USAF's New Excuses For Delaying Light Attack Aircraft Program Sound Like A Death Sentence

The service now wants to expand its light attack effort to include platforms it has now, shifting the focus away from the one it desperately needs.

Brazilian Air Force

The Air Force's top officer says the service had to put its most recent light attack aircraft program on hold to gather yet more data on how it might use such these planes and how they might operate together with attack helicopters, armed drones, and other platforms. He also implied that there had been a lack of interest from potential foreign partners. Beyond simply ignoring the service's own glaringly obvious need for this capability, these arguments for putting the program on ice are dubious at best and appear to be a pretext for outright canceling the effort, if it isn't effectively dead already.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein offered his latest take on what has most recently been known as the Light Attack Aircraft (LAA) program in an interview with Defense News on Jan. 26, 2019. The Air Force had announced it was shelving the LAA effort indefinitely earlier in January. It had planned to issue a formal request for proposals in December 2018.

In August 2018, the Air Force had alerted potential vendors of the upcoming competition. At the same time, however, the service bluntly stated that it had determined that the A-29 Super Tucano and AT-6C Wolverine, both single-engine turboprop aircraft, were likely to be the only aircraft that would meet its requirements. Brazil’s Embraer, in cooperation with Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), had supplied an A-29 for two rounds of experiments between 2017 and 2018, while Textron had provided one of its AT-6Cs. Textron's Scorpion light jet and the AT-802L Longsword armed crop duster from Air Tractor and L3 had participated in the first phase of evaluations, as well.

Goldfein told Defense News that the Air Force had decided against issuing the request for proposals in the end because of uncertainty about the upcoming budget proposal for the 2020 Fiscal Year, which is now due out in a matter of days. He said the service had not yet finished crafting its over-arching strategy for employing light attack aircraft, either.

We don't know what the Air Force's final plans for the LAA program might have looked like, but a report that the Pentagon's Office of the Director of Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E, released on Jan. 31, 2019, said the service could have bought a fleet of 359 aircraft, enough for eight operational squadrons and three training units. Purchases would have begun after a contract award sometime in 2019.

It is not clear whether this reflected a maximum purchase order, since, by December 2018, senior Air Force officials were already talking about a potential fleet of less than 100 aircraft. In August 2018, now-retired U.S. Air Force General Ellen Pawlikowski, then head of Air Force Materiel Command, had talked about the service purchasing as few as 20 of the planes. It is also important to remember that DOT&E report covers activities during the 2018 Fiscal Year, which ended on Sept. 30, 2018, meaning the information therein is at least four months old. The Air Force has already confirmed that the details are no longer accurate.

“What is the right mix of fixed wing, rotary wing, manned and unmanned that can do the business of light attack?” Goldfein said in his interview with Defense News about how the service is now looking to move forward with the program. “What is the right mix and how do we bring allies and partners in right now with us – not just periodically parachute in – but how do we expand this experiment to bring them into the tent with us?”  

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Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein, in the green flight suit, shakes hands with Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson while standing next to an AT-6C aircraft in 2017.

Goldfein's comments are in line with statements that Under Secretary of the Air Force Matt Donovan, the service’s number two civilian, had made to reporters when he announced the indefinite suspension of the LAA program after an Air Force Association event on Jan. 18, 2019. “We're going to broaden the scope a little bit,” he said, without offering any details.

The Air Force's top officer certainly offered more context, but one can only reasonably describe these arguments as nonsensical. The most immediately maddening claim is that the Air Force has been unable to properly craft a light attack strategy, whatever types of aircraft it might include, based on the information it already has or can readily obtain from its sister services.

The seemingly perpetual need to collect more data has been a routine talking point since the Air Force’s most recent light attack experiment, known variously as the Capability Assessment of Non-Developmental Light Attack Platforms or Combat Dragon III, began in 2017. As we at The War Zone have pointed out repeatedly, the idea that this is the case strains credulity.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, it remains important to remember that various branches of the U.S. military have now conducted evaluations involving either the A-29 or the AT-6C, or both aircraft, in the light attack role, on no less than six separate occasions since 2007. In 2008, the staff at the headquarters of Air Combat Command's, the Air Force's main warfighting command, also drafted a specific "enabling concept" regarding the employment of a light attack aircraft, then referred to notionally as OA-X, which could also perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) functions.

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Members of the Air National Guard look at an AT-6C on display during another evaluation of this type in 2010.

Then, between 2008 and 2012, the Air Force managed two separate light attack aircraft efforts, one for itself and one primarily on behalf of foreign partners, known as Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) and Light Air Support (LAS) respectively. The LAAR program, its own saga you can read about in more detail here, imploded in ways that mirror what has happened to the latest LAA effort and ultimately got cut from the budget, ostensibly due to shrinking overall defense spending due to sequestration.

However, the Air Force did pick the A-29 as the winner of the LAS program and subsequently helped deliver those planes to Afghanistan. In 2014, Air Education and Training Command’s (AETC) then reactivated the 81st Fighter Squadron to fly these exact same aircraft to train Afghan pilots. 

The 81st has been flying A-29s ever since, developing their own knowledge base about the light attack mission and incorporating lessons learned from their Afghan partners' actual combat experience with the type. Lebanese Air Force pilots are now in the mix, too, after receiving their own Super Tucanos via the U.S. military. “The squadron is the only combat mission ready fighter squadron in AETC,” according to the unit’s official webpage.

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An A-29 Super Tucano assigned to the 81st Fighter Squadron.

Outside of the Air Force, the U.S. military, primarily through U.S. Special Operations Command, has also conducted another serious and thorough evaluation of the Super Tucano, as part of a program known as Imminent Fury, and has pursued other light attack aircraft efforts. This includes the deployment of two OV-10G+ Bronco aircraft to Iraq in 2015 as part of a field test in actual combat known as Combat Dragon II.

Now, Goldfein’s appears to be implying that the Air Force has to take additional time to develop a light attack strategy that better takes into account the possible contributions of larger combat jets, attack helicopters, and armed unmanned aircraft. If this is true, the only sensible question should be, why is this only happening now?

Beyond its obvious fleets of combat jets, the Air Force, as well as other U.S. military services, has been actively operating armed drones for nearly two decades. The idea and practice of pairing fixed-wing attack aircraft with armed helicopters dates back to before the Vietnam War.

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A US Air Force A-1E Skyraider attack aircraft escorts a CH-3C helicopter during a combat search and rescue mission in South Vietnam in 1966.

More importantly, the Air Force program to acquire a fixed-wing light attack aircraft was always supposed to be an additive capability, not a complete replacement for any one of these other platforms. The primary benefit of acquiring light attack planes has always been to provide an alternative to higher-end combat jets and bombers in low-risk environments, and a very cost-effective one at that in order to ease any concerns about breaking the budget.

This would free up those other aircraft up for missions that actually require their particular attributes. Light attack aircraft also require far less infrastructure to support and can operate with a smaller overall footprint, offering added operational flexibility. Being able to rapidly redeploy to sites closer to the target area would also allow the planes to maintain a more persistent presence over particular portions of the battlefield, flying armed overwatch or ISR missions in addition to close air support sorties.

They can do all of this at a fraction of the average cost per flight hour to operate even the Air Force's most cost-conscious combat jet, the A-10. But none of this obviates the requirement for higher-end aircraft entirely, even in limited conflicts. It certainly doesn’t fully eliminate the separate utility of armed helicopters or unmanned aircraft in those settings.

It's all about force management. Relying heavily on combat jets such as the F-16C/D Viper and F-15E Strike Eagle, and even the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, to perform these low-risk missions created an unsustainable demand for those aircraft. The result has been a visibly negative impact on the readiness of those fleets. Without light attack aircraft as alternatives, these issues will only become pronounced as the Air Force expands its reliance on the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, which is even more costly to operate.

US Army

US Army AH-64 Apache gunships at a forward operating location during operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

So it's even more glaring that, in his interview with Defense News, Goldfein sought to shift blame onto potential foreign partners for the apparent lack of interest in light attack aircraft and a demand for a broader mix of capabilities. The desire for international participation has also long been another major talking point for the Air Force regarding its most recent light attack effort, even though not one single country has ever confirmed an active interest in joining the program.

“Some countries, it actually would be better to have an unmanned option. Some countries, [it] would be better to have a rotary-wing option,” Goldfein said. “Some countries would do fixed wing, but [only with a] turbojet [engine].”

The reality that certain platforms work better in certain environments is a meaningless truism. It also ignores the fact that many of America's partners and allies, including other first world countries, that would be interested in a fixed-wing turboprop light attack aircraft, such as the A-29 or AT-6C, already operate aircraft in those roles or are pursuing their own efforts.

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US Air Force pilots stand next to a Colombian A-29 light attack aircraft.

Just with regards to the A-29, the U.S. military itself has facilitated the delivery of Super Tucanos to Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Nigeria since 2012. It calls into question why the Air Force feels the need to create a new multi-national program when it effectively has one right now. On top of that, numerous other countries have purchased these aircraft directly from Embraer for training and light attack missions, further reducing the pool of countries who might be interested in buying another set of light attack planes, too.

Iraq also received a number of AC-208 Combat Caravan aircraft in the 2000s via the United States and the Pentagon is now helping Afghanistan buy the latest version of this plane, now known as the Eliminator. IOMAX AT-802i armed crop dusters went to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and then Jordan with the help of the U.S. government. Domestic politics in Kenya have held up another American-sponsored deal for the similar AT-802L Longsword. 

There have been additional direct sales of American-made types, including IOMAX’s latest offering, the Archangel, to foreign countries. It would take too long to list all of the countries that have used existing U.S. government foreign military assistance constructs to acquire combat jets and attack helicopters of various types.

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An AT-802L Longsword.

When it comes to foreign sales of armed unmanned aircraft such as the now-retired MQ-1 Predator, or other larger designs such as the MQ-9 Reaper, the U.S. government is, right or wrong, hamstrung by its adherence to international arms control regimes. This is an entirely separate issue that no expanded Air Force program would ever be able to get around on its own.

All of this notwithstanding, there is simply no reason why the Air Force’s light attack efforts should ever be beholden to foreign demand for this type of aircraft. “LAA will provide an affordable, non-developmental aircraft intended to operate globally in the types of Irregular Warfare environments that have characterized combat operations over the past 25 years,” the service said in its own contracting notice in August 2018.

Foreign involvement, or lack thereof, doesn’t change the Air Force’s own need for this capability or the benefits that light attack planes would offer as part of the existing mix of manned and unmanned aircraft and helicopters the U.S. military already has. Exports to allies won't solve the service's own glaring problem of flying the wings off its tactical jet fleets for missions that a far simpler aircraft could perform more effectively at a fraction of the cost. If going down this road alone is somehow actually a show-stopper, it could easily look to partner up with the Marine Corps, which also has a standing requirement for a light attack aircraft for the same reasons.

But cooperation at home or abroad doesn't seem to be the real issue at play, anyway. By talking about the ability of other platforms to fill the Air Force’s gap in light attack aircraft capability, Goldfein is implicitly setting up the argument that these systems are adequate substitutes. 

This is a rhetorical ploy the Air Force has also used, unsuccessfully, in the past to push for the retirement of the A-10 Warthog ground attack aircraft. The service does have separate requirements for an actual A-10 replacement, too, but has kept them hidden away in bureaucratic limbo more than two years now, a story we at The War Zone were first to report.

The truth of the matter is that, despite many public pronouncements to the contrary, by every real indication, the Air Force has never been serious about this latest light attack program. Goldfein’s latest statements don't show that anything has changed in that regard and also indicates that the service is beginning to lay out official reasoning, no matter how obviously contrived, for finally canceling the LAA program officially in the near future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com