USAF Command Behind Light Attack Aircraft Program Now Says It May Never Fly Those Planes

Special operators could take over the project, years after conducting their own light attack tests and evaluations.

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The U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command, or ACC, the command that was responsible for the service’s most recent light attack aircraft experiment, now says it might not ever take delivery of any of those aircraft. Depending on how many planes the Air Force decides to ask for in the next budget, and ultimately receives funding for, they might all go to Air Force Special Operations Command, or AFSOC, in the end.

U.S. Air Force Major General Scott Pleus, ACC’s Director of Plans, Programs, and Requirements offered the status update on what is now known as the Light Attack Aircraft (LAA) program at the Military Flight Training USA 2018 conference on Dec. 7, 2018. The command halted the second round of tests and evaluations of two aircraft, SNC and Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano and Textron’s AT-6C Wolverine, after a deadly accident in June 2018, saying it had all the information it needed to move into the full LAA program.

The Air Force expects to release its final request for proposals by the end of 2019, after which it plans to select a single winning aircraft to purchase. ACC will have “very little play” in that process and the LAA program as a whole if the Air Force opts to purchase less than 100 aircraft, with AFSOC taking the project’s reins, according to Pleus.

AFSOC would primarily use the LAAs for combat operations in low-end conflicts, the Major General said. That command is also responsible for training and advising U.S. allies and partners, some of which operate the A-29 and other light attack aircraft already. The Air Force has repeatedly noted that having a fleet of its own light attack planes could help support those activities, whether conventional or special operations units fly them.

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An Afghan Air Force pilot walks out to a US-supplied A-29 Super Tucano ahead of a mission.

ACC would become more involved in the LAA program if the Air Force were to proceed with a larger buy, closer to 300 aircraft, Pleus explained. This is the total number the Senate Armed Services Committee, then led by the late Senator John McCain, argued for in a 2017 White Paper. The Air Force has since said it might purchase as few as 20 light attack aircraft in the end.

In that case, ACC might propose basing aircraft at certain locations in the United States and forward deploying other units to sites in Europe and Asia, from where they could more rapidly move into a potential conflict zone. Pleus also outlined a deployment model where the aircraft would remain in theater throughout an operation, with pilots and ground crews rotating through assignments to operate the light attack planes. At present, the Air Force typically rotates units and their aircraft through deployments.

It's not unreasonable for the Air Force to base its decision about how many light attack aircraft to buy and where assign them based on the total fleet size in principle. Still, this latest development only re-raises various questions about how the service has proceeded with the LAA program.

Textron

A pair of AT-6C Wolverines.

AFSOC, which has its own complimentary light attack aircraft project in progress, has always stood out as one of the most likely operators of any future light attack aircraft within the Air Force. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as a whole has long been interested in the possibility of acquiring this type of aircraft to provide cost-effective, organic air support during lower-risk operations in remote and austere locations. 

In 2008, the U.S. Navy leased a single Super Tucano to support the SEALs and other special operations forces as part of a project known as Imminent Fury. This evolved into a SOCOM-led program, with Air Force and Navy involvement, called Combat Dragon II, which saw the deployment of a pair of heavily modified OV-10G+ Broncos to Iraq for an actual combat trial in 2015.

These experiments already proved the value of the light attack aircraft for supporting special operations elements. If AFSOC ends up being the sole operator within the Air Force for the type, it calls into question why it was necessary for ACC to conduct its own months-long evaluations of planes it may have had little intention of flying in the first place.

Nick Thomas

One of two modified OV-10G+ Broncos that went to Iraq in 2015.

Of course, we at The War Zone have repeatedly questioned how the Air Force as a whole could still need more information about light attack aircraft to inform its procurement and employment decisions with the wealth of previous experience just within the service itself. ACC was directly involved in Combat Dragon II. On top of that, for more than four years, its own 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody Air Force base has flown A-29s to help train foreign operators. 

Still, the idea of buying light attack aircraft for both the Air Force and the U.S. Marine Corps has enjoyed congressional support in recent years. Lawmakers have repeatedly included millions for purchasing this category of aircraft into defense budgets despite the lack of a formal procurement plan from any service. 

Legislators have been generally supportive of the plan given the benefits light attack aircraft could offer the Air Force during conventional, as well as special operations during more limited conflicts. The smaller, cheaper to operate planes would help ease the strain on over-worked combat jets in low-risk environments. Since the aircraft require far less infrastructure and logistics support that fast-flying jets, as well, with a large fleet, the Air Force could also disperse them to multiple locations within a theater to provide flexible and persistent support.

The Marines still have their own requirement for light attack aircraft and could easily decide to join a joint program with the Air Force, which could help share the budget burden and boost the total purchase order. This all should have, at least in part, informed Air Force decision making before now.

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An F-16 Viper fighter jet rolls away after refueling during operations over Afghanistan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the continued uncertainty over who would use the light attack aircraft and where has already prompted concerns that the Air Force might seek to cut the program entirely depending on how the U.S. defense budget for the 2020 Fiscal Year shakes out. As recently as Dec. 3, 2018, President Donald Trump had been publicly talking about cutting federal government spending across the board in the next fiscal cycle.

There's also the matter of the Air Force historically resisting the adoption of light attack aircraft in general. A similarly confused debate over roles in missions, together with budget cuts, doomed the Air Force’s last light attack aircraft procurement plan, known as the Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program, in 2012. The Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, General Norton Schwartz, had flatly rejected a concept, developed within ACC, to integrate those aircraft more widely into the service's operations.

The current state of the LAA program is also reminiscent of the Air Force's handling of the C-27J light airlifter amid disputes with the U.S. Army. Those aircraft also ended up dispersed to special operations units, albeit Army ones, as well as the Coast Guard and other federal agencies.

Light attack aircraft could also help the Air Force meet its new, self-imposed goal of 386 operational squadrons, but also keep costs to a minimum. This plan will require adding dozens of new units, but does not explicitly include expanding manned close air support-focused elements. With the service also still planning to start retiring its fleet of A-10 Warthogs in the coming years, the LAA program could help those units continue on performing similar missions and retain their extensive close air support skills sets and knowledge base.

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A pair of US Air Force A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft fly in formation with a Colombian Air Force Super Tucano, in the foreground.

On Dec. 9, 2018, POLITICO reported that Trump may have reversed course on the budget after further consultations with Defense Secretary James Mattis and prominent congressional Republicans. Democrats, who are set to take control of the House of Representatives in January 2019, have said they will still push for cuts to certain defense programs.

The president’s budget proposal is due to come out in February 2019. The Air Force says this will include the first formal outlay of how many light attack aircraft it plans to buy and when.

How many planes the Air Force says it intends to purchase will have an impact on where they go within the service and could determine whether they actually enter service at all.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com