Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Air Force Declines To Buy Light Attack Aircraft

Almost every reasonable person recognizes that the very low end kind of air activities we often engage in (plinking pickup trucks, for example) simply don’t require a carrier and a front line F-18 jet.  A simple propeller driven plane is more than adequate.  After years of pressure the Air Force seemingly bowed to the inevitable and reasonable and began the process of evaluating and acquiring a simple prop plane.  

Or did they?

It appears that their “interest” was all for show and they have no intention of acquiring a small, simple, prop plane.

The Air Force won’t issue a Request For Information on possible Light Attack aircraft, originally scheduled to come out December, in favor of doing a lot more experiments, Air Force Undersecretary Matt Donovan told reporters this morning. (1)

“I wouldn’t expect an RFI any time soon,” Donovan told [Breaking Defense]. (1)

We know exactly what the candidate aircraft can do.  There’s nothing left to “experiment” with.  This is just the Air Force’s way of saying they have no intention of purchasing anything less than a state of the art, front line, jet aircraft.  This is the Air Force’s not very subtle, “screw you”, to everyone who suggested a prop plane. 

Okay, this is interesting in a disappointing way but, let’s be honest, not all that much of a surprise, is it?  The Air Force doesn’t want the A-10, the best close air support aircraft ever built so it’s not likely they’re going to run right out and buy a prop plane for ground support, right? 

So, this is a pathetic development from the Air Force but, hey, this is a Navy blog so why do we care?  Well, you may recall that ComNavOps has proposed a two-tier, peace-war force structure (see, "Hi-Lo, War-Peace") and has suggested that a very simple carrier, quite similar to a WWII Essex, combined with a basic prop plane air wing would take care of the vast majority of our peacetime ground support requirements.  I was hoping that the Air Force’s selection of a prop plane would pave the way for a Navy prop plane.  Unfortunately, this now appears to not be the case.  The Navy is going to continue to use up flight hours on already overstressed front line aircraft carrying out worthless mundane missions. 

Seriously, a Chinese agent couldn’t sabotage our military as badly as we’re doing to ourselves!


(1)Breaking Defense website, “No Light Attack Planes Any Time Soon: Air Force Undersecretary ”, Colin Clark, 18-Jan-2019,


  1. The Air Force has been avoiding prop planes as far back as the 80s, when it was suggested that CAS and COIN air support could be provided by prop aircraft in a similar ballpark to the P-51 Mustang; the USAF's reasoning at the time was that prop planes were not survivable due to the proliferation of Soviet MANPADS. Now... well, they just dont want prop planes for COIN.

    I suspect that the unnamed allies mentioned in the link are more interested in shopping for an A-4/F-5 equivalent, rather than a Super Tucano. The sort of conflicts the US has been getting into over the last 30 years aren't really the sorts of things its allies are getting involved in.

    Funnily enough though, an A-10 pilot I ran into was utterly dismissive of the idea of using prop planes for COIN missions; as I understood him, prop planes dont have the same payload and loiter time that an A-10 brings to the table, which is well worth the extra money you're spending on the A-10. On the other hand, his bias was pretty obvious. :V

  2. This seems like abdication on the part of Congress. If we are fighting endless insurgency wars why are we using top line aircraft. Columbia does not and by in large the FARC was not downing their prop driven aircraft (if ever). The Taliban are not shooting down drones in droves in Pakistan nor are Boko Haram.

    Somebody needs to ask why we can't support COIN the why everyone on a budget does w/o loosing aircraft.

  3. The AF has 93 Reapers. They provide the bulk of COIN sorties.

    The aircraft considered for the light attack requirement are too short ranged to be useful. They're fine for South American countries, who have air strips all over their country. But in places like Syria, we have to fly hundreds of miles to get to the fight from Turkey or Iraq.

    If we want cheaper, manned aircraft, they need to have much more range and endurance, with payload, than prop trainers.

    1. You're latching onto one specific scenario to justify not using light aircraft for anything. That's disingenuous, at best, and foolish, at worst.

      How many months and years did we spend sending carriers and front line aircraft to plink pickup trucks in Iraq? We spent years plinking in Afg where we had all the air bases we could need. And so on.

      No one, except you, is suggesting sending prop planes into Syria. The threat level is too high. You need to understand the scope of the concept.

    2. The same argument applies to other theaters. We have Reapers to do the low end COIN job, and little prop trainers don't have useful range and endurance with payload.

    3. Where were all those Reapers while the F-18s were plinking pickup trucks? The Navy ran through a LOT of flight hours on Hornets doing mundane tasking. In fact, most flights returned with unexpended ordnance.

      Reapers are also expensive. A Reaper group costs $60M-$70M and includes aircraft, ground control stations, multiple pilots, and comm units. By comparison, a Super Tucano costs around $9M and only needs one pilot.

      You're making a very disingenuous statement that prop planes don't have the range or endurance. No one is asking them to loiter for 24 hours, just go out, plink a truck or whatever, and return. That doesn't take much range or endurance. The Marines love to tout the F-35B as being able to rise out of tiny bases carved out of the jungle (fraudulent claim but they make it) - well, the little prop planes are the epitome of being able to operate from an austere base.

      Wiki lists a combat radius of 550 km for a Tucano. That's plenty. We're not asking them to conduct intercontinental bombing.

      As far as weapons load, we're not asking them to conduct massive, suppressive area bombing - just plink a truck or hit terrorist. That doesn't require a massive weapons load.

      If you'd like to argue against a prop plane, do so with some degree of objectivity and facts.

    4. They already had the perfect plane for this and they passed it up despite it performing great in Iraq and Syria. The OV-10X had it all: Tested and cheap airframe? Check. Payload and loiter? Check. Rugged, STOL? Check. Carrier capable? Check.

      But the AF wouldnt even let it compete for the light attack role.

    5. Yep, that would be a good one. The old Skyraider would be another.

    6. The Skyraider was great, although that one might be harder to bring back because no one makes rotary engines anymore. I would love to see someone take another crack at the A2D. Seemed like it maximized the A-1 potential but couldnt get over its wonky engine.

    7. "The old Skyraider"

      Which on a quick read is superior to both options the Air force and Navy have been looking at. It notably did solid service in a Real war were the enemy shot back with some tenacity and had to migs.

      Of course if the Navy's F_18 are over worked maybe they should have kept the A-6 about you know and filled up the CVs to capacity.

    8. "Of course if the Navy's F_18 are over worked maybe they should have kept the A-6 about you know and filled up the CVs to capacity."

      A modernized A-6 would be just as overworked. We need a very simple, very cheap option for the low end work. We also need a low end, Essex-ish carrier so that we aren't wasting Nimitz class carriers on this type work. The carriers are just as overworked and undermaintained as the aircraft.

    9. Where is the key flaw however with Congress or the Navy. Does the navy only reward those who advocate for all high tech all the time. Or is it the Congress where their heads are turned by shiny objects. Not a presentation about how the operating cost of a skyraider is X time less than a F-18 and we figure over 10 years in A-stan we could save XX amount of money with little risk. Cue Senator '...but it does not look as cool as the F-22'.

      Or is it both together.

    10. The blame is 100% with the Navy. They are the professional warriors. It is their job to choose the appropriate weapons and systems and then present the rationale to Congress. The Navy has never said, "we can do the job with an old Skyraider so that's all we want". Why have they never said that? Because it would result in a decrease in their budget.

      Congress would love to reduce the defense budget and go spend the "bonus" on some new welfare project. Congress simply, and largely, goes along with what the professional warriors ask for. That "too willingness" to rubber stamp the military's toy list is, I guess, a failing of Congress and you can blame them to a degree but the vast majority of them know nothing about military hardware and simply trust the military to tell them the best solution. The military is betraying that trust.

    11. Couldn't OV-10s operate off the LHDs?

  4. IMHO; the only way the AF is ever going to show actual interest in single engine turboprop FAS, is if the army threatens to eat their lunch.

    The army should lobby congress for permission to field armed single-engine turbo-props; based on the fact that the AF doesn't have any and doesn't want any. The AF would arm all their Texans overnight, just to keep the army down.

    The marines could and should field something; but they're too poor from playing with Ospreys and F-35s to afford the aircraft they actually need.

    1. The air force has a habit of winning these inter-service squabbles when it comes to aircraft, just look at what happen to the Army's planned C-27J project. AF took it over and ended up bone-yarding all the planes as surplus to requirement.

      I assume if the Army developed or acquired a prop COIN/CAS, it would only end up sharing the fate of the C-27J.

    2. "C-27J"

      Which looks the USAF went to a great deal of trouble to deny the Army its necessary buy (the cost in operation looks significantly cheaper than the helicopter hours that were supposed to be replacing)of what looks a very good order. In order to turn around and kill the plane once they acquired them.

  5. Jeopardy category, CAS aircraft for 2m$
    A plane that has great loiter time, big payload, carrier ready and is prop driven.

    That would be an A1 Skyraider, Alex.
    Note: A2d Skyshark turbo prop was prototyped.


  6. "Almost every reasonable person recognizes that the very low end kind of air activities we often engage in (plinking pickup trucks, for example) simply don’t require a carrier and a front line F-18 jet. A simple propeller driven plane is more than adequate."

    Request permission to be unreasonable!

    I'll avoid rehashing the arguments over what turbo props can and cannot do, and simply ask, why CAS at all?

    In a serious war, there isn't going to be enough air power for air superiority, deep strike and supporting the main effort, the vast majority of requests for air support will be ignored, that was a frequent complaint in the First Gulf war, the main effort got covered, but everyone else, no chance.

    CAS is going to be the exception, not the rule.

    So, if the Army/Marines cant simply exist solely to provide targeting data to air platforms, what needs to be done to reduce the requirement for close air support to the exceptional few cases in which it will be available.

    1. You have completely missed the operational concept here. We are NOT, repeat NOT, talking about CAS for war. We're talking about the very low end, no threat, anti-terrorism type of activity that we now use front line aircraft to do: plinking trucks, checking out a suspected terrorist location, dropping the odd bomb on a sniper, blowing up a ISIS gas truck.

      "In a serious war,"

      This discussion is the farthest thing from a serious war scenario. Instead of a Nimitz battle group and an air wing of overstressed Hornets getting used up, we can plink trucks with a prop plane.

      Do you understand the scope of this discussion now?

    2. "why CAS at all?"

      This is actually a very good question. We've gotten so lazy that every patrol that gets ambushed instantly calls for air support. A patrol should have the recon and tactical intelligence to avoid an ambush and if one happens they should have the firepower to deal with it. We've lost the ability to decisively engage with our ground forces and this will not serve us well come real war.

      I applaud your question and agree with the thrust of it. We've become lazy and dependent on a capability that won't be readily available in real war.

    3. In a strange way, USN and Army/USMC are kind of going in the same general direction: light, no heavy weapons and the hope that everybody being able to talk to everybody will somehow even the playing field when the light troops or ship drones get into trouble, they will just call in a air strike from over the horizon. Nobody does their homework anymore and worry about an ambush or lose of coms, it will never happen, when we get into trouble, some fast mover will get us out of trouble. OK mindset when you are dealing with Hajji Bob (and even that's not true) but definitively wrong mindset against a peer like China. It just seems to me that we keep pushing to the REAR our heavy firepower which makes everything more complex, heavy and expensive when we should be trying to push the firepower FORWARD to the troops/sailors in contact with the enemy.


  7. In the current low-end wars we're in; CAS is the rule, and not the exception.

    There are no enemy factories or bridges to blow up. Buildings are not 'enemy buildings' until Hajji Bob sets up an MG nest in a window. We have no way of knowing who's opfor, and who's freindly/nuetral until groundpounders eyeball them, or they start shooting.

    The real question IMHO, is; do Texan and Tucano style planes have the loiter and speed and payload for the role? The army and marines have tons of attack helps, but apparently they don't have the speed and persistence to make the A-10 irrelevent. The groundpounders love and want the Warthog. Even with Reapers camping out overhead, the A-10 has a special sauce that makes it indispensible. Would Tucs or Texans perform as budget A-10s, or are they still not quite enough?

    1. Do not confuse the very low end scenario in which prop planes are appropriate for higher level combat scenarios for which they're not appropriate. If you're asking about a comparison between an A-10 or attack helo and a prop plane then one of the two is being inappropriately considered for use.

      The prop plane concept is for the very low end, zero threat scenario. That doesn't require great range, loiter, or payload - just a couple bombs to plink a pickup truck or drop on a suspected sniper.

      If the threat is higher then we want a front line combat aircraft.

      There is no comparison between an A-10 and a Tucano nor should there be.

      Keep the operational concept firmly in mind.

    2. We're talking about military aircraft here. Speed, loiter, and payload ALWAYS matters. Even in regards to Airliners and Piper-Cubs; speed, loiter and payload matter.

      So yeah; What can a Texan or Tucano do, in either high or low threat environments, that a helicopter or A-10 can't do better?

      All I see is an operating cost benefit that may be negated by added supply-chain requirements.

      Buying additional aircraft for this role and standing up combat squadrons with Turboprop attackers probably wouldn't be worth it.

      BUUTT... Adding weapons capabilities to the trainers already in the fleet or that we already intend to purchase would not add much (if any) additional supply-chain stress and would make the current fleet more flexible and capable.

      You could transport a squadron of training aircraft to a low threat theatre, rotate through a squadron of fighter jocks while their F-22s sit back home, and save some money while plinking technicals. Then rotate the birds back to the school-house when you're done so the newbies can practice shacking bombs and popping flares.

    3. "What can a Texan or Tucano do, in either high or low threat environments, that a helicopter or A-10 can't do better? "

      You're completely missing the issue. It isn't a question of a small prop plane performing better than a purpose built, close air support aircraft like the A-10 or a front line carrier jet like the F-18. It's a question of the premature flight hours being racked up on front line aircraft performing minor, mundane missions that don't require the capabilities of the front line aircraft.

      A small, prop plane can accomplish much of the peacetime missions at a fraction of the cost while saving flight hours on the extremely expensive and hard to replace front line aircraft - that's the issue.

      I take it you know the figures on the premature "aging" of the F-18? I take it you know the figures on Marine and Navy aircraft availabilities? We simply cannot keep using them up on truck-plinking missions.

  8. I'm seeing a lot of confusion over the CONOPS that a manned light attack aircraft fulfills. It seems CNOps is in favor of this platform largely to economically supplement our UAV force for COIN in "very low threat" environments; Afghanistan on a good day, not Syria.

    I like the concept of the two-tier force, and of a COIN light attacker, but...

    We should beware the assumption that MANPADS are no longer a serious threat. Today they're not very prolific for various reasons including a limited ability to target high altitude UAVs firing even glide bombs, never mind hellfires. However, if we field a true CAS attacker in quantity, we should expect to encounter a lot more MANPADS. That doesn't negate the concept, but it should inform the requirements.

  9. As a wildcard, what about airships? Long endurance, low costs. Park one at high altitude, easy to operate even from merchant ships with very little conversion. Decent payload of small practice-type bombs big (and cheap) enough to plink a truck or maybe a 20mm? How many prop sorties would it take to do the same job, how many crew? Might be cheaper....

    1. Coincidence, I too watched The Winter Soldier last night.
      Could an airship spend months over a target area providing precision support fires?
      Yes it could

      But why though?

      A company deployed to a village in Syria/Iraq/Afghanistan that sends a platoon out on patrol should have absolutely no problem providing over watch and support fires with a small Drone and 81mm / 105mm / 120mm mortars or guns.

      It should an extremely rare occurrence when that is not possible

    2. "Park one at high altitude, "

      You don't think some terrorist isn't going to hop in a small plane and suicide into it? It would be a tremendous PR coup.

    3. "A company deployed to a village in Syria/Iraq/Afghanistan that sends a platoon out on patrol should have absolutely no problem providing over watch and support fires "

      Spot on! Our ground combat forces have become tactically lazy, calling for air support at the slightest sign of trouble.

    4. A small plane would be unlikely to reach the required altitude (even assuming the pilot had oxygen). Also no reason that the airship won't have some self-defence.

    5. " unlikely to reach the required altitude ... Also no reason that the airship won't have some self-defence."

      How high is this airship going to be? How is it going to deliver "small practice-type bombs" from that altitude and hit a target as small as a truck? What kind of self defense is this going to have? Have you actually thought this through?

  10. For counterinsurgency-type operations, I would like to see a big airship, like the CL-160 from Cargolifter. I know Cargolifter went out of business, but the concept seemed sound. An airship that can lift more than a hundred tons, and stay aloft for weeks on end would be a fantastic platform for surveilance (an AWACs or JSTARS replacement) or for close air support (by mounting the PzH 2000), as well as the original idea of air-lifting main battle tanks and such.

    A big airship could be so useful and so adaptable, I can't believe SOMEBODY hasn't developed the thing.

  11. If helicopters can survive in a low threat environment, then prop planes going twice as fast should, also.

    It seems to me that the role of the prop plane would be to extend the radius of attack beyond the limits of a helo while engaging the same sort of targets, i.e. sniping trucks, at much less cost and RISK than a F-18 or the helo.

    Sarcasm: that just makes too much sense for the Navy and Air Force leadership to accept. Shame on our military leaders.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 7 days in order to reduce spam.