The A-4 Skyhawk, also lovingly known as the "Scooter," was one cost effective little carrier capable jet that was first known for its ability to haul tons of bombs, and later for its nimbleness in a dogfight. These traits are precisely why Brazil procured it so late in life for its only aircraft carrier.
Brazil has operated a carrier for over half a century. NAe Minas Gerais was a Colossus Class carrier built for the Royal Navy in WWII and was originally named the HMS Vengeance. She never saw combat and was eventually loaned to Australia in the mid 1950s before being sold to Brazil in 1956.
She soldiered on as a Brazil's sole aircraft carrier, operating S-2 Trackers and various helicopters until 2001 when she was replaced by the ex-French carrier Foch, renamed the NAe Sao Paulo. The Sao Paulo was better suited to operate Brazil's newly acquired, but still second-hand batch of 20 Kuwaiti A-4KUs and TA-4KUs.
Or at least it was supposed to be.
The push by the Brazilian Navy to allow its naval air arm to operate tactical jet aircraft came to a head in the 1980s, as a ruling that prohibited the Brazilian Navy from operating these aircraft was finally overturned, much to the chagrin of the Brazilian Air Force.
The service then went looking for the most cost effective and capable platform available. After about a decade of perusing through different candidates, Kuwait's A-4KUs, which were built in the late 1970s and were advanced for the type, were selected on the grounds that they featured very low flight hours and had almost no corrosion, as they had operated in the hot deserts of the Arabian Peninsula for decades.
By the mid to late 1990s, Kuwait was receiving their new F/A-18C/D Hornets, so they had little use for the less advanced Skyhawks. In the end, a $70M deal was brokered to acquire the Kuwaiti A-4s for the Brazilian Navy.
These aircraft would be re-branded AF-1 after some modest upgrades were applied before entering service.
In late 2000 the ex-Kuwaiti Skyhawks took to the skies above the Minas Gerais and the Skyhawk was once again operating in a tactical role aboard a carrier, some 40 plus years after its original introduction into service.
Throughout the early part of the decade the Brazil's AF-1s participated in multiple international exercises and indigenous training events, before training aboard the Sao Paulo was cut off in 2004 when a series of mechanical failures forced the carrier into long periods of overhaul. These failures included a deadly explosion of one of her catapults in 2004 and a deadly fire in 2012.
All that together means that the Skyhawks have not operated from Sao Paulo for a decade, but the Brazil's troubled carrier is said to be in reasonably good shape, and some of her systems have even been upgraded. Most importantly, her steam catapults have been successfully tested. There are rumors that she will be going through another period of maintenance over the next year and will be back at sea along with her upgraded Skyhawks by the time the 2016 Summer Olympics kicks off in Rio.
While their mothership was experiencing years of issues, the Skyhawks kept flying, and by the late 2000s it was clear that their capabilities were still rudimentary in comparison to other modern multi-role fighters. The jets were mainly relegated to slinging general purpose bombs and packing AIM-9 Sidewinders for the within-visual-range fight. They also relied on external radar direction to execute intercepts and over-the-horizon surface attacks.
The Skyhawks also suffered from some engine and spares issues as the decade wore on and thus flying hours and available airframes were greatly curtailed. In 2009, the Brazilian Navy aimed to fix these problems through a comprehensive upgrade that would turn their humble Skyhawks into one of the most capable versions of the type ever fielded.
This upgrade program, which is led by Brazil's indigenous aerospace giant Embraer, will cost over $10M per aircraft, with 12 aircraft being modified in total, including 9 single seat Skyhawks and 3 two seat Skyhawks. The upgrade will include a totally new avionics suite, including an upgraded glass cockpit and heads up display (HUD), along with full hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS) controls.
Isreali defense electronics guru Elta will supply their proven "2032" radar system. This radar, which is highly compact and scalable to multiple fighter platforms, will give Brazil's Skyhawks a truly modern beyond visual range intercept capability, not to mention confident ground and surface mapping and targeting abilities. An upgraded digital radar warning receiver (RWR) will be added as well, for enhanced suvivability and situational awareness.
New munitions will also surely end up under the Skyhawk's wings, which may include Brazil's own MAA-1B "Pirahana" short-ranged air-to-air missile and/or Israel's highly capable "Python 4." There is even talk that the Israeli "Derby" beyond visual range air-to-air missile will be part of the Skyhawk's new arsenal. Roughly analogous to the AIM-120 AMRAAM, but in a slightly smaller package, the Derby has a range of about 20-25 miles and would be the perfect pairing with the jet's new Elta pulse doppler radar.
A Skyhawk packing a pair of Pythons and a pair of Derbys would be a formidable opponent, especially if the jet were also carrying one of Elta's notoriously capable self protection jamming pods. The AF-1's selection of air-to-ground weapons will also become smarter with locally designed Mectron SMKB-82 500lb and SMKB-83 1000lb laser guided bombs being fielded with the updated jet, along with a laser targeting pod in the future, although the exact source for the pod is not known at this time, although the Rafael LITENING III pod is already in service with Brazilian forces.
Anti-ship missiles and possibly a light air-to-ground missile are also rumored to be on the Brazilian Navy's shopping list for their reinvigorated Skyhawks.
Brazil's upgraded AF-1s, called AF-1B for the single seater and AF-1C for the two seater, will also have their engines, power generation and wiring systems totally overhauled to as-new condition. The jet's cumbersome oxygen bottles will be replaced by a modern on-board oxygen generation system (OBOGS). New data-link systems and radios will also be added for networked operations between AF-1s and other Brazilian combatants.
VF1 "Falcoes," the Navy squadron that flies Brazil's Skyhawks, should be in the process of receiving their first upgraded AF1 now, which will signal a huge change in capabilities and availability for the unit which currently only operates a few flyable Skyhawks, and a portion of their pilot corps are currently on exchange with other Brazilian military squadrons.
The AF-1 upgrade is especially important, as the rest of Brazil's tactical aircraft fleet has seen great modernization over the last decade or so. When its completed, the AF-1B and Cs will have just about the same capability as the Brazilian Air Force's upgraded F-5EM/FM counterparts, albeit with more range and carrier operations capability.
In the future they will fight alongside the force's forthcoming JAS-39 Gripens, which were ordered recently and will become operational within the next few years.
Things are looking up for the world's only naval A-4 Skyhawk squadron, as 2014 should mark the year that the unit turns the corner both operationally and in terms of modern combat capabilities. Once the Sao Paulo does return to the seas ready to receive her gaggle of updated Skyhawks, they will be supported by an enhanced air wing of S-70 Seahawk, Puma and Lynx helicopters and S-2T turboprop trackers, three of which are planned to be outfitted for airborne early warning, three as aerial tankers for the Skyhawks, and three as Carrier On-board Delivery (COD) aircraft.
This mix of robust airborne early warning and tanking support, along with the AF-1s new avionics and weapons, and the ship's updated sub-hunting and assault choppers, would result in a formidable deployed air wing, one capable of controlling large swathes of ocean that really has no equal in the southern hemisphere. This fact has left many scratching their heads as to why Brazil needs a carrier in the first place. Yet there has been a long-standing belief that Brasilia's ability to control her oceanic interests is important enough to warrant such an ongoing investment.
The reality is that military A-4 operations are becoming incredibly rare globally, with Israel retiring its entire A-4 force, leaving just Argentina and Brazil as the final military operators of the venerable jet. Although this is somewhat sad, it is amazing that the little Scooter is still rocketing around the skies some 60 years after it first flew, not to mention that in both Brazil's AF-1 form and Argentina's A-4AR Fightinghawk form, there has never been a more capable or deadly Skyhawks roaming the skies.
According to Brazil, the AF-1s will be flying high for at least another decade, after which the Sea Gripen concept is rumored to potentially replace them along with an new indigenously constructed aircraft carrier. None the less, Skyhawks remain popular for contractor adversary support and JTAC training around the globe, not to mention there are a few flying in civilian hands. So we won't have to say goodbye to the Scooter anytime soon, and with any luck we will once again see these capable little jets catching the arresting cable on an aircraft carrier in the not so distant future.
Image Credit: Carrier ops photos via wikicommons/Robb Scleiffert, flying images via Brazilian Navy/public domain.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com