A small, nimble warplane – an economical featherweight compared to robust combat aircraft like the 40-ton F-15E Strike Eagle – now enjoys a high priority on the Air Force’s shopping list as the service remakes itself for counter-insurgency conflicts.
Under the OA-X program begun in September 2008, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz is pushing toward an eventual, $2 billion purchase of up to 100 Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) aircraft. The LAAR is likely to be a turboprop aircraft and will be part of mainstream Air Force operations. Air Combat Command (ACC) is performing developmental work rather than, as might be expected in an unorthodox effort, Air Force Special Operations Command.
One observer, given a glimpse of ACC’s capabilities-based assessment conducted in 2009, made the comment that, “this looks a lot like World War II.” That was a reference to the likely airframe and the guns and bombs it will carry, not to the 21st century digital avionics ACC expects to pack inside. An ACC official responded: “Yeah. We get that a lot.”
Among aircraft being proposed are the AirTractor AT802U (a modified crop duster, demonstrated at the 2009 Paris Air Show), Alenia M346, Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B Texan II, and Pilatus PC-6 Porter. Pentagon officials say LAAR must be derived from an “in production” aircraft design. Boeing, however, is proposing an OV-10(X) Bronco, based on the twin-engine, twin-boom forward air control aircraft of the Vietnam era, which the planemaker would return to production at a facility not yet chosen.
The Air Force wants a “kinetic,” or rapid engagement, capability that, it says, “will reduce the sensor-to-shooter timeline cycle.” The LAAR aircraft will also function as a digital-era forward air controller, coordinating fire directly with supported ground units through voice, video and datalinks – and minimizing the danger of blue-on-blue or “friendly fire” incidents.
One reason for LAAR and the OA-X program: operating cost. The Air Force wants an aircraft that can fly one combat hour for $1,000. A combat flight hour costs $7,750 for an F-16C Fighting Falcon and fully $44,000 for an F-15E Strike Eagle.
Typical air-to-ground ordnance for LAAR will include one or two podded 7.62-mm. mini-guns, two 500-pound guided-munitions, 2.75-inch rocket projectiles and the AGM-114N Hellfire air-to-ground missile. A “needs” document that does not yet have formal status calls for operating from austere airfields on five-hour missions over distances of 900 nautical miles up to a ceiling of 30,000 feet.
In its short-term plans for the new aircraft, the Air Force plans to purchase 15 examples in fiscal year 2011. ACC wants a 24-aircraft squadron ready for combat within two years and will then decide whether to equip an entire wing. If the program grows as expected, many of the aircraft will be assigned to Air National Guard units.
Last November, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan) and Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stating concerns with reports that the United States and Brazil are negotiating for acquisition of Super Tucanos. Brownback and Tiahrt, strong defenders of the Wichita-built AT-6B, argued that such an agreement would “demean the integrity of the federal acquisition process” and cost thousands of American jobs.
Closely related to the OA-X program and the LAAR aircraft, the Navy is November 2009 launched Imminent Fury, a demonstrator program with a leased Super Tucano, designated A-29B in Pentagon parlance. The purpose: special operations support for SEAL teams in the field. The Imminent Fury aircraft is equipped with an electro-optical sensor in a nose turret and satellite and secure communications systems. According to one source, the Navy leased the Super Tucano from EP Aviation, a subsidiary of the contractor Xe Security, formerly Blackwater International.