Another voice in the wilderness in support of Light Attack

We’ve LONG been in favor of the Air Force adopting a light attack/armed recon aircraft based on an existing trainer design (or the superb OV-10 Bronco) to support troops in Afghanistan and other permissive environments.

We’re not the only one arguing for that. 

Recent discussions with respect to the application of airpower in Irregular Warfare have highlighted the applicability of light attack aircraft, currently missing from the US arsenal. Used extensively by the US in Vietnam, the light attack aircraft were widely exported, but were not replaced in US service when they retired due to age. Focused on the “high/low” F-15/F-16 mix envisioned to fight the Warsaw Pact in Western Europe, theUSAF has been particularly resistant to the possibility that the USAF might operate a modern light attack aircraft at all. Key objections range from the superficial (it has a propeller) to the conceptually flawed (the aircraft can’t be used in an MCO). Lost in the fray is the huge benefit to the forces currently involved in combat provided by an attack aircraft which can carry a similar warload to the F-16 with more hangtime, at a fraction of the cost, using a small sliver of the F-16’s logistical and support requirements. If we are to take the long view, a modern high/low mix which includes light attack shows significant potential to expand the capacity of tactical air worldwide without compromising the capability of a force involved in Major Contingency Operations. Yes, of course you can use light attack in a major war.

At this point, I’m not really concerned with which platform they choose, just that they choose one.

But I’ve got unfailing insight into the future. Let me tell you what will happen. The fighter mafia, not wanting to get stuck with unsexy airplanes, have been dragging their feet on this, and will continue to do so. As US involvement in Afghanistan is trimmed back, the push to buy these LAARA birds will diminish somewhat, and then the fighter mafia will use the looming $400bn in defense cuts to argue that we can’t afford to buy and operate a new airplane.

LAARA is a good idea, long overdue (I mean, we’ve only been fighting in Afghanistan for 9 whole years!) and will almost certainly never reach operational status.

14 thoughts on “Another voice in the wilderness in support of Light Attack”

  1. I am still for the P48 version myself. If you send me a reminder to my ako account I will send you a master degree thesis on this whole idea that concludes that the USAF shouldn’t do it, which I disagree with but it is as a result of some analysis. Truthfully I have not read it all yet. Talking with a Strike Eagle pilot, his main issue is that when the ground guys want bombs they usually want a whole lot available (more than light attack a/c carry) even if a whole lot are not necessarily expended. His other issue is that to put them out at low enough echelon to make them responsive to all ground-owning units would be cost-prohibitive. His case, not mine.

  2. The only reason the USAF still has A-10s (which they plan to “replace” with the F-35) is because when they were going to retire them in 1990, the Army said, well if you don’t want them we’ll take them. Suddenly the USAF had a change of heart.

    They are always dragged kicking and screaming into CAS. I don’t hold individual pilots responsible, they do the best they can when they are needed. If you look at the things the Army wants from the USAF: Intra-theater transport, UAV or more appropriately UAS and CAS. The USAF has had to be told to focus on all of these things by the outgoing SECDEF. For whatever reason the leadership of the USAF can’t focus on the job at hand. I understand fully the need to look out in the future and plan for future possible conflicts but you must also support the fight we have on our hands at present. It wouldn’t be such a big deal if they would get out of the Army’s way and let them take care of these issues themselves, but they can’t even do that. To me that is the most confounding thing about this whole situation. They won’t devote assets or money on issues the Army says it needs help with, so when the Army goes to fix those problems themselves the USAF fight them at every turn (see the UAS and C-27 pissing contests).

    As for the F-15 guy saying the ground guys want a whole lot of bombs…of course they do. They would want a B-52 standing by if it was available. But my experience in Baghdad the three times I operated there was that in a TIC (Troops In Contact) situation most problems could be solved with 2-3 ten round bursts of 30mm cannon fire. For the situations and the effects desired that I was involved with even a 250 LB bomb (which I believe to be the smallest LGB that USAF fighters carry) was too large. I have seen Hellfires used in some situations and thought that weapons was too much bang for the results required. A light attack aircraft with a long loiter time and a heavy payload of small accurate munitions is what is needed…and to be honest if you want it responsive to the ground commander the Army needs to operate it. If laser guided 70mm rockets are perfected that to me would be optimal, put those on a UAS platform with a very long station time.

    1. “But my experience in Baghdad the three times I operated there was that in a TIC (Troops In Contact) situation most problems could be solved with 2-3 ten round bursts of 30mm cannon fire. ”

      I would agree with that assessment. But I’d also add that air support (regardless of service) is part of an integrated system that includes direct and indirect fire support. There are places and times for each element of the system.

      Personally, I don’t see much need for LAARA given the Army’s rotary winged capability extant today. The days of P-47s rocketing Panthers and Tigers are long gone. And I doubt we’ll need “Sandy” to help defend some isolated fire base in future conflicts. AHs should be sufficient. Let’s not send any more dollars to the AF than we need to.

    2. I disagree. I want something that is more survivable than an attack helicopter, has equivalent loiter time, and can carry a large payload of 250 lb (or smaller) SDBs that can be dropped where and when I want them. Throwing in a comment about rocketing Panthers and Tigers is a strawman, though I have actually seen truck targets in Iraq that could have benefitted from accurate rockets. By the way, hybrid threats figure prominently in our current and future threat expectations. This includes light armor. Between Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah and south Baghdad, I can’t tell you how many times I watched FW a/c check off station before they could kill things that they were tracking because of station-time limits. I am all about AH64 30mm, but having seen the wildy erratic fixed wing 20mm and AV8’s 30mm, fixed wing strafing is near useless in an urban environment, unless you don’t mind killing bystanders. (Not that 8 x .50 cal would be much better). out on the ground, I would love to have a constant pair of light attack aircraft overhead, and I don’t care whether they say USAF, US Army or US Army Air Corps on the side. I suspect that the per-hour operating costs would go down by about 80% and supported-unit satisfaction would go up by the same amount. If the army fielded enough Apaches to provide full up support, not just to the main effort, or a couple hours of general-support AH support to the guy with a TIC, but to everyone. I would be okay with that, too. I got used to Apaches in DS, but not everyone gets that luxury!

    3. I agree Outlaw. And I think you are right about the 250# bombs.

      I sat next to a retired A-10 driver and told him I thought the AF should transfer the Warthogs to the Army. He replied that he would do violence to anyone that tried to force him to transfer to the Army. He obviously didn’t listen, although I think Warthog drivers would be better off in the Army than in the AF, where that is a dead end.

      The country would be better served if TacAir were controlled by the Army and let the AF be what it wants to be. Supporting the troops on the ground is not what they want. The AF has proven unresponsive to the Army’s needs without direct orders from higher since Korea. Long range bombing and air superiority is what they are about. I say let them be. But they need to realize it comes with the price of losing TacAir responsibilities and the AC needed for it.

      I’d build both a light attack AC and new Warthogs and give them to the Army as well as force the AF to disgorge the C-27s they stole.

  3. Concur with Esli.

    I think there is a niche for Light Attack.

    And filling that niche would free up fast jets for roles they are better suited for, such as Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI) and air superiority.

    1. I didn’t toss out the Panzers as a straw man. It was to point out that our perceptions of what CAS will do are framed in the past.

      Even back in those WWII days we didn’t have the luxury of enough fighter-bombers to generate the sortie level required for the overwatch needs for every formation (or even the main effort formations). Talk all you want about hybrid threats, but look back at the books – tis the same faced in Korea. And there we discovered all too well that CAS was not the magic panacea for the lack of full strength rifle companies.

      Those same hybrid threat scenarios also consider at least a contest with regard to air superiority. In such case, at a minimum any CAS platform operates at the mercy of airspace control measures and the airspace defense plan. Again, looking to the last place we operated under contested airspace, in Korea ACM became a major limitation to the use of CAS.

  4. I don’t want panacea and I don’t want magic CAS. I want a cheap and relatively widely-fielded platform that provides effective, low-cost close air support in a relatively permissive airspace, thus freeing up the expensive platforms to do other work. Brad mentions BAI as a good option. Or, ensuring that we maintain air supremacy. Given that the almost the entirety of SHORAD has evaporated, if we do any kind of “real” warfighting, the USAF platforms allocated to CAS will be back to the old 1-2 sorties/day at best. We are buying not much of anything. I don’t even need a prop-job, I just want “someone” to develop an aircraft that will be available to support me, and I want someone to have the CAS rose affixed firmly to their chest. If dropping $$ on the aircraft procurement and pilot pipelines is the way to do it, so be it. There is a better way to do CAS than one 30 year old F15E trolling around for 60 minutes before it leaves again. I want it there when I need it, not when I predicted that I would need it 72-96 hours ago because I tried to get it into the ATO cycle.

    1. “There is a better way to do CAS than one 30 year old F15E trolling around for 60 minutes before it leaves again. I want it there when I need it, not when I predicted that I would need it 72-96 hours ago because I tried to get it into the ATO cycle.”

      Reality, your desired light CAS bird will end up stationed some 3 flight hours behind the front lines; won’t have refuel capability (or if it does, will have to compete with more important long range missions). So it will have a time on station of about fifteen minutes. AND the ATO cycle you mention above will apply to it just like any other asset. We’ve been down this road a couple of times. Google N-156. Or G-91. Or recall the early US Army work with the Harrier’s parent, the Kestrel.

      I’d say that anything that would be light enough to get stationed close enough to the front to allow a viable sortie rate, and loiter time will end up being something akin to the bush pilot wings out of Alaska. Again, we’ve been down this road a couple of times. In three cases the Army/AF turned to adaptations of off the shelf equipment. And what worked was COTS purchased at the time of need, not some long-in-the-tooth project derivative.

      Let’s just save the money in a lock-box. Put it in an envelope marked “Piper Cub Fund: Open in Event of War.”

  5. If you want to get inside the ATO cycle, you either need to change the way the USAF does business or give that platform (whatever it may be) to the Army. Because bottom line the Air Force isn’t going to change unless someone (SECDEF) forces them to.

    Attack Helicopters are on the ATO by the way, but each callsign is given a 24 hour block of time and can be flown whenever we feel like it. Without getting into TTPs Attack Helicopters are pretty damn survivable as it is, operating in the constraints that we are forced into. Just because you’ve seen Apaches employed a certain way that doesn’t mean that is the only way to put rounds on target…there are many ways to skin that cat, something I’ve been fighting internally for quite a while now.

    I never said or meant to imply that attack helicopters were the entire answer to air support. If you would like to read what I wrote, I said that what you really need is a platform that has a long loiter time (Like a UAS) and carries a lot of accurate small munitions. Also unless you want to live with the same issues we have with airlift and the ATO planning cycle the Army is going to have to find a way to field this system itself…that is unless there is a major shift in the way the USAF does business.

    1. Outlaw, I read what you wrote. And what I wrote was I wanted long loiter time and lots of 250 lb or smaller SDBs. Don’t cast stones about “read what I wrote”, we want and said nearly the same thing in the capability of this theoretical a/c.
      When I want to get into the ATO, I want to predict what multi-hour block of flight time I want that aircraft in, and then have it be there for a long time overhead; I am okay throwing that dart 72 hours in advance. I don’t want it to check on, give me my 30 minutes and then leave. I liked having Apaches giving me 4(+) hours of station-time, not AV8s, F18s, F15s, and Tornadoes giving me 30-60 minutes. If I have planned a day long mission, i can’t really predict when I am going to make contact, so the more station-time the better, as far as I am concerned. An aircraft with maximum hours on station is much more likely to be there when I want it than is the one that is there for 45 minutes. I understand the limitations of the ATO and am willing to work within them. I scheduled/integrated ALL ISR, RW and FW assets over Ramadi every night for 90 days during the 07 surge before I was lucky enough to get out of that job!
      Craig, from everywhere I have been in Iraq, transit time for my shadow UAS was less than thirty minutes to check on from Taji or TQ. I have not said as much, but my assumption is that these USAF aircraft may have to operate actually within the country of the ground war, not fly in from afar. Hours of transit time is unsat, so they have to get where they can support the ground unit. To me, there are three things that need to change:
      1. emphasis on CAS within USAF or change the service proponency of the mission
      2. operate a/c from rough or austere fields; the same places US Army aviation already operates, and the USMC at least says it is willing to do. (And does in Iraq.)
      3. Buy the aircraft, develop appropriate weapons and TTPs, and transition the pilots.

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