Close Air Support is a valuable tool for our troops in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the precision guided weapons CAS brings to the fight have doubtless saved many of our troops lives. The Air Force doesn’t really like doing CAS. They do it, and they do it well. But there are other things they’d rather be doing.
And let’s face it, having a $40-80 million dollar fighter stooging around for 6 hours at a pop, burning upwards of 50,000 of jet fuel at $3 a gallon per mission, just in case someone might need a strike (and they usually don’t) is an expensive way to do business. Further, there are only so many flight hours you can put on a jet. Much of the US jet fleet is old and getting older fast. And most of the time, a strike fighter is overkill. Further, at 20,000 feet and 500 knots, the crews of these jets don’t have the situational awareness we might like.
Attack helicopters are great, but they are limited by their relatively short endurance and light weapons. They also have trouble operating at higher altitudes such as those found in Afghanistan.
And while UAVs have come a long way, there’s still a limited number of them. Further, bandwidth constraints put a real upper limit on how many can be used. With their limited sensor field of view, their situational awareness is even worse.
So what to do? Well, the Navy, and to some extent, are looking at buying a converted turboprop trainer or similar aircraft to supplement the “go-fast” planes in the close air support role. Under a program known as “Imminent Fury” the services want to field a Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (LAAR) Aircraft.
To a certain extent, this is reinventing the wheel. Even before the US involvement in Vietnam entailed large numbers of ground troops, modified T-28 trainers were being used as light attack aircraft. And the Air Force’s basic training jet, the Cessna T-37 “Tweet” was modified and built as the highly successful A-37 Dragonfly. This is to say nothing of the highly successful, purpose built OV-10 Bronco, which was used by the Air Force, Navy and Marines, as well as several other nations. But after the Vietnam war ended, the services turned their eyes to what was considered the most critical theater, Western Europe. In an area like that, with highly developed integrated air defenses, no light aircraft could reasonable be expected to survive, and accordingly, almost all the light planes were retired.
Now, 8 years into the war on terror, the institutional side of the services are finally beginning to grasp that they have to be able to support the effort, and cannot do so with the existing force structure.