Senators Want Millions For Air Force And Marine Light Attack Planes In New Budget

Lawmakers are pushing for new aircraft in both services as the Air Force insists it is getting close to actually buying the planes.

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U.S. Senators are looking to add hundreds of millions of dollars to the defense budget so the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps can buy fleets of light attack aircraft. This comes amid reports that the former service could finally award a contract to buy these types of planes by the Spring of 2019.

On May 24, 2018, the Senate Armed Services Committee, or SASC, approved the latest, amended draft iteration of their version of the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2019 fiscal year, the formal title for the annual defense budget. In the process of the so-called “markup,” the legislators proposed authorizing $350 million to support the Air Force’s light attack effort, as well as another $100 million for a Marine Corps program. In June 2017, the Committee had added $1.2 billion for “a fleet of Light Attack/Observation aircraft” in the fiscal year 2018 draft budget without specifying any particular service, a figure that lawmakers subsequently reduced substantially.

“The Marine Corps continues to monitor the Air Force-led Light Attack Experiment to procure a cost-effective, observation and attack (OA-X) air platform for employment in permissive environments, with the intent to employ such an asset as a joint force capability,” U.S. Marine Corps Captain Christopher Harrison, a spokesperson for the service at the Pentagon, told Military.com when asked about the prospective funding. “The SASC's decision to authorize $100 million for a light attack platform is only reflected in a policy bill.”

In July 2017, the Air Force started the first round of its light attack experiment, also known as OA-X, which involved four different aircraft. On May 7, 2018, the service began the second phase, which includes only Embraer and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s A-29 Super Tucano and Textron’s AT-6C Wolverine. Both of these aircraft are twin-seat, single-engine turboprop aircraft.

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Textron's AT-6C Wolverine, one of the aircraft participating in the US Air Force's ongoing light attack experiment.

Harrison also noted that so far there was no money approved for such a program within the Marine Corps. However, since at least 2008, the service has expressed an interest in acquiring such an aircraft, primarily for training tactical air controllers and forward air controllers on the ground on how to request and coordinating close air support missions.

In this role, a turboprop, such as the ones the Air Force are evaluating, would offer a cost-effective option compared to using higher performance jet combat aircraft during those exercises. As of 2017, the Marines had proposed forming a number of composite training squadrons – two on the west coast and two on the east coast – with both a light attack aircraft and F-5 jet trainers to support various training requirements.

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A page from the Marine Corps' 2017 Aviation Plan showing the proposed composite training squadron concept.

In its 2018 Aviation Plan, though, the Marine Corps had indicated that it was looking to pursue a contractor-operated option to meet this need. Hiring private companies to fly various aircraft in the adversary or “red air” role, as well as for other types of training support, has become increasingly popular across the U.S. military.

These arrangements offer a lower cost and more flexible option compared to maintaining dedicated military units to perform these missions or employing other elements in this role. With the U.S. military as a whole buying combat aircraft that are increasingly more expensive to fly, and amid chronic shortages of pilots, ground crews, and mission-ready aircraft, the value of a contractor-operated option is only likely to increase in the near future.

It is not clear whether or not the language in the Senate’s draft defense budget would prevent the Marines from spending the light attack money on hiring a contractor to provide that service directly. It’s also unclear if the lawmakers added the money into their version of the bill with the specific goal of the Marine Corps acquiring aircraft it could use during actual operations. At present, the service’s plans do not indicate the planes would have any actual combat mission.

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An A-29 Super Tucano drops a laser-guided practice bomb during the first phase of the US Air Force's light attack experiment. the Marine Corps had previously considered this aicraft to be one possible option for its own requirements.

As such, we don’t know how this may or may not align with the Air Force’s ongoing OA-X effort or U.S. Special Operations Command’s tertiary light attack project. If any of these services describing near-identical requirements, the Pentagon could compel them to join together on a shared program. 

If the Air Force and Marines were to settle on a common aircraft it could help lower procurement, logistics, and operating costs. The two services could share pipelines for spare parts and services and join together on larger block buys of actual planes. At the same time, they might even be able to establish joint training structures, something they have already done with regards to the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor.

But, so far, though, Congress appears to be the biggest driver of these efforts. The Air Force has yet to truly clarify how many planes it might buy or how it would integrate them with existing forces, despite public pronouncements in support of light attack aircraft in concept. The service also repeatedly insists that the acquisition process has been fast, a claim we at The War Zone have shown to be at best questionable many times in the past.

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U.S. Air Force General David Goldfein, the service's Chief of Staff, in the green flight suit, shakes hands with Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson during the first round of OA-X experiment.

According to Military.com, an unnamed industry source said that the Air Force was hoping to issue a formal request for proposals, which would help further illuminate its goals for the light attack experiment, in October 2018. The service would then push ahead to award an actual contract within six months. But in February 2018, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson had indicated that it was unlikely her service would take delivery of any aircraft until after 2020.

And without a clear sense of their mission set and how the Air Force will pay to sustain them once they enter service, there remains a significant risk of the planes ending up orphaned and effectively unusable. Those concerns contributed to scuttling a nearly identical effort in 2012 and we've also seen how this has played out with regards to the C-27J Spartan intra-theater airlifter. Ambivalent to the aircraft from the beginning, the service eventually horse-traded those planes away to U.S. Special Operations Command, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as foreign allies.

It’s not even clear whether or not the Air Force necessarily has a firm grasp on what a light attack aircraft brings to the table. “We should not be using an F-22 [stealth fighter] to destroy a narcotics factory,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said in May 2018, repeating a comment she has made many times in reference to a series of strikes in Afghanistan in November 2017.

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Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.

It’s true that the long-standing goal of a light attack platform is to provide a relatively cheap way to reduce the strain on more advanced combat jets in lower-threat environments and free them up for higher priority missions in those theaters or elsewhere. These aircraft can also operate in areas with more limited infrastructure and with a smaller overall footprint, giving them added flexibility.

This doesn’t obviate the need for those aircraft entirely, even in limited conflicts, though. Are insurgents operating that narcotics factory situated deep inside an area full of more established or even improvised air defenses? Did friendly forces just discover the site and are enemy personnel already looking to relocate?

A light attack aircraft may not be best suited to hitting time-sensitive targets, especially depending on how far away they might be from their operating bases. These planes have no ability to perform stand-off strikes into more heavily defended areas, either.

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F-22s over Syria in March 2018.

It's also true that a larger fleet of less expensive light attack aircraft dispersed to a greater number of smaller operating sites could provide adequate coverage across a larger area. They would also then be betters situated to loiter over certain portions of the battlefield for extended periods performing armed overwatch and, depending on their exact configuration, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. At the same time, the environment may not be entirely uniform and require a more mix force.

In an increasing age of so-called “hybrid conflicts,” where regular and unconventional forces are heavily intertwined, a single theater of operations may include areas where the lower and slower flying planes would be perfectly capable of conducting operations and others that could be virtual no-go zones. U.S. military activities in Iraq and Syria offer good examples of this extreme dichotomy even within a relatively constrained battlespace.

Closer to the Syrian-Iraqi border, light attack aircraft would be ideal for strikes against ISIS terrorists who are seeking to regroup. Those same planes might be too vulnerable, or too slow to respond, for missions less than 100 miles further west, where American forces and their local Syrian partners are right up against Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government troops and militias and have come under threat from advanced electronic warfare systems and other more robust capabilities. For years now, F-22s have flown regular patrols in those areas to offer a reliable rapid reaction capability.

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An Afghan Air Force A-29, which the country acquired with help from the U.S. military.

The Air Force has also repeatedly stressed the importance of foreign participation in its light attack effort, strongly implying that it is looking to use the program as a vehicle to sell allies and partners on a common aircraft. This has only raised questions about the service’s commitment to forming its own such units.

"Is this a way to get more coalition partners into a network to counter violence?" U.S. Air Force General David Goldfein, the service's chief of staff, asked rhetorically in an interview with Military.com September 2017. "[OA-X] is actually not about the hardware – it's about the network."

This is an especially curious line of reasoning since the Pentagon has facilitated the sale of dozens of A-29s and other light attack aircraft abroad already. On May 28, 2018, Lebanon received four more Super Tucanos, which it purchased through the U.S. military.

What is clear is that Congress, especially the Senate, has and continues to be supportive of the U.S. military developing a light attack aircraft capability. How and when either the Air Force or Marine Corps actually implement their respective projects remains to be seen.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com