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Combat Dragon II Demonstrates OV-10G+ Bronco Capabilities

In recent months, the U.S. special operations community has been quietly evaluating two North American OV-10G+ Bronco light combat aircraft at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nev., and at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

The Combat Dragon II program, a Limited Objective Experiment (LOE),  is aimed at demonstrating that a small, turboprop-powered warplane can be effective in “high end/special aviation” missions of the kind encountered in Afghanistan. The experiment seeks similar information as Imminent Fury, which used a leased A-29B Super Tucano.

The Combat Dragon requirement for a light armed warplane for use in Afghanistan originated with the combatant commander there – at the time, Gen. Stanley McChrystal – and has been through on-again, off-again incarnations. The program enjoyed strong support from Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who headed U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010 that using a robust, complex aircraft like an F-15E Strike Eagle to support troops patrolling rural villages “amounts to overkill.” According to a source, the current Combat Dragon II effort is purposely kept low-profile, but basic facts about it are not classified.

Congress tried to kill Combat Dragon II 18 months ago. Today, CENTCOM‘s Science and Technology Division is running the LOE in cooperation with SOCOM.

 

Combatant Commander Support

The Combat Dragon requirement for a light armed warplane for use in Afghanistan originated with the combatant commander there – at the time, Gen. Stanley McChrystal – and has been through on-again, off-again incarnations. The program enjoyed strong support from Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, who headed U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013. Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010 that using a robust, complex aircraft like an F-15E Strike Eagle to support troops patrolling rural villages “amounts to overkill.” According to a source, the current Combat Dragon II effort is purposely kept low-profile, but basic facts about it are not classified.

The key to the concept is an inexpensive, simple, nimble combat aircraft capable of long loiter and on-call reconnaissance and attack duty, able to operate from austere airfields under primitive conditions and to deliver precision ordnance and employ state-of-the-art technology including electro-optical and infrared sensors, laser-guided munitions (the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) II), and encrypted radios and night-vision gear.

Combat Dragon II OV-10G+

Another view of the two OV-10G+ Broncos being tested as part of the Combat Dragon II program. Photo by Gary Mailander/High Sierra Spotters

This requirement may have its origins in the March 2002 Battle of Takur Ghar, also called the Battle of Roberts Ridge – a part of the larger Operation Anaconda – in which eight U.S. service members were killed and many wounded. Observers say that if an Air Force AC-130 Specter gunship on the scene had been able to stay on target and relay sensor intelligence and deliver precision munitions, the outcome of the battle might have been more favorable for the U.S. side.

Imminent Fury used an A-29B (now an official Pentagon designation for the Embraer EMB-314B Super Tucano) borrowed from the company then named Blackwater Worldwide. The same aircraft, now operated by Sierra Nevada Corp., has also been used as the demonstrator for the Air Force’s separate Light Air Support program, aimed at equipping the fledgling Afghan air force.

Under the original scheme for Phase Two, also called Combat Dragon II as early as 2010, four airframes – presumably Tucanos, although the Air Tractor AT-802U modified agricultural aircraft and the Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II were also considered as possibilities – would have deployed to Afghanistan to demonstrate their capabilities in real-world operations supporting Navy SEALs with air strikes against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Congress killed the original scheme, in part because it appeared unlikely to favor the Wichita-built AT-6 Texan II supported by the Kansas legislative delegation and in part because lawmakers felt the Pentagon was attempting to slip the program past them without full notice or explanation.

The key to the concept is an inexpensive, simple, nimble combat aircraft capable of long loiter and on-call reconnaissance and attack duty, able to operate from austere airfields under primitive conditions and to deliver precision ordnance and employ state-of-the-art technology including electro-optical and infrared sensors, laser-guided munitions (the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) II), and encrypted radios and night-vision gear.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), a naval aviator, summed up the view of critics on Dec. 16, 2011, when he referred to a spending bill then under consideration: “Of the approximately 100 unrequested and unauthorized additions above the president’s budget request found in the Defense Appropriations bill,” said McCain, “one of the more concerning is a $20 million allocation for an obscure aircraft program called ‘Combat Dragon II.’  Although the name is interesting and sounds threatening enough, you won’t find it in the President’s Defense Budget request, nor did it appear in the Defense Authorization bill. So, again, I asked staff to pull the string on it and see what unraveled.”

McCain continued: “The purpose of the program is to lease up to four crop-duster-type aircraft [an apparent reference to the AT-802U] and to outfit them with machine gun pods, laser-guided bombs, rockets and air-to-air missiles. So, I directed my staff to see if this alleged requirement was justified and properly vetted and approved within the Pentagon by a Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement, since it was not in the administration[s budget request.  Once again the answer was a resounding ‘No’ – there is NO urgent operational requirement for this type of aircraft.” The capital letters appear in the transcript as provided by McCain’s office.

“After turning over the right rocks, we found that this aircraft lease will not be competitively awarded – shades of the infamous tanker lease program – and as such is effectively earmarked for a particular aircraft manufacturer who has the corner on this particularly obscure part of the aviation market.” This could be a reference to either the A-29B or the AT-6.

A different kind of criticism came in an interview for this article with former Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey, widely credited as the force behind the A-10 Thunderbolt II.

Sprey doesn’t think a program aimed explicitly at Afghanistan will get funded when “we’re leaving that country and getting out of that war.” Sprey believes present-day technology would enable a vastly improved, cheaper A-10 type of aircraft that would be suitable for all intensities of warfare.

“Piddling around with light attack is not the way to help out our troops,” Sprey told Defense Media Network. “In any case, a ‘light attack aircraft’ isn’t going to happen in part because we’re leaving Afghanistan next year and mostly because the Air Force despises the mission. We could do much better today if we developed a smaller, hotter, more lethal and survivable version of the A-10 and put the emphasis on ‘close support’ rather than on ‘light attack.’ Our troops need and deserve a true close support aircraft more than ever.”

 

Revived and Re-funded

After Congress deleted $17 million from the plan to send four aircraft to Afghanistan, Pentagon officials obtained permission to re-channel funds from other programs and revived Combat Dragon II – not in the combat zone but stateside, at Fallon and Nellis – with a pair of OV-10G+ Broncos. The OV-10G+ aircraft are reportedly being flown by naval aviators.

Combat Dragon II Broncos

The Broncos have more powerful engines easily recognized by the four-bladed props, electro-optical sensor pods, and other updates and modifications undertaken originally for the Colombian air force, and are on apparently on loan from the State Department fleet. Photo by Gary Schenauer/High Sierra Spotters

The OV-10G+ represents the latest incarnation of a Vietnam-era aircraft design that was meant from the outset for forward air control and counter-insurgency.

The two aircraft in the Combat Dragon II program (bureau numbers 155481 and 155492) are among about a dozen former Marine Corps OV-10D+ models that were previously operated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The author of this article flew in one of them and found the observers’ back-seat position to be quite noisy and to have poor visibility. When the ATF scaled down its plans for an air arm in the late 1990s, its OV-10D+ aircraft were turned over to the Department of State Air Wing, which uses them for counter-narcotics operations in Latin America. The unit is also known as the INL Air Wing, named for State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. The two aircraft then went to NASA and eventually became part of the Combat Dragon II program.

In recent years, this batch of about a dozen Broncos underwent various upgrades, with three modified to OV-10G+ standard (reprising a letter suffix that was used earlier for a very different OV-10G version intended for South Korean forces). The upgrade was accomplished by Marsh Aviation in at Falcon Field in Mesa, Ariz., and was done initially for the Colombian Air Force.

The OV-10G+ version now being evaluated has the same Garrett T76G-420/421 turboprops used on the OV-10D, but with four-bladed Hartzell propellers. The OV-10G+ also has an off-the-shelf sensor turret.

 

Closeted Combat Dragon II

Apart from the basics, no details are available on how the Combat Dragon II program is proceeding or what officials expect when current, AFSOC-generated funding expires on September 30. The two Broncos were recently observed on the East Ramp, also called the Atlantic Aviation Ramp, at Reno/Tahoe International Airport, returning from participation in an exercise called Jaded Thunder at Pahrump, Nev. Jaded Thunder is a joint effort that simulates engaging an enemy in an urban environment. It has been held periodically using a variety of special-purpose military aircraft, including the Pilatus PC-12 and the AC-130.

So why is the seemingly routine Combat Dragon II program kept so low-key? It’s easy to speculate that the program would encounter problems with the Kansas congressional delegation (On June 13, Kansas’s Beechcraft announced that it would exhibit the AT-6 and “defense, special mission and mission support capabilities” at this summer’s Paris Air Show). A source told Defense Media Network the low-key approach is happening because those on the Navy side of the joint effort feel it’s best to “keep a low profile, quietly go about doing good work, and keep the bosses informed.”

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-204047">

    I agree that using a F-15E to provide air support for troops patrolling the villages in Afghanistan is overkill and something like the OV-10D is better suited for that role. Like the A-1 Sandy’s of Vietnam it can loiter over the area alot longer than a fast mover for sure and nothing beats the mark 1 eye ball for seeing who’s where in the smoke of battle.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-204070">
    Chuck "IGOR" Burin

    To bad that much of the information regarding the 2 Bronco ‘s in this program in incorrect starting with the bureau number for the second plane. It should read 155492. Also there are only 3 G models with the thorn in a museum. The two in Combat Dragon II were not obtained direct from the State Department. The engine information is also incorrect. The engine is the same one that was used in the Marine D and D+, the T-76-420 and 421 but with a 4 bladed Hartzell’s prop.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-204170">

    Thanks for the catch on the bureau numbers, Igor. It looks like an 8 from a distance, but it makes sense that it’s 155492, as that also matches up with the two State Department Broncos that went to NASA before moving on to the Combat Dragon II program. By “direct” I assume you’re referring to that fact, but the aircraft, including the one in the Valiant Air Command museum, were regardless all part of State’s fleet to spray herbicide on coca plants. Or pot plants. Thanks for the catch on the engines, as well. Marsh converted a number of Broncos to the higher-rated engines and back in the day more blades meant more horsepower to soak up, and I put two and two together and got five. I’ll make those corrections.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-204631">
    Chuck "IGOR" Burin

    Enjoyed reading the article on the Bronco’s. I flew both of these when they were “A’s”. Thanks for taking the time to make the technical corrections to the article. The OV-10 Bronco Association’s Executive Director was at the unavailing of the first project Bronco at Pax River March 24, 2013

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-204916">

    Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance is an Army mission.

    Replace OH 58s with these things. Use apaches when you need helicopters.

    stop asking for an airframe, ask for an effect.
    These air frames flown by AF pilots with AF doctrine would be a complete waste of money and time.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-205358">

    The OV 10 would be a great idea to bring back to life. It was a great aircraft, but was killed by politics during the VN war. Now, except for these two OV10s, some are still being used by the California Department of Forestry Fire Department, as spotters and droppers.
    there really is no reason to invent a new airframe like the Texan or the foreign made example, when you have a ready, proven, design already on the books, and American Made. Whether or not you have the second position on the OV10 really is besides the point. The strength of the aircraft is its tough construction and engine dependability and its ordinance carrying capability. It is a proven design. Its cheaper than a new aircraft, and its American. It can be as simple or complex as the mission requires. Its a good airplane all around. We should use it.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-205400">

    We try to get everything right, but inevitably, sometimes we mess up. And then when that happens we try to get everything corrected so that it will be right. There are a million ways to get something wrong but only one way to get it right. Thanks for helping us with that.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-206065">
    phil manning

    I’m a former OV-10 USAF pilot and during a early 90s staff tour facilitated the sale of our used OVs to the Phillipines and Columbia. Later got to see them in action as the OV became the primary attack aircraft in PI and spent a week with their sq as they did effective combat with them. In 94 watched very hot fire fight in Columbia as OVs and troop helos met a drug runner we chased from Peru to airfield in Columbia. In both countries the OVs filled a credible role until truly worn out by use. And Sylvan they were using time tested Air Force tactics because Army doctrine results in no sorties after a week. Da FAC Sends

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-206200">

    I agree that the Bronco looks good and is adequate for the job, but my personal favorite is the (more powerful) OV-1 Mohawk. It was recently demonstrated with a steerable 30mm M230 cannon slaved to optronics. Plus, with its more than respectable payload capability, and its excellent short/rough field performance, it could do everything the OV-10G+ can and perhaps even better in hot & high conditions.
    http://defensetech.org/2010/10/28/old-school-coin-planes-keep-coming-back/

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-206287">

    Funnily enough, we have two stories in the works about the Mohawk. One concentrates on its Vietnam service, and the other looks at its resurgence as a COIN aircraft proposal today.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-206519">
    phil manning

    Agree with Costas. Broncos lose performance at high elevations and in hot conditions. F-4s hated being behind the OVs at George AFB (Mojave Desert) for takeoff as we tried to get minimum torque for takeoff.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-206528">

    very good aircraft, just update the airframe and the avionics ,reminds you
    of a turbo prop A-10.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-206566">

    Is there a way to make the Mohawk safe in an engine out situation? I remember some horrible crashes.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-206638">

    An answer to sylvan, would an armed fixed wing aircraft be part of the Air Force mandate? The Army had to come up with some creative uses for their aircraft or be in violation of the agreement on why they created the Air Force in the first place. Feel free to comment as I’m speaking off the cuff on that.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-206694">
    Chase Chambliss

    There are two ways to make a Mohawk safer for flight. The first is to not fly it. LOL The second way might be to put counter-rotating props on it so that it would be more controllable with an engine out at slower airspeeds. All the OV-10s had the counter-rotating feature. If the NTS system was working properly, an engine failure could be controlled long enough at low altitudes to stay within ‘controlled ejection’ [vertical] vector parameters. At altitude, the aircraft could be brought under full control relatively easy and flown to safety, and a safe landing.
    I flew the OV-10 for most of my Marine Corps career, and for several years with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, and the Dept. of State aerial eradication program. The OV-10As definitely were underpowered and I recall several events, reminiscent of the Marble Mountain berm scraping stories told by the Viet Nam Bronco pilots. On a hot, humid day, a fully armed ‘A’ model with a couple of LAU-10 rocket pods, and a full load of full to stay aloft for several hours, would just barely make it over the berm. A real cushion sucking experience that required a pry bar to get the seat off your butt when you returned. That however changed a little with the engine mod that put T-76 420 and 421 engines on the aircraft. On the topic of engines, if they do get approval to R&D a new version of the OV-10, it should have longer, beefier wings to support slightly larger engines and produce a greater lift and loiter capability. As an OV-10 pilot (emeritus), I’ve flown all three models of the OV-10 (the A, D, and D SLEP (referred to as the ‘+’). I even got about eight hours of ‘G’ flight time before Dept. of State retired the aircraft. Total, I have just over 3,000 logged flight hours in the Bronco. I’ve flown them as a FAC(A), TAC(A), and SAC(A). I was a Weapons and Tactics Instructor in the Bronco. I was a Post Maintenance Functional Check Pilot for years. The mud-Marines loved having a Bronco on station to call shots for them. Mud-Marine commanders wrote many articles about how the OV-10 crews gave a heightened situational awareness to them on the battlefield. The OV-10 added depth to the battlefield. We need to see the Bronco rise again. With the right mix of technology and firepower, and configured correctly the Bronco can once again be the multi-mission COIN aircraft that it was initially designed to be.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-206707">
    Robert F. Dorr

    Thanks to everyone who helped and who commented on this article. In the initial version, there were glitches that needed repair and it’s partly because of help from readers that we were able to improve this report on an aircraft that is much admired and appreciated, both on the ground and in the air. A head-to-head comparison of the OV-10 Bronco and OV-1 Mohawk would be of great interest. Only time will tell whether funding will be available to continue the sort of effort undertaken in Combat Dragon II.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-208095">
    Allan Desmond

    it’ll take 10 years go over budget then be canceled, the USA can not and will not build and design its own training aircraft. We loss any skill for on time on budget an the correct aircraft for the right mission at the right time..thank you C-27.. how long to JUST pick between a T-6 and the Far far better aircraft that won.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-208467">
    DiamondDave

    OV-10 should be the aircraft, and the damned politicians need to shut their mouths.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-209119">
    Art "Hawk" Savard

    Hawk: Was one of the plank owners of the US Navy squadron Light Attack Squadron Four (VAL-4). Four of us were the attack nucleus when we started forming up aboard NAS North Island from the A-1 Skyraider ( Spad) community from the last Spad cruise with CAG-3 aboard Saratoga. VA-176 fame was gained when shooting down migs on the previous Intrepid cruise and on the Sara cruise as launched against the folks shooting up Liberty.

    That legacy was brought to VAL4 and we modified A-1 CAS and air to ground attack for combat given the weapons section of the NATOPS was that famous Navy phrase …. “Intentionally Left Blank”.

    Like most in the squadron I amassed about 340 missions and 500 combat hours in my ten months.

    We built the whole squadron in five flying months.

    See our track record: http://www.blackpony.org/

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-209122">
    Art "Hawk" Savard

    Black Pony Facebook link …………………………………

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/61336609392/