make a weird new hybrid aircraft.

There is a method to Textron's apparent madness, the straight-wing configuration gives a good low-speed performance which is a distinct advantage in the ground attack mode and negating the disadvantage swept wings have during slow-flight phases. SO, Textron's mantra is that the Scorpion has all the advantages of a 'fast jet' with the tactical advantages of a turboprop, as they put it in their literature...

'Scorpion is jet fast – with the ability to get to an escalating situation quickly – yet can maneuver at much lower speeds, if the mission requires it.'

Textron AirLand Scorpion


So, you might ask (and I did wonder) if the Scorpion is the ideal happy medium why is it not in the running for the USAF's current search for a light strike aircraft? Good question, but there isn't one single good answer. Foremost is (probably) that the Scorpion isn't currently in use by any air force, while some of the other existing turboprops are already established in inventory as training aircraft (this reason kinda explains why the USAF's evaluation has been leaning to the likes of the Super Tucano, which has excellent 'in-service' pedigree with a host of air forces).

In short - and another reason the Textron may not be in the running - is the defense communities inherent conservatism when it comes to adopting new equipment. The Scorpion is untested in combat or service and looks a little unconventional - and this is why some of the other 'goofy' planes I am including in my list may, likewise, never be adopted by a major power. (Smaller nations are more likely to gamble on an untested technology - especially if the price is right.)

Link: Textron Aviation Defense Scorpion Web Page


3. Paramount Group AHRLAC (South Africa)


Paramount Group AHRLAC

Now, as weird and sci-fi looking this one is, I kinda like it. Before you go thinking this is just too 'James Bond' it's worth pointing out that it's actually a bit more 'mini Bronco' than 'Little Nellie' (the tiny autogyro from 'You Only Live Twice'). The North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, I mention was a very successful forward observation/light attack developed for the USAF during the Vietnam War which was so good that it was recently brought out of retirement in order to support US Special Forces deployed in Syria!

Paramount Group AHRLAC

In fact, I have seen the AHRLAC (which stands for Advanced High-Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft) referred to as the 'Bronco II'. This was a rather cagey marketing move by Paramount Group who set up 'Bronco Combat Systems' in the US to give the South African parent company a bit of a foot in the door - so to speak - when competing for US defense contracts. Clever!

Anyway, this 'pusher' format prop aircraft gives the crew the unrestricted forward observation view of a light jet with the reliability and economy of a turboprop. At the same time, it has a very sophisticated array of reconnaissance and targeting electronics and a decent bevy of hardpoints for weaponry.

Link: Bronco Combat Systems - Bronco II Home Page

 

4. Stavatti SM-27 'Machete' (USA)


Stavatti SM-27 'Machete'

Another 'sci-fi' looking entry for a future light strike aircraft, the SM-27 is - admittedly - more of a technology concept (no prototypes as yet) but it is interesting enough for me to include in my list for two reasons; first of all, it's cool and secondly, this design has seriously been put forward as a replacement for the USAF's A-10 Warthog! (The A-10 is constantly rumored to be facing retirement.)

(Yes, really!)

Despite being just a 'paper plane' that hasn't got beyond the drawing board, the SM-27 (and it's jet-engined variant, the SM-28) the 'Machete' does have the advantage of being a purpose-designed warplane.

Stavatti SM-27 'Machete'


Link: Stavatti's SM-27 Page


5. MFI-17 'Super Mushack' (Pakistan)


MFI-17 Super Mushak Light Attack AIrcraft

I felt I had to include this example of a 'light attack aircraft' because it does beg the question - Just how unsophisticated a plane do you need for it to qualify as a light military bomber?

Pakistan has - perhaps - established a baseline below which it seems impractical to stray. As you might guess, the Mushack is little more than a souped-up sporting/leisure aircraft, and it's actually derived from SAAB's MFI-15 'Safari' leisure plane of the 1960s!

However, simply hanging a couple of dumb bombs off the wings of a 'sporter' is not what Pakistan has done here. The Super Mushak has a more powerful engine and integrated avionic and electronic systems that make it capable of dropping precision laser-guided munitions, so it is technically up to the job.

Super Mushak
Although the Super Mushshak looks fairly innocuous it's weapon loadout is actually fairly substantial.
It has Six underwing hardpoints, inner two stressed for 150kg (330lb) each, outer four for 100kg (220lb),
for rocket and gun pods and Bofor Bantam anti tank missiles.

Incidentally, the name Mushshak means “The Proficient” - which kinda sounds like 'it's OK, it'll do'! 😂

Link to: PAC MFI-17 Mushshak on Wikipedia

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So, there you have it. A bit of a round-up of what's out there as candidates for the 'new' light strike aircraft category (though, of course, the 'fighter bomber' type had already established this format).

My favorite? Well, I have a soft spot for the IOMAX Archangel - what it lacks in 'space age' design features it makes up in ruggedness and I think that's a good asset to have when flying low and slow over enemy territory!

One last thing: Although there is some lingering suspicion about the possible vulnerability of such aircraft you must remember that such aircraft are intended only be deployed where a military has already established 'air superiority' OR in asymmetrical COIN (counter-insurgency) missions.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Wings of Prey - WW2 Flight Combat (PC)

 I've got my Milgeek mojo back! Just in time for the Christmas season. 😊

...What - finally - got me to blow the dust off this blog was the recent winter sale on STEAM. There was a big selection of flight combat sims going cheap and it just seemed rude not to bag them while they were going ridiculously cheap.

Top of my shopping list was Gijan's 'Wings of Prey' which is an arcade shooter in the guise of a 'flight sim'. It a console port and it's about exactly what you'd expect of a flight combat game made for a console controller - but I don't mean that as a criticism...


Wings of Prey - Hurricane MK. II
Wings of Prey takes you from the Battle of Britain to the closing days of the war in Europe. You'll
pilot planes for the RAF, USAAF and Red Army in theaters of war from the English Channel in
1940, to the Mediterrainian and Stalingrad in 1943 to the fall of Berlin in 1945.

'Tally Ho! Bandits at Y, B, X, A!' (Bad Xbox contoller joke!)
Calling this game a 'flight sim' might be construed by some as false advertising, it is a game which perports to portray air combat missions in WW2 but to say that it simulates the actual process of piloting aircraft of the period would be pushing it! Flight mechanics and aerodynamics are very simplified and forgiving and you'll be hard pushed to be able to tell the differences between aircraft types - other than they go faster or slower!

Wings of Prey - Douglas A-20 Havoc
While you'll get the chance to 'fly' a reasonable number are types of aircraft in the game and even
be able to try out some medium bombers (like the A-20 picture above) don't expect to jump into
every seat in crewed aircraft. Even when controlling gun turrets you are little more than swinging
the 3rd person view of these guns around using your controller. Sadly, no first person view!

BUT...I'll go straight to the Wings of Prey's defence here and say that it doesn't really market itself as a 'sim', it definitely couches itself as a 'fun' casual game. It's something just can jump into without having to read a heafy manual (unlike games like 'IL-2: 1946' or 'Rise of Flight' which I got at the same time).

With WofP you be up and in the air and dogfighting in minutes, whereas - in comparison - I tried out 'IL-2: 1946' at the same time and it took me some amount of time just to work out how to turn my aircraft's engine on and even then I could not get my plane off the runway without crashing.

Wings of Prey (PC) - Macchi C202 v P40 Dog Fight
While there are some quite nicely modelled cockpits in Wings of Play they are not fully working
'virtual cockpits' where you can use your mouse to push buttons and flick switches and levers.
They are essencially just another 'view' which adds just a little more immersion.

So Wings of Prey is a game with a specific player type in mind, and luckily I happen to be just that type of player!

Chocs Away! And Stoke Me a Clipper...
So, the basis of the game is a career mode where you undertake a series of mission, the successful completion of each sortie unlocking the next as you progress though a cut down version of historic air campaigns. There are about five missions in each, with missions that include air superiority, escort and ground attack but in true arcade flight tradition many of these are fought from a 'flying start' near the objective. There's no complex air navigation to learn as each objective is clearly marked on the HUD.

Wings of Prey (PC) - Mission Map
The mission map is somewhat rudamentary, you can't plan a sortie or plot way-points or anything
in-depth like that. The mission area (what you can see) is fixed and your objectives marked, so
it's pretty pointless going 'odd-piste' as there are no other 'targets of opotunity'. :(

Some mission - particularly in the later stages - do allow you to take off an land but don't expect extra flying challenges like engine torque (which you have to counter with extra rudder) or cross winds. I only ever crashed once on landing and that's because the snowy airstrip confused me as to how low I actually was!

The missions are 'OK', but I would say that replayability is low. You can tweak the 'difficulty' by altering the complexity of the flight controls, but even at their 'hardest' they still aren't quite on a par with a decent 'sim'. The game is what it is, and the emphasis is on fun.

Wings of Prey (PC) - Desperate Duel Over Stalingrad!
It's all about the dogfights! This is really what you want out of this game, some simple un-
complicated ariel kinife-fights. Though, the AI isn't the most demanding you can pump up
the challenge by increasing the control and flight difficulty a bit.

Outside of the basic 'story mode' (Campaign) there is a Single Mission mode, a Training mode and - of course - a Multiplayer mode. I can't say whether the multiplayer is still active as I didn't try it, but as the game is now nine years old I am guessing it is not.

Single missions, as the name suggests, are non-story led, self contained, sorties you can play within the theatres of war established in the Campaign mode. They add further scenarios to the campaign theatres allowing you to experience different aircraft types or combat types. In essence they enlarge the campaign so give you extra flying time within these battles.

Wings of Prey - YAK-3, Battle of Berlin.

The 'Training' mode is not actually training (it isn't a flying tutorial), it's actually just a 'free flight' mode allowing you to pick any aircraft from within the game and put it up against other types of your choosing. In this way you can get to flight any of the planes modelled in the game but may not have been playable (such as enemy planes) within the base campaign. 

Note: I also purchase the 'Wings of Luftwaffe' DLC for the game and so was able to play a mini-story mode (extra campaign) for Axis aircraft. The base game is largely about flying the aircraft of the Allied nations so being able to experience 'the other side' is quite interesting.

Wings of Prey (PC) - JU-87 'Stuka'
The Wings of Luftwaffe DLC allows you to get into the cockpit of some of the most iconic of
Germany's WW2 aircraft (plus one Italian).

"The nicer an airplane looks, the better it flies."
Aviation cliche.

Supporting - and in truth, somewhat flattering - the gameplay are the graphics. Wings of Prey has, generally, some very attractive plane models (though there are a couple of donkies in there as well) with several variants of iconic models in various theater schemes. And I should make a mention of some of the landscapes, they are a delight to fly over.

Wings of Prey - P-51D Mustang, 1944.
A beautiful and suitably wintery scene, my P-51D 'Mustang' cruises over Bastogne, 1944.

Wings of Prey The Finale, Attack the Reichstag!
A late model Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik turns the tables on the retreating Germans!

The game has a very nice replay function which allow you to rewatch your completed sortie and change the camera angles to get that cinematic record of your best missions. I've had a wonderful time watching the replays of my dogfights, occasional near misses and even when my planes were shot down. It's a pretty solid facility where you can change the camera angles and you can save the replays (in WofP's proprietary data file format) so you can re-re-watch your mission but try out different camera angles to get multiple views of particular moments (you can also slow down of speed up 'time').

All this adds up to (at least for the PC player) a great way for you to capture your favourite moments, either in movie format of in some pretty cool stills...

Wings of Prey - Spitfire Mk. II
Battle of Britain action in my Spitfire Mk. II... My first bomber 'kill'!
Wings of Prey - IL-2 & The Hornet's Nest Mission
Night action over the Russian Front in a IL-2 (early model).
Wings of Prey - LA-7 Over Berlin, 1945
Spectacular dawn dogfight between my La-7 and a German Me-109.

Conclusion
Did I have fun with this game? Yes, I did, and I think it fulfils two equally interesting gaming roles...

First of all, Wings of Prey is an accessible casual shooter that you can pick up and have a 'quick blast' with. I can play this via my STEAM LINK on my big telly with a Xbox controller for some 'sofa gaming' or 'desk' it in front of my monitor with a flight stick setup (and pretend it's a proper flight sim).

Additionally, it's a good little 'segway' game where eventually you can feel your head banging on the ceiling of it's inherent limitations and you may feel encouraged to try something more sophisticated, like 'IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad'. But you don't have to.

OR...Alternatively, if you find you want more, but aren't inclined to do something as nerdy as have to read a proper manual and faff around with a pre-flight checklist and realistic flight mechanics, you could look at the developer's follow-up game, 'War Thunder'. [A multiplayer online game featuring some equality fantastic aeroplane models, the challenge of dogfighting real people - instead of WofP's iinsipid AI - but still with a friendly flight mechanics that you can still play using a controller or even a mouse and keyboard.]

Wings of Prey - LA-7 Over Berlin, 1945
I didn't always have things my own way!

Note: I've actually dipped my toe into a similar MMO aerial dogfighting game - 'World of Warplanes' - and can say that it is, indeed, an experience that is almost exactly half way between that of 'Wings of Prey' and a full blown combat flight sim like the 'IL-2' series.

At the end of the day, I felt I got exactly the gaming value out of the game that I spent on it in the STEAM sale. I perhaps would have felt a little disappointed had I originally had to pay a full price for what is such an obvious console port - with little concesion to the extra horsepower that a PC brings to the table and no 'mission editor'.

Wings of Prey - IL-2M Ground Attack Missions
IL-2M ground attack sortie, 1943.
Having completed the Campain missions I feel little compunction to re-play the game again, particularly as there is little way to really crank up the difficulty by way of being able to modify the missions (or create new ones yourself). You simply feel like you want to move on.

Milgeek score: 3/5 - An amusing diversion, but no long term staying power.

Postscript: The game might of had longer legs if Gijan - the developer - had continued producing DLC for the game. A 1939 campaign (featuring Poland, France and the Low Counties, and maybe even Finland) would have been interesting, as would a Far East and Pacific theater mission. But I suspect, Gaijan had by this time seen the writing on the wall and had moved it's interest - and financial model - onto 'War Thunder'.

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PART 2 - 'Wings of [the] Luftwaffe'
As mentioned, I bought the only DLC there was for this game as well while it was on the STEAM sale. Both items came to some ridiculously low price so it seemed daft not to.

Wings of Prey (PC) - Messerschmitt Bf-109
'Wings of Luftwaffe' let's you experience the 'other side', at least from the point of view of
piloting the enemy aircraft. Though the missions don't really give you a sense of thier particular
strategic and tactical problems because of poor mision design by the developers.

The DLC does fill a glaring gap in the story mode of the basic Wings of Prey game. That being that although you take on the German air force as Allied pilots you never get to 'see' he conflict from the other side. It's a bit frustrating playing famous Allied fighters like the Spitfire, Mustang and Mig-1 without actually having a sense of just how competent the enemey aircraft ranged against them was.

Wings of Prey (PC) - Me 109 G2 verses 'Spits' Over Sicily.

The DLC gives you 10 aditional campaign missions that fill this gap as well as access to a large part of the German fighter inventory (and even one Italian one) as well as adding the Bell P-39 to the Allied hanger.

Wings of Prey (PC) - Macchi C202 v P40 Dog Fight
One of the pleasant surprises in the DLC was the incusion of the Italian Macchi C202 fighter.
however, you can only fly this by using the 'Training' mode to set up an encounter with
opposing Allied aircraft - there is no accompaying 'mission'. :(
Wings of Prey (PC) - Desperate Duel Over Stalingrad!
The lack-luster 'Axis' missions do not really give you a flavour of the deperate nature of the
fighting on the Russian front. That and the weak AI mean the game degenerate into little more
than shooting fish in a barrel. That said, I did have a few close calls!

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this add-on is that you can now also have access to some of the Nazi 'secret weapons' of the late war - like the Me262, He162, Arado Ar 234 (the 234 was perhaps the most useless inclusion in the DLC as no appropriate bombing mission is available for it), etc.

To be honest, aside from the novelty of flying the 'opposition' there's little to this DLC as the missions are a bit 'meh'. Worst of all the 'finale' (your mission in the Me262) is, perhaps, a little too historically 'clever' for its own boots which leads to a huge sense of disappointment.

Wings of Prey (PC) - Me 262
I found this mission a bit strange as the Soviet opposition was flying P-39 Airacobras, I found these
quite unchallenging, being obsolete by 1945. HOWEVER, I did some research and was surprised to
read this: "The last plane shot down by the Luftwaffe was a Soviet P-39, on May 8 [1945] by Oblt.
Fritz Stehle of 2./JG 7 flying a Me 262." So there you go, this mission was actually historically
accurate, if not really a fitting final challenge!

If you read some of the reviews of this DLC - dating back to it's original release - you sense just how badly received it was (bearing in mind the full price charged) - and it goes someway, I think, to explaining why Gijan didn't waste time on more DLC or a 'Wings of Prey 2' but, instead, jumped ship to work on 'War Thunder'.

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Link to 'War Thunder' MMO - "Fight with Real Players. Join Now absolutely for free! Virtual Reality Battles. Most Realistic Battles. Historical Tanks & Planes. 10 Million Players."