The OV-10 Bronco was a flying and fighting do-all sport utility vehicle. It could loiter for hours, direct fire onto the enemy, pack paratroopers and cargo, or attack with its own weapons. Many think it was retired right when it could have become most useful and that it would have been the perfect light air support aircraft for Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Bronco flew with three branches of the US Military, beginning service in Vietnam. It offered incredible maneuverability, a hardy airframe that could take fire, the ability to operate from tiny and rough airfields (including "Gator Navy" carrier decks and roadways), great visibility for its two-man crew, and most importantly, with its rear cargo hold it could be easily adapted to a crazy amount of missions.
The OV-10 provided Forward Air Control (FAC), helicopter escort, ground attack, observation and light logistics duties during Vietnam. The Bronco's last hurrah was with the USMC during Desert Storm. During that campaign two were lost to enemy fire. Some blamed the aircraft's relatively low speed, but defenders of the Bronco said losses were inevitable, as they were flying lower than other coalition aircraft and were never given the missile warning or countermeasure systems that were widely available at the time.
By 1995, the Bronco was fully retired from US service. Small numbers still fly with air arms around the globe as well as for the Department of State Air Wing and with a NASA. A handful are also in private hands, both as warbirds and as forward air controllers for aerial fire fighting. Two aircraft were taken from NASA stocks to be used as shadowy proof of concept demonstrators for a modern light air support capability evaluation program aimed at supporting special forces. This program was initiated by the US Navy in the mid to late 2000s and was dubbed Combat Dragon II.
These rare shots of Combat Dragon II OV-10 Broncos are via our good friend Nick Thomas. Make sure to check out more of Nick's awesome work by clicking here.
From Combat Dragon II, and a similar Navy Special Warfare program that ran before it, in which the Embraer Super Tucano was evaluated for a similar mission, the Bronco was eyed to be put back into production. It would have been used to fulfill a light air support and observation role both for the Iraqi and Afghan Air Forces and for the USAF.
The idea was that a Super Bronco, with some similarities to the OA-10Gs used in Combat Dragon II, with up-rated engines, a glass cockpit and updated sensors, could take the fight to the Taliban and insurgents in Iraq on a cost-effective and sustainable level. Other competitors for this light air support bid were the AT-6 Coyote, the A-29 Super Tucano and the AT-802, a weaponized version of the Sky Tractor agricultural plane.
This program was notoriously bungled by the Air Force and the DoD, and what should have been a high-priority, rapidly procured capability, turned into just another big stumbling defense program, with losing contractors challenging the winning contractor decision time and time again. Years went by, and in the end, the A-29 was finally chosen and the program is just now getting off the ground (literally). In all reality, this effort is now too little too late.
Still, the utility, redundancy and larger payload of a modernized OV-10 would have been an ideal choice for the modern counter-insurgency (COIN) mission. It already carries four 7.62mm machine guns internally in its streamlined ventral sponsons. It had a podded system for a hard-hitting 20mm cannon that had already flown for decades and it had seven additional pylons that could carry a whole slew of munitions and sensors. This is precisely where the Bronco was robbed of its true potential. It was taken out of service just as a whole new menu of modern precision weapons and targeting systems were being developed, many of which were perfectly suited for the OV-10 and its original vision.
Today, an updated OV-10 could carry a wide array of smaller guided munitions on its seven hardpoints, like dozens of Griffon or Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, as well as 500lb laser and GPS guided bombs. In addition, the Bronco's rear cargo bay is available for even more fuel than it already carries. When the Bronco is not needed in combat, it can act as a liaison, light cargo, airdrop or medevac aircraft that can get into very tight unprepared fields. That rear hold area could also be easily converted for different sensor and jamming systems, such as large communications and signals intelligence payloads, or for carrying special operations soldiers as it had done during its active military career.
The OV-10 Bronco was the proven, inexpensive, reliable, and very adaptable platform US, Iraqi, and Afghani forces needed to fight and reconnoiter insurgents with. Instead, both wars have been fought for well over a decade with fast jets and heavy bombers that cost many tens of thousands of dollars per hour to operate on top of being ill-suited to the counter-insurgency task. Now, we have a fighter force that has had its wings literally flown off of it, while at the same time Afghanistan and Iraq were left with few tools to give their forces the decisive edge that US combat forces enjoyed in both theaters, those absent tools being persistent aerial surveillance and precision close air support.
The A-29 Super Tucano is a fantastic aircraft, and it will do well as a counter-insurgency platform going forward, but its arrival is far too late to have a meaningful effect on America's ability to leave Afghanistan permanently. In addition, leaving Iraq without equipping their forces with a similar aircraft, not a few dozen F-16C/D fighters that would arrive years after our departure, was a crucial misstep that allowed ISIS to infiltrate and metastasis in that country. If Iraq had a couple hundred OV-10 Broncos, acting as poor-man's (but in many ways more effective) MQ-9 Reaper UASs, ISIS could have been stopped on the long desert highways of Western Iraq as they began to flood into the country.
The glaring lack of light air support aircraft fielded en masse for Iraq and Afghanistan is yet another way America has been great at entering into wars, but absolutely inept at exiting them. The very idea that the Iraqis or the Afghans will be able to keep extremist elements at bay without the same capability that gives America's ground combat forces their biggest combat edge is laughable. Then again, so are timetables for withdrawal based mainly on political factors, with little regard to the situation on the ground. In that respect, the lack of vision when it came to fielding a robust counter insurgency (COIN) aircraft force (force as in hundreds of aircraft) for both countries really is not surprising at all.
In the end, the OV-10, or any of the other choices available for the COIN role that matter, could have saved us a world of hurt in both theaters and would have helped ensure the gains we made were kept intact after our withdrawal. Sadly, the DoD still is not willing to learn this key lesson. Instead, it's all about fast jets and heavy bombers with targeting pods, tactics that have wasted many billions of dollars and chewed up our highly expensive combat aircraft's life expectancy over the last decade and a half of continuous combat.
If there were ever the perfect use for the metaphor "killing an ant with a gold-plated sledgehammer," the Pentagon's never ending use of fast fighter jets and strategic bombers to fight guys with AK-47s and old Toyota pickup trucks would be it. The OV-10, or even the Super Tucano for that matter, would balance that absurd equation and would metaphorically be akin to fighting flies with a fly swatters bought from the local Dollar Store.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who 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