January 20, 2017

Light-attack jet - a good McCain counter-insurgency idea?

The Bell Textron Scorpion light-attack jet may be ideal for the low threat counter-insurgency/terrorism missions the US and allies are fighting in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan (Photo/diagram courtesy BBC(dot)com in 2014).

On January 16, 2017, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, issued a White Paper (about 10 MB, PDF) with a whole range of good looking ideas (eg. 
-  higher rate Virginia SSN production,
-  medium aircraft carriers in addition to the Ford CVNs,
-  frigates larger and instead than the Littoral Combat Ships in several years time
all worth discussing in Submarine Matters articles next week. 

Meantime the short article below is about McCain's light-attack fighter suggestion:

The White Paper page 13 says:

"while [continued procurement of the F-35 and] sustaining the A-10 fighter fleet for close air support, the Air Force should procure 300 low-cost, light-attack fighters that would require minimal work to develop. These aircraft could conduct counterterrorism operations, perform close air support and other missions in permissive environments, and help to season pilots to mitigate the Air Force’s fighter pilot shortfall. The Air Force could procure the first 200 of these aircraft by Fiscal Year 2022."

One choice that may serve as a light attack (counter-insurgency) fighter is the Bell Textron Scorpion jet.

USAF Chief of Staff General David Goldfein said 300 light-attack would be a good idea and that  Scorpion, Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano (propeller) and Beechcraft’s AT-6 (propeller) might all be possibilities. Any others?

Here's a pitch at the Paris Air Show 2015, from Russ Smith, for a competing aircraft, the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine armed variant of the T-6. 

F-35s won't be ready for years and, in any case, are over-engineered/gold plated and overpriced for the low threat (to aircraft) counter-insurgency missions in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. The A-10 with its heavy armour and anti-tank cannon is also unsuited to most counter-insurgency warfare scenarios.

I see many objections coming from the industry, many pilots and revolving-dooristas of the USAF, USN and Marines. Some objections may be valid, most not.

Is the McCain, Goldfein idea of a light-attack fighter a good one?



Edelbert Badwar said...

A light fighter is a good idea not just for the US,but for many other major powers as well.With the ever escalating price of 4th and 5th generartion fighters,light fighters can be a fallback option.

MHalblaub said...

Dear Pete,
there is a problem with trainer aircraft for such a task: ISIS and others have anti aircraft guns. So going low is not an option for such an aircraft because they are not as much protected as an A-10. A lot of small bombs could also can be carried by an A-10 and the A-10 can be refueled in mid air. The big gun of the A-10 is quite the right weapon to destroy convoys of enemy vehicles. Such rounds are far cheaper than even the smallest smart bomb.

Just to carry some bombs UAVs are much cheaper.


Josh said...

I rather doubt once you add the proper coms and data links that make weapon delivery up to what the troops have expected to date that you're left with a particularly cheap fighter. I'd actually opt for more gunships, ideally vanilla C-130s with modular gunship packages - worst case, if you're not using it, its a trash hauler. A light fighter is a one trick pony - permissive environment close air support. Another option would armed UAVs organic to the battalion level. Both of these ideas are off the shelf buys. If a light fighter were to be purchased, it absolutely MUST be something already in production that has no development cost. But I still think a manned fighter is the least attractive solution to the problem of COIN CAS.



Anonymous said...

It could work. I have some misgivings as it relates to the Textron Scorpion. Probably better to go with a USA-made piston-engine aircraft such as the AT-6 (half the price of the Super Tucano) for a man-in-the-loop low threat and ISR solution side-by-side with UAVs. failing this, then the T-X trainer could work, although that's probably overkill for the mission.

Anonymous said...

Senator McCain's idea of 300 light attack jets is not a good idea. Guerrilla fighters are now much better armed with hundreds if not thousands of Dhsk 12,7mm, KPV 14,5mm and ZSU 23mmm. Such a jet will need to be heavily armored as a down pilot is a prized booty that will show up on TV and internet media in no time. So that jet then becomes an A-10. The experiences of COIN in Vietnam shows that to survive you need heavily armored Spads (A-1 Skyraider) and even they did not survive well against heavy AA. By the time the SA-7 shows up on the battlefields, even the Spads had no chance. During the Vietnam War, USAF tried with the light jet/trainer A-37 Dragongly and it paled in comparison to the Spads in term of effectiveness, protection and payload. Today, USAF already flies hundreds of A-10, and even though a jet will be too fast for COIN, it is already in the inventory.
I do agree with the Senator on Virginia and frigates.
In term of a light single engine fighter, I believe we will soon see this derivative from the current USAF trainer initiative, just as the F-5 was a derivative of the T-38.

Josh said...

On further thought, I don't see *any* use for a new cheap fighter. If existing drones assigned directly to smaller ground units or palletized AC-130 solutions don't fit the bill, use A-10s. Given that the A-10 is still in regular service (and Congress won't even let the USAF retire it), a much better use of money would just be to continue maintaining those aircraft. They too are specialized CAS a/c, but they are already bought and paid for with a parts stream, pilots, and worked up maintenance and training program. They are less expensive to operate than F-series, if not as cheap as the airframes proposed here. But there's no start up costs. If more are needed, there are a bunch laid up in AMARG that could be returned to service. So I don't see *any* reason why a new cheap fighter would be of any use to USAF or even SOCOM.


Peter Coates said...

Thanks everyone for your comments:

Drawing from comments good points of a light attack aircraft are its low upfront purchase costs, low maintenance/hour costs.

Some of the many more downsides of light attack include:
- the aircraft may be quickly underequipped/obsoletwe IF ground threats increase. For example:
= from twin barrel 14.5mm to quad barrels, or to 23mm anti aircraft guns, or
= to MANPADs if Obama managed to send them to Free Syrian Army, then captured in quantity by IS.

In contrast the A-10 is already in production, already available, has many of the low cost benefits. A-10 also has the armour, flare and electronic anti-missile features that can handle increased ground threats from insurgent/terrorists. A-10’s gun still effective against many/most? insurget/terrorist threats.

Light Attack would need substantial modification for in-flight refueling capability, full comms and sensor suite.

Light attack lacks F-18s ability to fly from carriers (that USN, Marines would desire). Hence light attack would need weighty reinforcements for carrier catapult takeoff (unless it can take-off unassited like a WWII propeller aircraft). But still jolting recovery needed. Also unkike F-18s substantial risk light attack (and A-10) could be destroyed by "neutral" aircraft from Russian, Syrian or Turkish Air Forces over SYRIA.

Alternatives to light attack include:
- Reaper UAV, a major, existing, highly successful alternative. Cheaper than manned, maybe lower purchase and maintenance/hour costs. With a lower spec light-attack aircrat (than the already available A-10).
= Lower defences acceptable. As there is no chance a Pilot(s) might be shot down from the ground or air to air threats. A downed hostage pilot would be a political crisis for the US.

- C-130s gunships useful https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lockheed_Martin_KC-130#Harvest_HAWK . Although higher costs-crew requirements than an A-10 + vulnerable to AAA.

- AT-6 or T-X trainer (both propeller aircraft). Even lower costs than Scorpion jets.

- Perhaps manned light attack/A-10/F-18 or F-35 working with UAVs?