Supporters of a light attack aircraft for U.S. forces were hit with the latest in a succession of setbacks in October when the House of Representatives Appropriations and Armed Services committees and Senate Armed Services Committee rejected a $17 million U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) request for the Combat Dragon II program, according to a Pentagon reprogramming document.
The push for a lightweight air-to-ground warplane has taken two directions in recent years:
- CENTCOM has been urging an on-scene battlefield demonstration in Afghanistan. CENTCOM Commander Gen. James N. Mattis, USMC, has long argued for a small turboprop aircraft to provide ground troops with long loitering time, on-call surveillance, and air-to-ground weapons delivery. Mattis believes it’s “overkill” to use a jet fighter costing tens of millions of dollars to build – and, in the case of the F-15E Strike Eagle, $44,000 per hour to fly – for close air support to troops patrolling rural villages. Mattis supported the Navy’s now-defunct Imminent Fury program, which employed the Brazilian-made Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, also called the A-29B.
- The Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC) has spent the past two years conducting a demonstration of the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II in a program funded by legislation from the Kansas congressional delegation. The AT-6 is manufactured in Wichita and the demonstration has taken place at bases and ranges in the American Southwest.
During a demonstration phase that ended October 5 near Tucson, the AT-6 proved it could accurately drop laser-guided munitions, including 250-pound GBU-58s 500-pound GBU-12s.
The House and Senate lawmakers’ decision is seen as a rejection of hopes that a light attack aircraft could decrease costs and collateral damage in counterinsurgency actions in Afghanistan. Mattis, Kansas legislators who support the AT-6, and others have been urging the Pentagon to test turboprop aircraft outfitted with reconnaissance sensors and precision-guided weapons in combat to see if they can improve coordination between ground troops and aircraft.
In April 2010, the House Armed Services Committee, under pressure from the Kansas delegation, rejected a $22 million Pentagon request for a “Phase II combat validation” that would have deployed four leased Super Tucanos to Afghanistan for six months as part of the Imminent Fury program initiated by the Navy’s irregular warfare office.
Combat Dragon II was a reincarnation of this phase and now it, too, appears to be dead.
The first phase of Imminent Fury came to an end in 2010 after the Navy – and, for a brief period, the Air Force – tested a single Super Tucano borrowed from the company Xe, formerly called Blackwater.
Phase I was “highly successful,” said a person close to the program. “We used this phase to evaluate an ‘agnostic’ mission kit that could be used on any light aircraft.”
Phase I of Imminent Fury also evaluated the “footprint” (or impact) on intelligence processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) capabilities that use the “take” from a surveillance platform and turn it into an intelligence product. This phase evaluated ROVER (Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver), a device that permits full motion video to be sent over ultra high-frequency radio. It allows ground units with a ROVER device to receive video directly from an aerial platform.
Despite the setback for Combat Dragon II, the U.S. military is likely to continue asking for platforms like the Super Tucano and AT-6. Plans to field other light attack aircraft, including a variant of the Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco, appear to be on hold in the current budget environment.