Spencer100 said:Here is an article that is interesting on this very topic
MAY 3, 2017 @ 01:45 PM
Back To The Future: Why The U.S. Needs A Light Turboprop Attack Aircraft
GUEST POST WRITTEN BY
Col. Michael Pietrucha
The author is a member of the U.S. Air Force Strategic Studies Group.
Throwback. Backwards. Illogical. Three words used recently to describe an emerging U.S. Air Force initiative to field light attack aircraft of a type not operated by U.S. forces since Vietnam. Aircraft that are compact, lethal, relatively inexpensive and easy to support in the field. Powered by a turboprop engine, looking remarkably like their forebears from the Second World War, they often inspire an emotional reaction that equates the design features negatively with older concepts, now long past.
To some of the combat aviators who have been deeply embroiled in continuous conflict since 9/11, they’re a no-brainer.
This discussion of options for new airplanes is no longer academic. This summer, the Air Force will engage in a light attack experiment at Holloman AFB, which may be followed by a combat demonstration the likes of which has not been carried out by the Air Force since Vietnam.
If you’re prepared to take advice from individuals with no aviation background at all, this should worry you deeply. But if you’re prepared to concede, maybe, that professional aviators with extensive combat experience haven’t suddenly lost their minds, then it should become immediately obvious that there might be some utility in light attack. Certainly it has historical roots – The Navy, Marines and Air Force all used light attack aircraft in Vietnam. But just using the term doesn’t adequately describe the aircraft, or the reasons to consider them. Why a light attack aircraft?
Light attack aircraft were just that – smaller attack aircraft like the A-37 Dragonfly or Navy OV-10, with significant weapons loads but not designed to stand up in the front of the apocalyptic Soviet/NATO battlefield. For the Air Force, the long path to considering a new attack aircraft started in 2008. Faced with increasing airpower demand in Iraq and Afghanistan, the existing fighters were being wrung out. For the kind of air support we were providing for U.S. ground forces, the existing F-16, F-15E and Navy / Marine F-18 were a ridiculous overmatch. Recall that by 2008, the Air Force and Naval aviation had been in continuous combat since January 16, 1991, and a decade and a half later the strain was showing. Meeting airpower demand with expensive, high end aircraft was the only option we had, and we were flying their wings off. We still are.
First, we had to define the aircraft. At Air Combat Command, a handful of aviators wrote the concept for OA-X, OA meaning observation/attack, and X meaning something we didn’t have a number for yet (not meaning experimental, as some have written). We started with historical examples – the aircraft we used to fight an insurgency in the jungles of Vietnam. The first example was the A-1 Skyraider, a hulking behemoth of an airplane with a massive, 18-cylinder radial engine designed as a carrier aircraft and transferred to the Air Force in 1964 after the Navy retired them. Alongside, the OV-10. The OV-10 Bronco, a new-build, twin-turboprop observation aircraft used as a forward air controller by the Air Force and as an attack aircraft by the Navy and Marines. What the authors envisioned with OA-X was a modern turboprop aircraft with advanced sensors and precision weapons just like a modern fast jet. But we also wanted aircraft that could be forward deployed to austere airfields, fueled from 55-gallon drums, and supplied from the back of a pickup truck – none of which a jet can easily do. And we needed it to be relatively cheap to buy and to operate. In short, we envisioned an aircraft that looked like earlier designs, with the weapons and sensors of a modern jet.
These aircraft existed. I had seen the A-29 Super Tucano in Colombia in 2007. Raytheon had a conversion of their T-6 trainer (the AT-6) that included a weapons capability. What we were looking for was off the shelf stuff, not needing a long development period. For combat operations in the Middle East, this seemed like a good match. The aircraft that existed were two-seaters with light armor, good day/night electro-optical sensors, guns, and precision munitions. Unrefeueled, they had twice the loiter time of the fast jets. They sipped fuel – the fuel they burned in an hour of flight approximated the fuel an F-15E used taxiing from parking to the runway. We were looking at traditional attack aircraft – combat aircraft that could be used for a wide array of missions from Close Air Support to interdiction to combat search & rescue. In 2009 these aircraft could have flown from a dozen US-operated airfields in Afghanistan that could not have supported fast jets.
But making the case to an Air Force that had always been able to afford very high-end aircraft took time. The Air National Guard tested the AT-6 from 2010 to 2014 and judged it “operationally suitable and operationally effective.” Ironically, it wasn’t the combat capabilities of the aircraft that made the strongest case – it was the health of the rest of the fighter / attack enterprise. A quarter century of continuous operations was wrecking the force – readiness was the worst ever measured, aircraft sustainment costs were climbing, and the Air Force had long since run out of the cockpits we needed to turn freshly-graduated aviators into seasoned fighter pilots. The F-35, as capable as it is, could only provide a limited number of cockpits, and those not enough to “absorb” the new pilots to keep the force healthy. By 2016 we were short almost a thousand experienced fighter pilots, and the shortage was getting worse. The Air Force was buying fighter aircraft at a rate so slow that it was going to take us 200 years to recapitalize even the shrunken, post-drawdown force. We needed to return to a healthy balance – and that meant buying more aircraft. As the concept moved forward into a planned flying experiment in the summer of 2017, resistance mounted.
Some objections were emotional. Turboprops were old, and suitable only for people too poor to afford jets. The objections to a turboprop were perhaps the most irrational, and the easiest to dispel with data. A modern turboprop is a computer-controlled marvel of engineering, and is the most efficient aircraft powerplant for the performance regime that we needed to operate in. It is easy to maintain and very resistant to ingested debris to be expected at forward airfields. Other objections were financial. Cost is always an issue, and under sequestration, the Air Force already has too much mission and not enough Air Force. But with the possibility of ending this self-destructive budget cap came the opportunity to buy new aircraft without taking the money from some other portion of an under-resourced service. The most pernicious objections came from industry, focused on what companies wanted to sell, rather than what the Air Force was looking for. In a flashback to the bad old days of acquisition, we heard over and over that a light jet was the solution – fuel demand, debris resistance, cost and maintenance requirements be damned. Jets were new, turboprops were old. But no jet had the characteristics we actually needed in a powerplant.
Other resistance relied on a panicked notion of the air defense threat. Suddenly, the widespread proliferation of “wish-you-were-dead” air defense weapons would end the usefulness of light attack aircraft. Except that such a proliferation isn’t happening, and if it did it would spell the end of a worldwide aviation enterprise. Really good air defenses are expensive and have to be sustained, and very few people can afford to buy the radar-guided threats, much less operate them. There really are places and scenarios where airpower is going to have a hard time operating, but those places are not ubiquitous. It’s not reasonable to expect that there will be a sudden surge of radar threats in the places where violent extremists are the most firmly entrenched – unless there are Russian or Chinese units nearby. So you can be assured that light attack aircraft are not intended for a radar threat environment. Not are they intended for an environment dominated by hostile fighters. Because that would be stupid.
That last issue deserves attention. Turboprop light attack aircraft are intended for lightly contested airspace, where the primary threats are guns and shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles, commonly known as MANPADS. This is the environment that has dominated the threat airspace over Iraq, Afghanistan, much of Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and almost the entire African continent. In fact, in the last 25 years, US combat operations have involved 176 days spent in contested airspace – and over 9400 calendar days outside it. Counting simultaneous operations like the no-fly zones as separate events, the total count of permissive days exceeds 17,000. That’s the environment in which we have been using up our highly capable legacy fighter / attack fleet, and it’s not going away.
In the most likely environment, OA-X would have three key survivability advantages over legacy jets.
They are quiet. It may not be obvious, but most gunners in an irregular warfare environment have to hear or see an aircraft to find it. They have no early warning system to feed them information. Our experience with AT-6 and A-29 on our training ranges are that they are very hard to hear. By the time you hear them, you’re in range of their weapons.
They are cool. Heat-seeking missiles rely on signatures from exhaust or hot metal, caused by friction with the air they fly through. The exhaust of the A-29s turboprop (the same as the AT-6C) is mixed with a strong propwash, and isn’t even hot enough to boil water by the time it reaches the trailing edge of the wing. The fastest moving part of the aircraft is the prop, which has to have special equipment built in to prevent ice from forming – the exact opposite of a heating problem. Add in the ability to detect missile launches and dispense flares, and the aircraft may well be less susceptible to the heat-seeking threat than any other fighter or attack aircraft in the inventory.
They’re small. Worst case, the AT-6 has less than half the exposed area of the A-10 when looking straight up at it. Best case, looking at it nose on, it presents an even smaller target. The A-29 is only a little bit larger that the AT-6 and I can attest that it’s hard to keep sight of your own wingman at distances where the larger jets maintain a visual formation. Small size makes an aircraft much harder to hit with gunfire, particularly with the obsolescent, aimed-by-eye, ex-Soviet antiaircraft guns fielded by insurgent groups worldwide. Joint experience with more than 15 years of warfare against violent extremists shows that fixed-wing aircraft moving faster than a helicopter only rarely get hit by small-arms fire, and they are not downed.
The alarmist among us can postulate about the proliferation of MANPADS but the reality is that comparable aircraft that stand out more in infrared would then be far more vulnerable that OA-X. That kind of air defense proliferation that would render OA-X unusable is extremely unlikely for the same reason that not everybody owns a new Lexus (cost, shortage of dealerships, supply limits, poor credit, etc). Yes, there are plenty of missiles and guns, but gunners able to hit moving targets, maneuvering in three dimensions, with countermeasures – those are hard to find.
The Air Force could make excellent use of light attack aircraft. We are experimenting with them for a reason – because we already wish to confirm that their attributes (precision, firepower, low footprint, low cost of ownership, low logistical burden) are exactly what we need to provide responsive, deployable and effective airpower against violent extremists worldwide – an expectation that the Joint Force continues to have. We need more cockpits to alleviate our shortage of fighter pilots and to improve readiness. There are objections to light attack, the most telling being that the Air Force cannot afford any new aircraft without additional funding from Congress to buy them. Other objections fall by the wayside when we look at the available data, and we intend to capture more, and soon.
Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha is a serving officer who was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions and taking part in 2.5 SAM kills over 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Colonel Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of US Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.
GR66 said:I don't doubt that a turboprop light-attack aircraft would be a very useful and cost-effective system in the vast majority of the world's conflict zones. Hell if you could have one that was built domestically you'd have the added bonuses of Canadian jobs producing our aircraft as well as the potential to export an affordable aircraft (and provide non-combat training assistance) to less wealthy allied states that are involved in conflicts.
I think however that the nature of the aircraft however is the very reason that it's not a good fit for Canada. It's designed for down in the weeds, in your face death and destruction. That's not really a role that the Canadian government (of any party) has in recent decades been very willing to endorse. While probably quite survivable in most modern conflict zones we're likely to face, there IS more risk of combat losses when you fly low and slow and expose yourself to enemy ground fire.
Probably just as bad in a Canadian context is that we'd be seen quite visibly as an aggressor. A dot high up in the air dropping a laser-guided munition doesn't have the same visual and emotional impact as a CAS aircraft dropping down low (in clear camera range) and destroying things...possibly even some things that were not intentional. Even when we're fighting we like to be seen as the ones trying to stop wars rather than participating in them. Even supplying these aircraft to allies and training their pilots would run the risk that we'd take the blame for any use of the aircraft (intentional or accidental) that doesn't match the expectations of the Canadian public.
The net result for Canada would be that you'd have an aircraft (and all it's infrastructure) sitting undeployed in Canada with no real useful domestic role to fill. If something so bad happens internationally that our government is prodded into a significant military response where public support exceeds our reluctance to be seen killing, then it's likely to be one of those rare military situations where we're fighting a more advanced foe and a light attack aircraft probably won't be the right tool.
These might be an excellent tool for the USA or other countries that are willing to use their military forcefully, but in my opinion they would be a waste of resources for Canada.
.. except, I do not believe GR66 was arguing for Canada to not have CAS. I believe he was arguing against buying something cheap, for permissive combat environments only, that would take resources away from a capability that can be employed in high & low threat environments.daftandbarmy said:Which is still probably not a good enough reason to NOT have CAS integral to the CAF, especially as we continually work under the US CAS umbrella when it comes down to a real fight. Or just an average day on patrol somewhere.
MCG said:.. except, I do not believe GR66 was arguing for Canada to not have CAS. I believe he was arguing against buying something cheap, for permissive combat environments only, that would take resources away from a capability that can be employed in high & low threat environments.
SupersonicMax said:We have a CAS capability that was successfully employed in Iraq.