The United States Air Force is calling on the defense industry to build a light attack aircraft on the cheap to fight all the counter-insurgency wars it seems to actually be fighting over the past 20 years. It’s a sea change from over three decades of procurement strategy, and it might just work.
In addition to having something less expensive and more practical for taking on ISIS in Syria than Russia in World War III, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein the Air Force doesn’t want to wait too long for the next light attack aircraft, either.
“This is not something we’re looking to do a lot of research and development on,” he said, according to Defense News. “This is commercial, off-the-shelf that we can rapidly employ.”
The demo for aircraft builders to show the service how it can address its low-threat and cost needs will take place sometime this summer at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The effort, dubbed OA-X, is designed to determine if it makes sense to budget for low-cost aircraft that can be deployed to conduct “low-threat missions,” or ones where the U.S. military doesn’t expect a ton of anti-air resistance. The Islamic State, for instance, doesn’t exactly bristle with high-tech air superiority aircraft.
The Air Force has several options to consider, many of which are already battle-tested—and relatively inexpensive.
The Textron AirLand Scorpion, for example is a light air attack plane that costs less than $20 million and only $3,000 per hour to operate. Comparatively, the F-35A costs more than $42,000 per hour to operate.
The Scorpion doesn’t have a customer yet, but this summer’s Air Force demo may give Textron AirLand a shot to change that.
Then there is the A-29A Super Tucano, which has been battle-tested, as War Is Boring reports:
The A-29 is the most widely deployed modern turboprop light attack aircraft in the world, with the most experienced users being Brazil and Colombia. Almost 200 aircraft have been produced with another 200-plus aircraft on order. Colombian air force crews have extensive combat experience, including with precision-guided munitions, due to their use against the FARC.
Brazil has used them extensively for counternarcotics, reconnaissance and counter-air operations. The aircraft are in service worldwide from South America, Africa and Asia.
The aircraft is certified to carry rockets, free fall munitions, air to air missiles (AIM-9L class), air to ground missiles (AGM-65 class), and laser-guided bombs including the Enhanced Paveway II. The 1553 Databus does not allow for employment of satellite-guided munitions. The A-29 has U.S. government airworthiness and weapons certificates.
At the end of the day, the Air Force’s call for more light attack aircraft seems to come down to money. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the U.S. Air Force and U.S .Navy developed specific aircraft for specific needs. The F-15, for example, was great for land-based air superiority, the A-10 for close air support and ground attack. Then you had the F-16 as a cheap all-rounder. The AV-8B for jump jet needs, the F/A-18 for carrier work, the S-3 Viking for anti-submarine warfare and carrier-based aerial refueling.
In 2017, however, the military is trying to consolidate all of those competing requirements into two basic jets, the F-22 for land-based air superiority, and the F-35 for pretty much everything else. The idea was that common platforms would save money, but that has not been the case. Instead, what’s emerged is an emerging consensus that trying to stretch platforms to do wildly different things just makes a lot of stuff very complicated and really expensive.
The end result is that the military is spending money like it’s bracing for World War III, against China and Russia, when most of the time it’s been fighting insurgents who require less complex hardware to defeat.
What a waste.
So the call for “off-the shelf” aircraft by the Air Force is a good one. Though, it needs to be wise not to repeat mistakes from the past by making its next low-cost venture more complex than it needs to be. Bill Anderson, president of Textron AirLand, told Defense News as much last year.
“We have to take a look at what the final requirements are. As the requirements exist today, Scorpion ISR-strike is not a competitor, nor is a derivative of Scorpion a competitor,” he said. “They are still asking for an extremely high performance, high G-rate, which will likely involve an airplane that is capable of supersonic flight, although they don’t call it that. So it is going to be a very expensive airplane.”
Well, that’s what the demo this summer is all about. To see if the Air Force’s vision for light attack aircraft is as feasible as it hopes it can be.