Budget-constricted Air Force seeks cheap plane to “help” A-10 with CAS

A U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron refuels a USAF A-10 Thunderbolt II over Turkey in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, Jan. 6, 2016. OIR is the coalition intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Corey Hook/Released)

In light of a dwindling A-10 Thunderbolt II fleet and no realistic prospect to adequately replace them, the United States Air Force is considering evaluating several small aircraft to alleviate the stress placed on the crews and equipment of America’s premier Close Air Support aircraft in the counter-insurgency role.

Deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements Lieutenant General James M. Holmes is currently mulling over a number of inexpensive, off-the-shelf aircraft that could be used to supplement the “Hog” as early as spring 2017.

Terming the new light observation and attack program OA-X, Holmes said that the aircraft would not replace the A-10 but instead supply ground commanders with a light and inexpensive aircraft to be available when light Close Air Support (CAS) is needed.

“It comes down a little bit to what do you believe. Do you believe that this war that we’re fighting to counter violent extremists is going to last another 15 years?” Holmes told Defense News. “If you believe it does, and our chief believes it will, then you have to think about keeping a capability that’s affordable to operate against those threats so that you’re not paying high costs per flying hour to operate F-35s and F-22s to chase around guys in pickup trucks.”

With no proper A-X contest in sight to replace the A-10, the USAF is currently looking to push the A-10’s retirement date even further past the proposed 2022 timeline.

However, finding space in the budget for two new aircraft seems to be a mystery for Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James.

“Where would we get the money?” she asked in July. “Not all that clear to me.”

Current Air Combat Command head and F-35 advocate General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle has predictably questioned whether or not new light attack and CAS-dedicated programs would be the best use of funds.

“If you look at the things within the combat Air Force portfolio that I’m responsible for in modernization and taking care of those systems, I don’t know where the money would come from,” he said. “And if we got extra money, in my opinion, there’s other things that I would do first to increase our combat capability before we go to that platform.”

The current OA-X proposals include several aircraft, from the American-made Textron AirLand Scorpion, and Beechcraft (a subsidiary of Textron and former company of Raytheon) AT-6s, as well at the foreign-made Embraer Super Tucano and Alenia Aermacchi M-346, the latter of which is being proposed by Raytheon and Leonardo.

“You need a high-wing, relatively capable of good low altitude performance, and relatively low speeds, and the 346 would do it,” said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia. While the M-346 or Boeing’s current T-X design may have possibilities, “both of them would be significantly inferior to the A-10 for that job.”

Interestingly, only one model proposed thus far -the Super Tucano- has internal guns, and is only armed with two .50 caliber machine guns with 200 rounds available to each gun. In contrast, the Hellfire missile commonly used on such light aircraft cost around $70,000 apiece. Earlier this year, OV-10 Broncos were dusted off for re-use against ISIS, but no comments were made as to whether or not a revamp of the Bronco program would be considered.

Still, the OA-X program is being heavily considered by Air Force brass.

“We may do some experiments where we invite people to come in and show us what their airplanes can do,” Holmes said. “If we do an experiment like that, it will be to try to help determine whether there is a portion of the mission that we’re doing now that could be done by a less capable, less expensive airplane, and if so, if there are one or more airplanes out there that you could acquire with very little development and send out there to do it?”

The program would alleviate some of the pressure placed upon CAS, as well as allow cheap, quick-response capabilities for the USAF in COIN operations.

“So if I increase my capacity, I could split that rotation up over a larger group, I could give everybody more time to train against a full spectrum threat, and then I could gradually start to increase my readiness,” he said.

One of the upsides of the program would be more planes for pilots to train with, which Holmes says is vital to increasing the number of instructors as well as command-and-control capability, which requires experienced combat pilots.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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