Small Wars Journal

Props: Small Planes for Small Wars

Mon, 10/02/2017 - 2:56am

Props: Small Planes for Small Wars

Ken Segelhorst


War is expensive, especially when using high-end fourth and fifth generation aircraft designed for World War III to bomb handfuls of sandal wearing men armed with rusty AK-47s.  While the United States (U.S.) Department of Defense (DOD) enjoyed the extravagance of seemingly bottomless coffers during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that time has ended.  The DOD cannot afford to employ its most advanced high-end aircraft in support of every military operation.  The U.S. military is primarily engaged in small-scale overseas contingency operations, characterized by tight budgets and strict force caps.  These operations largely involve small teams of special operations forces (SOF) and regionally aligned ground forces deployed to advise and assist U.S. allied and partner-nation forces in irregular warfare (IW), specifically counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and foreign internal defense.  The deployment of high-end jet aircraft in support of these forces is not only impractical due to robust support requirements but also fiscally irresponsible due to astronomical acquisition and operating costs.  Instead, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) requires an inexpensive, light air support (LAS) aircraft as a practical and cost-effective means of providing air support for IW in low air threat environments.1

The Most Prominent Form of Warfare

According to the National Intelligence Council (NIC)’s Global Trends 2030, IW comprises more than three-quarters of the conflicts in the world today.  The application of IW by both state and non-state actors as a primary mode of warfighting will be an increasingly common characteristic of future conflicts.2  In the coming decades, failed states and ungoverned areas will increasingly become sanctuaries for violent extremist organizations (VEO) and other practitioners of IW.  The quantity and resiliency of these organizations is expected to grow and significantly weaken a number of the world’s governing regimes.  Rival states will leverage VEOs and other non-state actors to outsource mayhem while maintaining a high degree of deniability.3

In spite of this analysis and 15 consecutive years of IW in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria, the USAF has yet to accept IW as its predominant mission set.  In actuality, the USAF has largely attempted to distance, if not extricate, itself from IW by aggressively advocating the retirement of the A-10 in favor of the over-priced and under-performing F-35.4  Admittedly, the USAF must possess high-end aircraft like the B-2, F-22, and F-35 for those rare “must-win” contests with near-peer competitors.  However, utilizing those same high-end aircraft for the full spectrum of military operations is the equivalent of using a $4.5 million Lamborghini Veneno as your daily driver.

The USAF requires a dedicated airframe for this more common and inherently protracted form of warfare, one more efficient and better suited for the unique challenges associated with IW.  Rugged and inexpensive LAS airframes like the AT-6 Wolverine, A-29 Super Tucano, AC-208 Combat Caravan, and OV-10 Bronco offer a practical and inexpensive solution.  Armed with the latest avionics, sensors, and weapons, these aircraft are the most effective and efficient choice for U.S. IW efforts due to their long loiter times, minimal support requirements, multi-purpose designs, low-speed operation and maneuverability, survivability, and cost-effectiveness.

Long Loiter Time

Unlike high-intensity conflicts where aircraft are dispatched to attack preplanned targets and quickly return to base, missions flown in support of IW require long loiter times.  In IW, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft must loiter patiently overhead, searching for signs of elusive enemies.  Other aircraft circle high above the battlefield, waiting to provide close air support (CAS).  The more loiter time an aircraft has to perform these tasks, the better suited it is for IW.

While it is true that most high-end jet aircraft have considerable loiter times, the cost and resources required to support those times are substantial compared to LAS aircraft.  High-end jet aircraft consume fuel at a significantly higher rate than LAS aircraft.  The same amount of fuel consumed by an F-15 during takeoff would power a LAS aircraft for more than 100 flight hours.5  Many high-end jet aircraft require aerial refueling to achieve desired loiter times, increasing both the U.S. footprint and the cost of operations.  In addition, loitering for long periods rapidly depletes an airframe’s service life.  One year of employment in an IW environment, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, translates to five to seven years’ worth of real airframe degradation.6  The employment of LAS aircraft in IW could save the USAF billions of dollars in remanufacturing and replacement costs while keeping its fifth generation fleet ready to take on near-peer competitors like Russia and China.

LAS aircraft, with their piston- or turbine-powered props, consume significantly less fuel than jet aircraft.  Conservative fuel consumption and low stall speeds allow LAS aircraft to loiter longer and cheaper than their high-end counterparts do.  Most models are capable of flying five-hour sorties on internal fuel alone and conducting sorties in excess of ten hours when operating with external drop tanks.  While some LAS aircraft are capable of aerial refueling, the ability to fly long-duration missions without tanker support provides a marked advantage over high-end jet aircraft for IW.  In many cases, a LAS aircraft could remain on station for the entire duration of a foot patrol or vehicle convoy, a nearly impossible task for most high-end jet aircraft.

Minimal Support Requirements

With the prominence of IW and the number of VEOs growing around the world, the U.S. will increasingly find itself focused on advising and assisting its allies and partners in fighting terror and maintaining regional stability from remote locations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.  Future deployments in support of these objectives will surely come with strict force caps in place to minimize the U.S. footprint.  Planners will need to meticulously scrutinize available forces and select those capable of providing the most “bang for the buck.”  When it comes to aircraft, the ability to forward deploy LAS aircraft to remote and austere locations with minimal support packages provides a marked advantage over high-end jet aircraft.

High-end manned aircraft like the F-15, F-16, and F-35 and unmanned systems like the MQ-1 and MQ-9 require complex and costly support packages.  These aircraft demand long, smoothly paved, and pristine runways.  They require avionic repair shops; petroleum, oil, and lubricant facilities; and various other support activities.  Operating and maintaining this level of infrastructure is not only extremely costly but also manpower-intensive, requiring the deployment of numerous support personnel and special equipment.  The burdensome logistical and personnel requirements of employing high-end jet aircraft often result in their consolidation at one or two major airbases.  The consolidation of aircraft onto these bases frequently means aircraft must “commute” to their area of operation, not only wasting the aircraft’s fuel and service life but also reducing the aircraft’s time on station.

LAS aircraft require little infrastructure or support.  They do not require pristine, smoothly paved runways.  They are capable of utilizing roads, fields, and dirt strips carved out of the jungle.  Many LAS aircraft qualify as short takeoff and landing aircraft, with some requiring less than 1,000 feet for takeoff.  As such, LAS aircraft could operate from nearly any existing airfield around the world, making LAS aircraft extremely well suited for forward deployment to those remote and austere locations often associated with IW.

Forward deploying LAS aircraft offers a number of tactical advantages.  Rather than commuting to the battlefield like high-end jet aircraft, LAS aircraft can operate from the same bases as the very units they support.  Forward basing maximizes aircrafts’ time on station and enables faster turnaround times for aircraft refueling and rearming.  Forward basing also compensates for the slower speed of LAS aircraft.  While they may not fly as fast as high-end jet aircraft, the ability to forward deploy LAS aircraft reduces the distance aircraft need to travel to provide support.  Most importantly, forward deploying aircraft facilitates full integration of aircrews into the planning process and forms air-ground teams.  Ground forces can fully incorporate aircrews into operation planning, rehearsals, execution, and the after action review process to ensure maximum synchronization and synergy.

LAS aircraft are also far less maintenance and support-intensive than their high-end counterparts.  Whereas high-end jet aircraft often require ten to 30 direct maintenance man-hours per flight hour (DMMH/FH), many LAS aircraft require just one to two DMMH/FH.7  A few general aviation mechanics equipped with simple hand tools are capable of keeping most LAS aircraft flying day after day. 

A recent Central Command (CENTCOM) assessment pays testament to the reliability of LAS aircraft.  Over an 82-day period in the summer of 2015, two OV-10 Broncos completed 134 sorties, including 120 combat missions, in support of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR).  These two Vietnam-era antiques completed 99% of the combat missions they were assigned.8  Compare those figures to the operational readiness rates of high-end aircraft in the USAF’s fleet like the B-1B at 47%, CV-22 at 56%, F-22 at 67%, and the trouble-laden but too big to fail F-35 which occasionally peaks as high as 60%.9  This sharp contrast in readiness highlights the reliability of LAS aircraft, making them the ideal choice for the often arduous conditions associated with IW.

Multi-Purpose Design

Future U.S. support to allied and partner-nation forces in IW environments will be small in scale.  As previously discussed, planners will need to artfully select forces to provide desired capabilities while meeting strict force caps imposed by the U.S. Department of State, DOD, or host-nation governments.  These anticipated constraints make the deployment of highly specialized aircraft improbable.  However, LAS aircraft can provide ground forces with a wide range of capabilities in support of IW, including ISR, CAS, and more.

The importance of ISR in IW cannot be understated.  These conflicts often revolve around locating a highly elusive enemy.  While high-end aircraft like the F-16 can be equipped with add-on sensors like the Sniper XD pod to perform ISR, this is not the aircraft’s intended purpose.  With surveillance and targeting pods built into their fuselages, LAS aircraft offer a better field-of-view with fewer blind spots than high-end aircraft equipped with add-on sensor packages.  Integrated laser rangefinders, infrared pointers, and illuminators allow aircrews to confirm or relay target data.  Many LAS aircraft also come equipped to transmit video directly to ground forces via remote optical video enhanced receiver systems.

LAS aircraft are not only capable of locating the enemy but engaging the enemy as well.  These aircraft have impressive payloads for their size; several LAS aircraft offer payloads in excess of 3,000 pounds.  Hard points on their wings and fuselages allow these aircraft to carry a wide variety of weapon systems, including machine guns, cannons, rocket pods, missiles, and bombs up to 500 pounds.  These aircraft can operate today’s most advanced weapon systems, including global positioning system (GPS) and laser-guided bombs, Hellfire missiles, and even some versions of the Maverick air-to-ground tactical missile.10

LAS aircraft also have the capability to support ground forces in ways high-end jet aircraft cannot.  Some LAS aircraft, like the AC-208 and OV-10, can double as light transports, giving the supported ground force commander added flexibility.  LAS aircraft are also capable of supporting psychological operations (PSYOPS).  Their low stall speeds and long loiter times make them ideal platforms for leaflet drops and aerial loudspeaker operations.  The British employed prop-driven aircraft to this effect with great success during the Malayan Emergency; the USAF could enjoy similar success by utilizing LAS aircraft to inform and influence elusive enemy organizations and encourage defections.11

Low-Speed Operation & Maneuverability

While it is true that LAS aircraft cannot come close to matching the speed of high-performance jet aircraft, the ability to operate and maneuver at low speeds offers a few distinct advantages.  The low stall speeds of LAS aircraft enable them to operate alongside helicopters, an impossible task for most high-performance jet aircraft.  Along with their longer loiter times, greater survivability, and more substantial payloads, LAS aircraft could replace or supplement attack helicopters as escorts for air assault, medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), and combat search and rescue (CSAR) helicopters.

The U.S. gainfully employed piston powered, propeller-driven, A-1 Skyraiders in this capacity during the Vietnam War.  Under the callsign “Sandy,” A-1 Skyraiders escorted CSAR helicopters deep into enemy territory to rescue downed aviators.  The A-1 performed this role so remarkably that joint planners selected it to play a critical role in the Son Tay Raid.  Five A-1s escorted the heliborne Special Forces raiders deep into the heart of North Vietnam and successfully isolated the Son Tay prison camp from enemy reinforcements throughout the duration of the ground assault.

LAS aircraft’s smaller size and reduced power does not necessarily equate to a lack of maneuverability.  Many LAS aircraft are capable of conducting aerial combat maneuvers, including the Immelmann Turn, Cuban Eight, and Split-S.  They can also maneuver better at low speeds than high-end jet aircraft, giving them an advantage when performing CAS.  Low-speed maneuverability translates to a tight turning radius.  The smaller turning radius an aircraft has, the quicker it can reengage the target area.  Due to their tighter turning radiuses, under most conditions, LAS pilots are capable of maintaining constant visual contact with their targets, providing far superior situational awareness compared to their high-end counterparts.


Survivability is an important characteristic for all military aircraft.  The USAF must always the take the safety of its Airmen into consideration, especially in today’s risk-averse environment.  One of the main arguments made against the employment of LAS aircraft in combat operations is their reduced survivability when compared to high-end jet aircraft.   It is true that LAS aircraft would not fare as well as their high-end counterparts against computer-controlled anti-aircraft artillery and chassis-mounted surface-to-air missiles (SAM).  However, the air defense artillery threat is traditionally extremely low in IW.  The greatest threat to aircraft in these environments is typically small arms fire with the occasional manually controlled 23mm cannon or shoulder launched SAM.12

LAS aircraft, properly equipped for IW, can operate in these environments without significantly increasing risk.  Many LAS aircraft offer advanced defense packages.  Missile approach warning systems, radar-warning receivers, and infrared countermeasures are common equipment.  Armored cockpits, canopies, and engines offer protection against small arms fire and flak.  Some aircraft feature ejection seats while a few are equipped with whole-airplane parachute recovery systems.  These features greatly increase the survivability of LAS aircraft and their crews in IW, reducing the risk associated with their employment to an acceptable level.


The Pentagon’s days of extravagant spending are over.  Military and civilian policymakers in Washington, including the new Commander in Chief, are currently searching for ways to tame “out of control” defense costs like the F-35 program without sacrificing capabilities.13  Army doctrine teaches leaders to employ the best weapon for the target; this basic principle of fire control also applies to aircraft.  Not every operation requires the most advanced, high-performance stealth aircraft designed to wage war against a high-tech communist superpower or well-armed military regime.  LAS aircraft provide a much more cost-effective means of providing air support for ongoing and future IW operations.

The procurement cost for LAS aircraft is significantly less than that of new, high-end jet aircraft.  The problem-ridden F-35A, built as a cost-effective replacement for the F-16 and A-10, currently runs $110 million per aircraft, down from its earlier production cost of $161 million per aircraft.14  By comparison, most LAS aircraft built and equipped specifically for IW cost between $2 million and $10 million depending on the platform and configuration.15  At that cost, the USAF could procure entire squadrons’ worth of LAS aircraft for the cost of a single F-35.

Aircraft operating costs are also an important consideration when evaluating cost-effectiveness.  The cost of fuel, POL, replacement parts, regular maintenance, and major periodic maintenance and overhauls all affect an aircraft’s cost per flight hour.  The F-16 operates at a cost of roughly $23,000 per flight hour and the F-15 approximately $40,000 per flight hour.16  The trouble laden F-35 costs taxpayers an estimated $68,000 per flight hour.17  LAS aircraft have much simpler designs, making them much easier and cheaper to maintain.  They also consume fuel at a much lower rate, helping keep operating costs low, often under $1,000 per flight hour.18

A side-by-side comparison of the F-35 and a typical LAS aircraft over a 20-year period helps highlight the USAF’s potential savings.  Assuming an F-35 flies 120 hours per year for 20 years, the aircraft’s operating cost would amount to over $163 million.  The operating cost for a standard LAS aircraft would amount to just $2 million, or 1.5% that of the F-35.  Needless to say, the USAF would enjoy significant cost savings by deploying squadrons of LAS aircraft to IW environments as opposed to high-end aircraft like the F-35.

Potential Airframes

Several LAS aircraft are currently available for testing and evaluation.  Among the frontrunners is Beechcraft-Textron’s AT-6 Wolverine, based on the popular T-6 Texan II currently utilized by the U.S. Air Force and Navy’s undergraduate flight training programs.19  The AT-6 features a digital cockpit, upgraded power plant, reinforced structure, integrated electro-optical sensors, and datalink.  The AT-6 is fully compatible with U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization Joint Terminal Attack Controller systems.  Equipped with seven hard points, the AT-6 is capable of mounting a wide variety of weapon systems, including gun pods, 2.75-inch laser-guided rockets, Hellfire missiles, and up to 500-pound GPS- or laser-guided bombs.  The AT-6 also maintains an 85% commonality with the standard T-6 trainer already in service, translating to reduced costs associated with procurement, training, and maintenance.20

Sierra Nevada-Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano is also a likely candidate.  Unlike the AT-6, the A-29 is combat proven.  More than 170 A-29s are in service with nine different countries.  These aircraft have logged over 28,000 combat hours without a single loss.  Slightly larger than the AT-6, the A-29 Super Tucano still boasts a top speed of 320 knots, a max payload of 3,420 pounds and a 3.4 hour flight endurance (8.4 hours with drop tanks).  The A-29 offers an advanced sensor suite, making it a capable ISR platform.  For light attack and CAS missions, the A-29 features two internally mounted .50 caliber machine guns and five hard points, allowing crews to choose from more than 130 weapon and fuel configurations.21

The Cessna AC-208 Combat Caravan is an adaptable, multi-role aircraft.  Already in widespread use around the world, the Cessna 208 is a favorite amongst bush pilots, contractors, humanitarian organizations, and militaries for its simplicity, ruggedness, and low cost.  Designed as a regional utility aircraft, the Cessna 208 trades speed and maneuverability for cargo capacity.  The standard Cessna 208 can carry up to 3,835 pounds of cargo or 12 passengers.  The AC-208 Combat Caravan adds wing-mounted hard points capable of mounting machine guns, rocket pods, or Hellfire missiles.22  Adding a roll-up cargo door and either 7.62mm GAU-17 or .50 caliber GAU-19 electronically driven Gatling guns would give the AC-208 an added gunship capability.  The AC-208’s large fuselage can host a wide array of sensors and communications equipment along with their operators, making the aircraft a suitable ISR and command and control (C2) platform.

Finally, the OV-10 Bronco offers a compromise between the AT-6’s speed and the AC-208’s flexibility.  A combat proven design, the U.S. employed North American Rockwell’s ugly twin-engine aircraft during the Vietnam War as a forward air control platform.  Although not currently in production, the OV-10’s OIR combat record suggests this old warbird still has plenty of fight left in it.  Boeing has explored the possibility of reintroducing the OV-10 with advanced avionics, sensors, and engines to revitalize the aircraft for modern conflicts.  As is, the OV-10 can fly three-hour sorties on internal fuel and take off on unimproved runways as short as 800 feet.  In a light attack configuration, the OV-10 can carry more than two tons of ordnance, including 7.62mm machine guns, 20mm cannons, rocket pods, missiles, and 500-pound bombs.  As a utility aircraft, it can carry up to 3,200 pounds of equipment, five passengers, or four fully equipped paratroopers.  For casualty evacuation, the OV-10 can support two litter patients and a medic to provide in-flight care.23

Recent Attempts to Reintroduce LAS

Over the last decade, the DOD has entertained the idea of reintroducing LAS aircraft for modern IW.  As previously noted, CENTCOM deployed two OV-10s to OIR in 2015 as a proof of concept for utilizing LAS aircraft in low-intensity conflicts.  These aircraft performed exceptionally well, successfully executing 134 sorties, including 120 combat missions, in just 82 days.  This experiment was not CENTCOM’s first attempt to reintroduce LAS aircraft for IW.  Two previous programs, Imminent Fury and Combat Dragon II, attempted to test and evaluate the A-29 and OV-10 as LAS platforms for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Unfortunately, each of these programs fell victim to congressional budget cuts.

Imminent Fury grew out of requests from Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets for a more effective means of providing air support to special operators in Afghanistan.  The program examined multiple airframes before leasing an A-29 Super Tucano for further assessment.  General Stanley A. McChrystal, commander for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, was likely the program’s leading advocate.  In 2010, McChrystal personnel wrote the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) encouraging him to move Imminent Fury into phase two, which would have entailed deploying four LAS aircraft to Afghanistan for combat trials.  In his correspondence to the CJCS, McChrystal championed LAS aircraft for their ability to provide SOF and conventional ground forces with expeditionary ISR support that could find, fix, and finish enemy targets.  Unfortunately, weeks after his letter to the CJCS, McChrystal was relieved for comments made in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.  Without its most vocal champion, Imminent Fury lost traction and was unable to overcome congressional opposition to using the foreign-built A-29 Super Tucano over the Kansas-built AT-6 Wolverine.  The $17 million deployment program, which ultimately could have saved the U.S. billions of dollars a year in procurement and operating costs, met its end on the budget chopping block in October 2010.24

Shortly after the death of Imminent Fury, the Pentagon resurrected the LAS test program as Combat Dragon II, this time using a pair of OV-10 Broncos.  Combat Dragon II tested the modernized OV-10s in the skies over Naval Air Station (NAS) Fallon and Nellis Air Force Base (AFB).  In 2012, the Pentagon requested $20 million to deploy the OV-10s overseas for combat trials.  Senator John McCain, now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, challenged the program, stating the U.S. lacked an “urgent operational requirement for this type of aircraft.”25  Congress slashed Combat Dragon II’s funding and the LAS initiative once again found itself grounded.

The USAF revived the LAS concept in March 2017 by inviting the aerospace and defense industry to participate in an experiment to examine the potential for a new low-cost, light-attack platform, or OA-X, for the USAF.  General Dave Goldfein, USAF Chief of Staff, stated that the OA-X study will determine if such aircraft could provide a “more sustainable model for the future.”26  The USAF’s requirements for the OA-X are broad.  The proposed aircraft must be capable of taking off from a 6,000’ runway and have a fuel consumption rate of less than 1,500 pounds per hour.  The aircraft should also be ready as-is, requiring minimal modifications prior to production.27  Sierra Nevada-Embraer has entered the now U.S.-built A-29 into the fray while Beechcraft-Textron has entered both its AT-6 and Scorpion light-attack jet.  The aircraft will face off in the skies over Holloman AFB this summer.

While past studies have failed to navigate service and congressional roadblocks, the OA-X experiment may fare better under the new administration.  The new Commander in Chief has repeatedly expressed his disgust with the failed F-35 program.28  A shrewd businessman, President Trump would surely appreciate the cost-effectiveness of employing LAS aircraft for the nation’s most common and persistent conflicts.  Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis is a known champion of LAS aircraft.   In March 2010, General Mattis, then CENTCOM Commander, told the U.S. Armed Services Committee that using high-tech jet aircraft like the F-15 to support troops in IW environments “amounts to overkill.”29  With these potential champions at the helm, it is time for the USAF to take action and actively push for LAS acquisition and integration.  If the USAF lobbies a fraction as hard as it has to kill the A-10 or defend the disastrous F-35, it will surely succeed in convincing Congress to support this far more practical and cost-effective means of providing air support for IW operations.

Integrating LAS Aircraft into the Fleet

Introducing LAS aircraft into the USAF will be no easy task.  Doing so will require organizational and cultural change.  Organizationally, the USAF must decide whether to create new squadrons or reconfigure existing formations.  Creating new squadrons would be daunting and require additional personnel and facilities.  The most practical and cost effective solution is to transition existing squadrons from their worn-out legacy aircraft to the new LAS airframe.  The USAF has already planned for A-10, F-16, and F-15 squadrons to transition to F-35s.  Unfortunately, the F-35 program is significantly behind schedule.  The program originally promised 1,013 fighters by fiscal year 2016 but has delivered fewer than 200 to date.  As Senator John McCain stated, the F-35 program is “both a scandal and a tragedy with respect to cost, schedule, and performance.”30  As the F-35 program has repeatedly failed to deliver, the USAF should consider transitioning some of its F-16 and F-15 squadrons to LAS aircraft.  Doing so would allow the USAF to replace elements of its aging fleet with a more reliable, cost-effective, and practical airframe for today’s most common form of warfare, while simultaneously reducing the service’s dependency on the catastrophic F-35 program.

Reintroducing LAS aircraft into the USAF fleet will also require a cultural change.  The USAF maintains a culture largely fixated on technological advancement.  For decades, the USAF has perceived progress as building or buying increasingly stealthy and high-tech aircraft like the F-35 and its eight million lines of computer code.  Introducing LAS aircraft, reminiscent of World War II-era warbirds, runs opposite this cultural mindset and requires deliberate action to prevent resistance.  The first step is for the USAF to accept IW as the predominant form of modern warfare and embrace it as the service’s most probable air combat mission requirement.  The USAF must then educate its leaders on the importance of this mission set in its various professional military education courses.  Finally, the USAF must successfully brand and market LAS to make it an attractive career option for young, talented, up-and-coming Airmen.


Irregular warfare is the most prevalent form of conflict in the world today.  Employing high-end fourth and fifth generation jet aircraft in IW is not only impractical but also fiscally irresponsible.  Relatively inexpensive, fixed-wing LAS aircraft provide a far more practical and cost-effective means of providing air support for IW.  LAS aircraft have long loiter times, consuming a mere fraction of fuel burned by high performance jets.  Rugged and easily maintained, LAS aircraft are capable of operating with minimal infrastructure and support, facilitating forward positioning at remote outposts.  LAS aircraft can also operate in a wide variety of roles, providing ISR, CAS, CASEVAC, and even PSYOPS.  Although slower than their high-end counterparts, many LAS aircraft are extremely maneuverable.  When properly equipped, they can operate in IW environments without significant increase to risk.  They are also far more cost-effective than today’s high-end jets.  The USAF can procure entire squadrons’ worth of LAS aircraft for the cost of a single F-35.  Furthermore, the introduction of LAS aircraft could save U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars in operation and maintenance costs each year, while preserving the nation’s most advanced and expensive aircraft for potential high-intensity conflicts against near-peer competitors.  When taken in the aggregate, the advantages of LAS aircraft provide distinct benefits that are both tactically sound and cost-effective.

End Notes

1. Author’s note: For the purpose of this article, LAS aircraft are defined as fixed-wing, piston or turbine powered, propeller-driven, single or multi-engine aircraft.  High-end aircraft are defined as fourth and fifth generation aircraft to include but not limited to the F-15, F-16, F-22, F-35, B-1, and B-2.

2. National Intelligence Council, “Global Trends 2030: Alternate Worlds,” December 2012,

3. Ibid.

4. Tara Copp, “Trump’s F-35 tweet hits Air Force’s again fighter fleet,” Stars and Stripes. 13 December 2016, (accessed 13 December 2016)

5. Robert F. Door, “AT-6 Texan II Armed Aircraft Showing Progress on Several Fronts,” Defense Media Network, 15 March 2011, (accessed 24 June 2012).

6. Marcus Weisgerber, “The Light Attack Aircraft,” Air Force Magazine (January 2010): 56-58.

7. Air Tractor, “AT-802U,” (accessed 3 July 2015).

8. David Axe, “Why is America Using These Antique Planes to Fight ISIS,” The Daily Beast. 9 March 2016, (accessed 8 December 2016)

9. Colin Clark, “ALIS Biggest Challenge for F-35 IOC: Gen. Harrigian,” Breaking Defense, 14 September 2015, (accessed 11 December 2016).

10. “LAS in, LAS out: Counter-Insurgency Planes for the USA and its Allies,” Defense Industry Daily, 25 September 2014, (accessed 17 October 2014).

11. George C. Morris, “The Other Side of the Coin: Low-Technology Aircraft and Little Wars,” Airpower Journal (Spring 1991) (accessed 5 May 2012).

12. Vance C. Bateman, “The Role of Tactical Air Power in Low-Intensity Conflict,” Airpower Journal (Spring 1991), (accessed 1 May 2012).

13. “F-35 program ‘cost is out of control,’ Trump says,”, 12 December 2016, (accessed 13 December 2016).

14. Winslow Wheeler, “The Pentagon’s Million-Dollar Aviation Plan,”, 1 May 2012,, (accessed 6 May 2012).

15. “LAS in, LAS out,” Defense Industry Daily.

16. Wheeler, “The Pentagon’s Million-Dollar Aviation Plan.”

17. Jeremy Bender and Mike Nudelman, “The Air Force’s 10 Most Expensive Planes to Operate,” Business Insider. 3 March 2016, (accessed 11 December 2016).

18. Robert F. Dorr “AT-6B Texan II Shines at JEFX, But the Future is Unclear,” Defense Media Network, 8 June 2010, (accessed 24 June 2012).

19. US Navy, “T-6A Texan II Turboprop Trainer,” Naval Air Systems Command, (accessed 10 July 2015).

20. Textron Aviation, “AT-6 Light Attack,” Defense, (accessed 3 July 2015).

21. Kenn Boechler, “Going Tactical: A New Strike Aircraft for the Afghan Air Force,” Small Wars Journal, 1 October 2013, (accessed 17 October 2015).

22. Boechler, “Going Tactical.”

23. Boeing, “OV-10 Bronco Multimission Aircraft,” Products in Boeing History, (accessed 3 July 2015).

24. John Ismay, Adrian Bonenberger, and Damien Spleeters, “The WWII-Era Plane Giving the F-35 a Run for its Money,” Motherboard, 18 September 2015, (accessed 8 December 2016).

25. Axe, “Why is America Using These Antique Planes to Fight ISIS.”

26. “USAF Pressing Ahead with OA-X Test,” Combat Aircraft. 17 March 2017, (accessed 27 May 2017).

27. Ibid.

28.Paul R. LaMonica, “Trump Calls Fighter Jet Costs ‘Out of Control’,”, 12 December 2016, (accessed 28 May 2017).

29. Robert F. Dorr, “Combat Dragon II Demonstrates OV-10G+ Bronco Capabilities,” Defense Media Network, 13 June 2013, (accessed 16 December 2016).

30. Ryan Browne, “John McCain: F-35 is a scandal and a tragedy,”, 27 April 2016, (accessed 15 December 2016).

About the Author(s)

Ken Segelhorst is a major in the U.S. Army.  He holds a B.A. from the University of Missouri and a M.A. from Webster University.  His experience includes multiple deployments throughout the Middle East and Africa.  The views in this essay are his own and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, or Department of Defense.