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Connecting Air Support Acquisitions and National Strategy: The Case for Again Fielding a Light Air Support Aircraft
The weakness of current aviation capabilities in terms of limited war must be faced and eliminated….the use of light aircraft is suitable, feasible and acceptable.[i]
- Majors Rice and Beckett, USMC (1960)
Since the advent of the jet fighter, strategists with an appreciation for low-intensity conflict have argued for a light attack air support platform optimized for limited war and low-intensity conflict. Aviation tacticians and strategists such as Majors Rice and Beckett effectively convinced decision-makers of the time to acquire a number of light air support platforms. Heeding the call, the services went on to produce numerous light attack and observation platforms including the O-2, OV-10, and A-37. They also made significant upgrades to the venerable A-1 Skyraider. These were often simplistically called counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft and proved themselves useful in Vietnam and in small wars of the period.
Fast-forward to today and there has been growing momentum for a light attack aircraft, a platform that the services have divested themselves of. Beyond being an aircraft optimized for COIN, a light air support platform has utility across current and future battlefields, helps to provide a balanced aircraft portfolio for the military services, and better supports our existing national strategies. It is time to acquire a light attack platform for all the military services.
This paper explores the light air support aircraft (hereafter referred to as the “LAS”) employing both the direct and the indirect approach. In the direct approach, there are compelling tactical and practical reasons to pursue the LAS. Indirectly, the aircraft better supports existing national strategies by strengthening at-risk states through the development of partner nation forces. The absence of this platform has challenged our current fighting force in Afghanistan and our strategic planners attempting to achieve our declared strategic “ends” in other parts of the world. This paper will reveal some of the arguments employed against the acquisition of such a platform. Finally, this paper explores plausible policy prescriptions for the LAS to better align means with strategies in pursuit of our national interests.
History and Features of the LAS
Recent conflicts have been characterized by lightly armed, mobile, and elusive enemies employing highly effective “improvised explosive devices” and light infantry weapons. Air supremacy and the absence of surface threats have transformed recent close air support (CAS) flight profiles. Current CAS aircraft fly in a manner more reminiscent of the early 20th century wars of national liberation: overhead, closely integrated with the ground force, and with limited threat to the platform. The demand for close, reactive, and persistent air support has recently trumped the speed, survivability, and maneuverability frequently required of high intensity conflict.[ii] While certainly not the CAS aircraft of choice for most medium to high intensity combat scenarios (particularly those with a significant surface to air threat), the last 20 years of experience in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated that there are many operating environments that present a low threat to CAS aircraft. When the operating environment presents limited to no threat to CAS aircraft, there are compelling reasons to integrate a light attack platform into the attack portfolio.
As interest in a light attack aircraft increased amid the on-going wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the USAF sought proposals for an armed, two-seated turboprop capable of conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), for expected delivery by 2013. Integrating into modern networks through data-link systems, full-motion downlink video, and a robust communications suite, the night-capable aircraft would operate from expeditionary airfields at low-cost. Specifications called for more than 4.0 hours of “on-station” time, delivery of precision ordnance, and provision of direct fire support from .50 caliber machine guns and 2.75” rockets.[iii] The LAS platform had to be capable of carrying most of the current Mk-82 series of bombs employed in theater, including the inertially aided joint direct attack munitions (JDAM), laser guided bombs (LGB), and dual-mode weaponry such as the laser JDAM.
The LAS provides a low to medium altitude platform that delivers a degree of protection and operational simplicity not found in attack helicopters. The targeting pod provides similar aerial observation characteristics at the current cruising altitudes of CAS aircraft in Afghanistan. At these medium altitudes, the aircraft can loiter for greater duration and employ guided bombs with relative standoff from some threat systems. As required, the aircraft can descend to lower altitudes in order to employ direct fire weapons in closer proximity to friendly forces.
Since inception, the program has been troubled by a series of contract disputes among competitors, legal claims, lobbying actions, and congressional interventions. U.S. aerospace company, Sierra Nevada Corporation, in partnership with the Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, has been awarded the contract to build the A-29 Super Tucano to fill the LAS requirement. The Super Tucano is a highly regarded and combat proven light air support aircraft built from the ground up to perform close air support. The contract has been awarded and challenged three times, delaying expected delivery to 2015.[iv] Originally calling for 100 aircraft to equip the fledgling Afghan Air Force (AAF) and prepare the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for similar future missions, the program has been cut to 20 aircraft through congressional, industry, and lobbying pressures.[v] All 20 aircraft will be transferred to the AAF, leaving no aircraft for the USAF.
Direct Approach: Balancing the Joint Force
The LAS will improve the operational effectiveness of the force through cost-saving measures and improved agility, facilitate joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) training, and preserve frontline fighter attack platforms (F-15, F-16, F-18, and A-10).
Introducing the LAS will accomplish CAS missions, such as those conducted in Afghanistan, more efficiently than current frontline fighter aircraft. Excessive fuel consumption and operating costs are the most significant limitation of current frontline fighters. “On-station” time is generally limited to no more than one hour (depending on distances, platforms, and flight profiles) before fighters must refuel with air-to-air tankers or return to an airfield.[vi] The LAS can remain “on-station” for more than four hours at a cost of $1200/flight hour. In addition to conducting CAS, a light attack platform can loiter over the battlefield and serve as a forward air controller (airborne), better enabling other aircraft through persistent overhead coverage. The LAS operates at 1/5th of the hourly cost of an A-10, 1/7th that of an F-16, and almost 1/15th the cost of an F-15E. Replacing one USAF fighter squadron in Afghanistan with an LAS squadron would save $200 million a year; replacing all USAF attack squadrons there would save over $1.5 billion a year.[vii] However, maintaining a balance of light attack and fighter attack aircraft in Afghanistan would be a hedge against possible threats.
The recent conflicts have dramatically increased the number of JTACs in the force. Growth of the JTAC community has professionalized the force but increased training burdens. Unable to support the required training with task-loaded frontline fighters, the services have often relied on contracted aircraft from licensed providers at nearly $10,000/flight hour.[viii] The LAS could provide a low-cost platform to conduct JTAC training.
Finally, since the Gulf War, operational flight hours have ballooned, threatening the long-term viability of platforms and driving up operating costs through costly service-life extension programs.[ix] Adding the LAS to the air support portfolio will increase the service-life for frontline fighters by absorbing the comparatively low-threat and long-duration missions in Afghanistan. At home, a light attack platform can perform observation and administrative duties during training at air to ground ranges, enabling fighter and attack aircraft to focus on maximizing their training. A balanced air support portfolio will provide more cost-effective platforms for today’s training and real-world operations and preserve frontline fighters for the demanding rigors of high-intensity conflict.
Indirect Approach: Developing the “Means” to the Achieve Strategic “Ends”
In addition to the “direct” reasons for the LAS, the platform will serve an equally important strategic role by linking national strategies (“ends”) with relevant and ready “means.”
Beyond the traditional “hard power” uses of the military, the 2010 National Security Strategy (NSS) articulates a number of other military missions that advance national interests, including the strengthening of partner nation capacity through training, advising, and assisting. The NSS calls for the development of Afghanistan’s forces to provide for their own security. It also calls for the prevention of emerging conflicts through investments in partners. Furthermore, it directs the Defense Department to strengthen capacities to partner with foreign counterparts.[x] Recently, President Obama reinforced that view, positing that a comprehensive national strategy should blend partnerships, diplomacy, nation assistance, and targeted actions to achieve objectives.[xi]
The National Defense Strategy (NDS) calls for distributed, “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches” to achieve security objectives, but cautions that the military won’t “be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.”[xii] Similarly and in theory, the 2011 National Military Strategy (NMS) identifies the broad military ends, ways, and means that support the national security strategy. While recognizing the continuing importance of security force assistance, the NMS fails to provide guidance to develop specific partnering capabilities among the military services.[xiii] As the objectives of our national security strategy filter through our formal strategy processes, the mismatch between those desired strategic “ends” and the “means” available to achieve those ends becomes greater. In short, the argument for acquiring a LAS capability is strongest when applying the guidance of our national security strategy. But the strength of the argument loses steam as the national strategy is translated into national military strategy. We’ll discuss reasons for this mismatch later.
As alluded to in the NSS, the LAS would support security sector assistance and strengthen at-risk states by providing a sustainable, responsible, and exportable platform to achieve U.S. security objectives. The LAS is an effective export platform for partner nations more concerned with threats to sovereignty (which lead states to prioritize constabulary, border control, and related missions) over high intensity combat operations. Our frontline air support platforms are expensive, complicated, and challenging to operate, maintain, and employ. Such platforms frequently exceed the absorptive capacity of the partner nation. The LAS would strengthen international security institutions by promoting interoperability, enhancing cooperative strategies, and improving regional security mechanisms.
International demand for light air support aircraft is significant. Embraer has recently sold its Super Tucano aircraft to Angola, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Guatemala, and Senegal and is poised to provide it to Nigeria and Afghanistan. It is also in use by Brazil, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, and Indonesia. The UAE has acquired a nearly identical capability in the Air Tractor AT-802i. The Philippines flies the OV-10 platform while Mexico and Iraq have reflected interest in the AT-6 for border security, ISR, and light air support. International demand for a light attack aircraft is noteworthy, and the U.S. is missing a significant foreign military sales opportunity that mutually reinforces American security interests.
Unfortunately, there is significant mismatch between existing capabilities within the U.S. arsenal for light air support and those capabilities demanded by our national strategies in Afghanistan and across the globe. The U.S. Air Force has over 2,000 fighter/ attack aircraft in the current inventory, none of which are sustainable CAS platforms for the AAF. After nearly 12 years of operations in Afghanistan, the Afghan air force has no fixed wing attack aircraft and remains highly dependent on the U.S. for air support.
Challenges to Acquiring a LAS Platform
Opponents argue four reasons against acquiring the LAS: It 1) has limited application across the spectrum of conflict; 2) lacks adequate force protection/ survivability; 3) threatens other aircraft acquisitions; and 4) will be replaced by unmanned aerial systems (UAS). We’ll discuss each of those arguments in turn.
First and most obviously, the LAS represents a specialized investment in a specific capability optimized for stability to meet strategic ends. Cognizant of the lessons learned in recent conflicts, there is an emerging sense among defense analysts that the United States requires capabilities beyond those optimized for high intensity conflict.[xiv] In synthesizing the lessons of post-Cold War modern conflicts, Dr. Lambeth of the RAND Corporation asserts that:
There will likely also be a need for new platforms optimized for lower-intensity warfare...[such as] relatively cheap manned light attack aircraft to be operated either by the USAF or by supported host-nation air arms that would allow more affordable battlespace persistence and effectiveness than today’s higher-end combat aircraft, now worn out from a decade of unrelenting COIN overuse, and tomorrow's even more costly F-35s in countering the less demanding hybrid challenges that will tend to predominate at the lower end of the future threat environment.[xv]
Critics of the LAS contend that our attack aircraft should be capable (like the F-16) of multiple missions across varying threat environments. Pursuit of the decisive attack aircraft, the “technological marvel of flight adapted to war” pervades the service culture of our USAF.[xvi] As a result, the LAS is seen as an impediment to the Air Force’s “vision of who it wants to be.”[xvii] The logic of multi-mission is that a premier aircraft can be employed in a low-threat environment, but a light air support aircraft cannot be used in a high-threat environment. Consequently, the frontline fighter, highly compromised or sub-optimized for low intensity conflict, is the only platform available for such duties. During extended stability operations such as the recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, employment of this sole option has come at a significant cost. While not totally ineffective in a high intensity conflict (on the contrary, it would have immense utility in rear area security and ISR), the LAS will not be the aircraft of choice for some threat environments. However, the long-term benefits in cost savings and operational agility (particularly in light of the two most recent conflicts) substantially outweigh the costs.
Second, opponents of the LAS assert that the aircraft is too vulnerable to surface threats. But force protection at any cost threatens the mission by shifting risk across today’s contiguous battlefield. Using fighters for air support during stability operations undoubtedly increases individual aircraft protection, but at a cost. Advanced fighters require a large number of maintainers. Force-manning levels are a highly scrutinized contemporary operational planning factor; each maintainer on the flightline means one less grunt on patrol. Furthermore, frontline fighters consume fuel prodigiously, requiring frequent refueling. As a result, the logisticians and ground commanders must protect the fuel convoys that support those fighter aircraft at significant cost. That fuel is trucked across geopolitical borders to ever-thirsty aircraft at enormous cost to policy-makers. In short, use of frontline fighter instead of fuel-efficient LAS aircraft transfers risk across the battlefield.[xviii] Just as every vehicle in the U.S. Army is not a tank, so too the fixed wing aviation services can better balance the force for the mission based on the expected threat.
Thirdly, pursuit of the LAS threatens the commercial viability of more costly and prolonged aircraft acquisitions. A study of contemporary history will show that the services, the industrial base (and lobbying groups), the voters, and congressional leaders spread across the country’s districts will continue to favor large, expensive weapons acquisition programs, often at the expense of more relevant programs like the LAS. In 2010, amid heavy lobbying by U.S. aircraft manufacturers, Congress blocked funding for an experimental U.S. Navy/ Special Operations Forces program to deploy four light attack aircraft (specially ordered Super Tucano aircraft, no less) to support operations in Afghanistan.[xix] The paradox of the DoD is that it is poorly structured to recognize, acquire, and deploy urgent equipment during wartime.[xx] For some, the LAS poses a very real threat to other acquisition priorities. Similarly, others view the LAS as a threat to the A-10, proposing instead that the USAF “recapitalize” that premier CAS platform for continued service. However, the LAS should not be considered a replacement for or an equal to this venerable platform, but as a mutually beneficial aircraft for frontline fighters and the entire attack aircraft “enterprise.” Unfortunately, these and other long-standing acquisition paradoxes will continue without a “concerted effort by the nation’s leadership in both the executive and legislative branches” to resolve such challenges.[xxi]
Finally, opponents argue that the UAS will supersede the LAS future air support requirements. While appealing (primarily because it removes a pilot from the risk equation), the unfortunate reality is that deployment of the UAS violates the call for “innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint” options. UAS platforms require a large maintenance and personnel footprint and a complex communications network. They are expensive to operate, complicated to employ, and vulnerable to electronic attack.[xxii] The LAS remains cheap to operate, easy to maintain, and invulnerable to electronic commandeering. Furthermore, the UAS is also limited by weather, when a manned platform is often capable of operating below cloud decks and weather systems. The UAS and LAS both have relevant utility in a future force, but the LAS provides more responsive and versatile air support for troops demanding immediate close air support.
Policy Prescriptions for the LAS
As the administration prepares to review, rewrite, and unveil an updated National Security Strategy (NSS), there is an opportunity to strengthen guidance to the DoD, services, industry, and the legislature for developing relevant and balanced capabilities like the light air support aircraft. As the new strategy percolates through updated National Defense and National Military Strategies, the NSS should provide a strong mandate for balanced programs such as the LAS.
In light of current strategic guidance and real-world operations, the acquisition program for 100 light attack aircraft should be reviewed and restored. The LAS best supports forces in Afghanistan and better enables future capacity building. Contingent on securing an acceptable bilateral security agreement (BSA) with Afghanistan, the fledgling AAF and the USAF will both benefit significantly from the LAS. Similarly, maintaining a limited LAS capability across the existing fixed wing operating forces supports JTAC and CAS training more efficiently, preserves the life of the aging fighter force, and provides an expandable capacity building role for the air support force. Using the current T-38 model (for the USAF, or the T-34 for the U.S. Navy), the LAS could be integrated into current wing structures to facilitate training, evaluation, and support.[xxiii] Furthermore, shared acquisition costs and burdens across the USAF, Marine Corps, Navy, and special operations forces would benefit the joint community by reducing costs and facilitating more advanced training.
Reflecting the challenges already highlighted and the current fiscal environment, acquisition of the LAS will require significant executive, congressional, and departmental leadership to steward this important platform through the trials and iniquities of our cumbersome acquisition process. But the time is now, as our inability to acquire an affordable, efficient, and flexible light air support platform has cost the U.S. directly and indirectly over the past 10 years. Directly, the absence of a LAS has wasted our national ‘blood and treasure,’ challenged training for our forces, and exhausted the service lives of our front-line fighters. Indirectly, the absence of the LAS has diminished long-term security sector assistance strategies developed to prevent conflict through aviation capacity building programs. It is time once more to heed the cyclical call of our aviation tacticians to develop, field, and maintain a relevant LAS platform for current and future conflicts.
[i] K.P. Rice and W.H Beckett. “The Need, Concept Of Operation And General Specifications For A Very Light S.T.O.L. Support Aircraft.” http://www.combatreform.org (1960): Web. Accessed 15 November 2013.
[ii] Eric H. Biass and Wesley Fox. "Baseline Aircraft on Steroids." Armada International 36.4 (2012): 22.
[iii] “Systems Requirement Document (SRD) for Acquisition of Light Air Support (LAS) Aircraft.” prepared by Light Attack Branch, Fighters and Bombers Directorate. Wright Patterson AFB, OH. (12 August 2010).
[iv] Embraer has been awarded the LAS contract to build the A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft three times. The AT-6 Texan, developed by Beechcraft, has been the primary competitor throughout the competition.
[v] Biass and Fox. "Baseline Aircraft on Steroids." Armada International 36.4 (2012): 24.
[vi] Author’s experience.
[vii] This excludes potential cost savings from aerial tanker support and Navy and Marine Corps sorties, Russell J. Smith, "Common Sense at the Crossroads for our Air Force." Air & Space Power Journal 26.2 (2012): 107-108.
[viii] Interviews with contract CAS aircrew, JCAS Symposium, Virginia Beach, VA. 2012.
[ix] Primarily due to Operations Northern Watch, Southern Watch, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi Freedom. William W. Taylor, , James H. Bigelow and John A. Ausink. “Fighter Drawdown Dynamics: Effects on Aircrew Inventories.” Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation (2009). p.15-17.
[x] White House, National Security Strategy. Washington, DC: White House, (2010): 27.
[xi] The President further mentioned the importance of supporting strategic partnerships with Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, and the countries of the African Union operating in Somalia to address collective security concerns. "Remarks by the President at the National Defense University." American Diplomacy (2013): 1-2.
[xii] Office of the Secretary of Defense, National Defense Strategy. Arlington, VA, (3 Jan 2012): 9, 10,12.
[xiii] CJCS, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Military Strategy. Arlington, VA, (8 Feb 2011): 7, 13, 20.
[xiv] Dr. David E. Johnson, Learning Large Lessons: The Evolving Roles of Ground Power and Air Power in the Post-Cold War Era. Santa Monica: RAND (2007). xxi
[xv] Dr. Benjamin S. Lambeth, "Lessons from Modern Warfare: What the Conflicts of the Post-Cold War Years should have Taught Us." Strategic Studies Quarterly 7.3 (2013): 63-64.
[xvi] Carl H. Builder, The Masks of War: American Military Styles in Strategy and Analysis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. 33.
[xvii] Ibid, 199.
[xviii] Survivability considerations can dominate all calculations. Two articles provide keen insights into the excesses of force protection 1) Dr. Don M. Snider, MAJ John A. Nagl, and MAJ Tony Pfaff, “Army Professionalism, the Military Ethic, and Officership in the 21st Century,” U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, December (1999) and 2) LtCol Michael D. Grice, "Force Protection and the Death of Common Sense." Marine Corps Gazette 93.8 (2009): 8,10,12
[xix] Biass and Fox, p.24.
[xx] Ashton B. Carter, “Running the Pentagon Right: How to Get the Troops What They Need, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2014.
[xxi] David. Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla : Fighting Small Wars In The Midst Of A Big One. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. p.270.
[xxii] It was widely publicized that on 4 December 2011, an “RQ-170 stealth drone” was captured by Iran. Although initially denying claims to the contrary, The administration publicly acknowledged that the U.S. had subsequently asked for the aircraft to be returned: "Obama says U.S. has asked Iran to return drone aircraft." CNN. Dec 12, 2011.
[xxiii] USAF Air Combat Command maintains a limited number of T-38 aircraft (similar in dimension and capability to the F-5) to provide such support to the frontline fighter units. The T-38 is used as a cheap alternative to conduct familiarization, “red-air”, and other related roles. Thirty Six countries around the globe use the F-5 “fighter/tiger,” a closely related platform to the T-38. Similarly, the Navy uses the T-34 for range safety and observation, as well as to provide training support during air to ground sorties.