When you think of military planes, you probably don’t think of the humble crop-duster. But this familiar technology has become a key part of the aerial arsenal of countries around the world.
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.
The UAE (whose military did not respond to a request for comment on these uses) is not alone. In the past decade, militarized crop-dusters have been an important technological and practical investment for air forces across the world, ranging from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East to East Asia. Other countries have expressed interest in militarized crop-dusters to expand their counterinsurgency efforts. In 2014, Iomax offered the Archangel to the Philippines as a replacement for its aging counterinsurgency force. As of 2018, Egypt was negotiating with Iomax to get planes of its own, following the UAE’s deployment and subsequent donation of Archangels—though the most recent reporting does not indicate whether these efforts were successful. Facing a resurgent threat from Somalia-based jihadi group Al-Shabaab, the Kenyan military attempted in 2017 to purchase 14 L3 Longswords, a modification of crop-dusting planes made by Texas-based Air Tractor, in a deal brokered through the U.S. government. But this deal would end up in controversy, as Rep. Ted Budd (whose district in North Carolina is home to Iomax headquarters) and several other representatives complained about the cost of the Air Tractor planes. None have been sent as of May 2021, when the most recent information was publicly available.
Some countries are even employing crop-dusting planes on a budget: During the war over Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, the Azerbaijani military outfitted Soviet-era crop-dusting planes first introduced in the 1940s with automatic guidance systems and flew them over Armenian lines to “bait” forces into revealing their positions by firing at the unmanned planes. In the late 1990s, crop-dusting planes were allegedly of great interest to al-Qaeda leaders like Zacarias Moussaoui, Mohamed Atta, and Osama Bin Laden. In particular, the three explored the possibility of carrying out airborne terrorist attacks using gasoline explosives loaded onto light agricultural aircraft.
In an era of increasingly available drones and advanced attack aircraft, the choice to invest in updated agricultural technology may seem an unusual one. But crop-dusters offer some tactical advantages relative to other craft, and their use reflects a general and important decentralization in today’s wars. In 2018, the United Nations described a “new era of conflict and violence” focused primarily on nonstate actors like terrorists, criminals, and rebels. Conflicts have become more and more decentralized and more internal, and with that, technology designed for conflict between states is less of a premium for militaries whose primary enemies are lightly armed insurgents without air power or comparably advanced technology. 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.
Crop-dusting is among the earliest practical applications of human flight, with the first known efforts dating to more than a century ago. But the use of crop-dusting tech for military purposes is more recent. The infamous use of Agent Orange and other herbicides during the Vietnam War was carried out by modified C-123 transport planes. During the 1980s and through the decades-long drug war, the United States and Colombia routinely sprayed coca crops with herbicides in military efforts against drug cartels.
Both of these early military applications were similar to the original intention of crop-dusting: to spray deadly chemicals on plant life from above. According to writer and defense expert Joseph Trevithick, the idea of a crop-duster converted into an attack aircraft—one like the Iomax Archangel—came out of these earlier uses.
Trevithick says crop-dusting planes proved to be efficient and simple, given their original purpose as agricultural implements. “Those aircraft are also designed at their core to operate at very low levels and be relatively easy to fly,” Trevithick said via email. The outfitting and deployment of military crop-dusters reflected a broader need for a low-flying, effective, cheap plane to combat insurgencies.
To that end, the United States military has also become interested in militarized crop-dusting planes. U.S. Special Operations Command, the central organization that coordinates clandestine military efforts like counterterrorism across all branches of the U.S. military, inked a deal in August of this year to purchase up to 75 “Sky Wardens”—a highly specialized light attack and counterinsurgency aircraft based upon the Air Tractor AT-802 crop-dusting planes. The deal was made with defense tech contractor L3Harris and Air Tractor, with the former militarizing the latter’s initial designs for a purely agricultural plane. The contract calls for an initial expenditure of $170 million on research and development, with a limit of $3 billion.
The Sky Warden planes were selected as part of a program known as Armed Overwatch, USSOCOM’s effort at modernizing its special operations air capabilities. In a statement following the deal, USSOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke described the Sky Wardens as “rugged,” and ideal for “[operating] in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our Special Operations Forces on the ground.” Defense publications have noted that under this aegis, the purpose of these planes will likely be to combat violent terrorist organizations as part of U.S. special operations. For example, Defense News reported that the head of Air Force Special Operations Command, Lt. General Jim Slife, wants to deploy the AT-802 in Africa, where insurgent groups have little to no control over airspace and are especially vulnerable to aerial strikes.
And according to a Department of Defense article on recent military contracts, the AT-802s were specifically selected to “[fulfill] close air support, precision strike, and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, requirements in austere and permissive environments for use in irregular warfare operations.” According to the official press release from L3Harris, a major “highlight” of its recent deal with the U.S. military is boosting USSOCOM’s capacity to conduct irregular warfare.
Crop-dusters are also particularly resilient aircraft. According to David Jordan, a senior lecturer in defense studies at King’s College London, since crop-dusters are designed for the agricultural market, they can withstand a lot of wear and tear and are easy to repair without a lot of technical know-how. They are also easy to fly, being designed for pilots without a lot of technical training. “Pilots who’ve just earned their ‘wings’ on a light training aircraft aren’t going to be too phased by the transition … which flies at the same sort of speeds and has the same sort of handling characteristics as the aircraft they’ve trained upon,” Jordan wrote in an email.
Being military planes, weaponized crop-dusters are subject to a galaxy of international regulations regarding their export or import, including the possibility of complete embargoes on countries wracked with civil violence. And there is reason to be concerned about the human rights dimension behind the trend of agricultural aircraft being retrofitted for violent conflict. Some of the most documented risks of military crop-dusting planes are as part of international arms trading schemes. Since crop-dusters are originally light, civilian-operated planes, arms dealers can plausibly deny or cover-up their potentially illegal export as military equipment. For example, the Intercept reported in 2016 that Erik Prince of Blackwater infamy allegedly attempted to sell American-made crop-dusting planes internationally as part of a business plan to develop a “private air force,” evidently intending to market the planes to African militaries facing protracted insurgencies.
Per the Intercept, Prince procured two crop-dusters from Georgia-based Thrush Aircraft and transported them to a hangar owned by Austrian aviation company Airborne Technologies, where they would be outfitted with surveillance equipment and armor. But Austria’s strict regulations on arms exports prevented their outfitting with weaponry, and the planes eventually wound up registered in less-strict Bulgaria. According to reporting by Balkan Insight, in 2017, such modified crop-dusters were shown at a Paris airshow as prototypes to impress potential buyers, and one was serviced at a hangar in Serbia.
A subsequent U.N. investigation found that one of Prince’s modified planes was due for Libya, which has been subject to an international arms embargo since the outbreak of its brutal 2011 civil war. Known as Project Opus, Prince and his associates attempted to sell the modified crop-dusters to Khalid Haftar, a Libyan warlord and one of the key players in the country’s civil conflict and power vacuum since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi. The plane was thankfully intercepted in Jordan, where authorities demanded its military assets be removed. The plane later made its way to Cyprus, Balkan Insight reports, which is its last known location as of 2021 and where it may be undergoing mechanical servicing.
Though largely foiled, Prince’s plans are a reminder of how crop-dusting planes are especially risky pieces of military technology when it comes to international law and human rights issues in conflict. Many of the militaries interested in their use are alleged to have committed significant human rights violations in the course of irregular warfare campaigns, and the addition of a highly specialized attack plane to their arsenals may pose grave risks to those caught in the crossfire.