The idea is straightforward and appealing: A light, armed aircraft, equipped with sensors and weapons – affordable, nimble, and flexible – can become a big player for the U.S. Air Force in counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare in places like Iraq and Afghanistan without breaking the budget. Americans can fly the aircraft in combat. More importantly, because of the simplicity of the aircraft, Americans can train airmen in partner nations to fly it and, thus, to defend themselves, eventually without U.S. boots on the ground.
It’s an idea with solid historical precedent. The Air Force tested light warplanes in the 1950s, flew them in Korea and Vietnam, and trained indigenous pilots and crews to operate scaled-down fighter-bombers not only in Korea and Vietnam but in many allied nations.
The earliest equivalent to today’s Light Armed Attack Reconnaissance (LAAR) program – as well as related developmental efforts by the Navy and Air National Guard – was a series of tests conducted during the Korean War era.
In Korea, U.S. airmen flew armed versions of the North American T-6 Texan piston-engined trainers dubbed “Mosquitos,” primarily for artillery spotting and forward air control. Some of the Texans were converted to LT-6G configuration with the addition of weapons capability. Seeking something better, the USAF tested a variety of other airplanes, including the Fletcher FD-25 Defender and Temco T-35A Buckaroo, with real or simulated weapons. The program appears to have withered and died in the mid-1950s.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Army tested armed versions of the Cessna YAT-37D Dragonfly (or Super Tweet), Douglas A4D-1 Skyhawk, and Fiat G.91. The tests went well, but the Army has long been prohibited from operating fixed-wing aircraft in combat and no production order ensued.
A need for light, armed warplanes was revived when the United States deepened its involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s. Early on, U.S. Air Force “advisors” – who were combatants in all but name – flew North American T-28A Trojans in Vietnam before acquiring used, ex-Navy Douglas A-1 Skyraiders. All U.S. service branches also operated small aircraft that were unarmed or lightly armed, including the Cessna O-1 Bird Dog, Cessna O-2 Skymaster, and North American OV-10A Bronco. Although their primary job was to pinpoint ground targets for “fast movers” – jet fighter-bombers – these relatively small, armed aircraft also engaged the enemy eyeball-to-eyeball. When participation in Vietnam ended, interest in a light, armed warplane evaporated once more. Apart from a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program to supply Cessna A-37s to friendly nations, especially in Latin America, that interest lay dormant until just two years ago.
THE FUTURE ALL OVER AGAIN
When Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz announced the LAAR aircraft program in September 2008, it seemed to have an additional benefit. It would be a boon to industry. At the time, the Air Force envisioned a $2 billion purchase of 100 LAAR aircraft. The program was on a short timetable, too: Schwartz’s air staff issued a Capability Request for Information (CRFI) to planemakers on July 27, 2009, seeking “acquisition options to provide capability” starting in fiscal year 2012. Today, the Pentagon says the CRFI is out of date and describes a larger LAAR program than is now being contemplated – yet the document provides the clearest insight into the thinking of leaders of the program.
The CRFI prompted buzz about, and proposals for, several aircraft types for the LAAR program. Proposed candidates included the AirTractor AT802U (a modified crop duster demonstrated at the 2009 Paris Air Show), Alenia M346, Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, Pilatus PC-6 Porter, and Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B Texan II. The Beechcraft aircraft is named for, but not otherwise related to, the well-known advanced trainer of World War II, the North American AT-6 Texan, which lost its “A” prefix (which meant “advanced” in those days but means “attack” today) in 1948.
Pentagon officials said LAAR would have to be derived from an “in production” aircraft design. Still, Boeing suggested an OV-10(X) Bronco, based
on the twin-engine, twin-boom forward air controller of the Vietnam era. Boeing said it was prepared to resume Bronco production at a facility not yet chosen.
While leaders in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill deliberated about LAAR, observers in Washington learned that the Navy was quietly conducting a special-operations evaluation of a sensor- and weapons-equipped Super Tucano through its Imminent Fury program. The Tucano demonstrator was leased from a company that was formerly a subsidiary of Xe, formerly Blackwater, and given the U.S. designation A-29. The Navy plans to eventually lease four Super Tucanos, designated A-29B, to evaluate their capabilities. This project is funded by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and has remained so low-key that officials haven’t disclosed which airfield is being used for Tucano operations. Moreover, Imminent Fury appears to have escaped the wrath of lawmakers – especially those from Kansas, home of the AT-6B Texan II – who question funding the “foreign” (Brazilian-built) Tucano. U.S. Central Command had long requested funding for four additional aircraft for the Imminent Fury program. In his confirmation hearing, Gen. James Mattis, the nominee to head Central Command, indicated that previous commanders have had a difficult time getting funding for this program, but that he considers it a priority.
What wasn’t lost on Capitol Hill, though, was the idea that LAAR and Imminent Fury seemed strikingly similar and, thus, a duplication of effort. Some congressional members argue that the seemingly similar Air Force and Navy programs should be merged. Others question whether investing in a lightweight combat aircraft is a good idea at all since it would entail significant start-up costs and wouldn’t apply to large-scale “peer” conflicts between nation states. Still other Washington observers admire the idea of a small, nimble combat aircraft but wonder if the Air Force will lose the plane’s key advantage – light weight – once engineers add sensors (as many as four on an evolving AT-6B variant), bomb racks, mini-guns, and other extra weight.
Without acknowledging Imminent Fury and speaking only in the context of LAAR, two lawmakers expressed their objection to the Pentagon operating the Brazilian aircraft.
In November 2009, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., sent a letter to other House of Representatives leaders requesting an investigation into reports – premature, then and now – that the United States and Brazil were negotiating for U.S. acquisition of 100 Super Tucanos. Brownback and Tiahrt, strong defenders of the Wichita-built AT-6B Texan II, argued that such an agreement would “demean the integrity of the federal acquisition process” and result in the loss of thousands of American jobs. Tiahrt sent a similar letter to Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates.
In effect defending the Imminent Fury program, Lt. Col. Dave Tabor, chief of Irregular Warfare, Combat Support Division, said, “The Navy came to us [the Air Force] and asked to be partners. We think we can learn from Phase Two of Imminent Fury,” a reference to the planned flight demonstration by four A-29Bs. The Super Tucano is considered more robust than the AT-6B and was available for the Navy’s use earlier than an AT-6B could have been.
For reasons unrelated to Imminent Fury, both the planned size and the purpose of the LAAR effort are shifting. Steve Day, director of irregular warfare on the air staff, told The Year in Defense that the focus now is on developing in small numbers an aircraft that can be flown by U.S. crews, but quickly turned over to allied nations. This reflects Gates’ priority on platforms and missions that apply to conflicts like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We’re looking at LAAR based on a couple of guiding principles,” said Day. “We thought we’d take a small bite of this and create something that we could readily transfer to partner nations. It needs to be affordable. We want a modular, open-architecture airplane and equipment.”
Although Schwartz and the CRFI both spoke of 100 airframes, Day said that a formal Request for Proposals (RFP) due late in calendar year 2010 will cover only an initial batch of 15 aircraft that will “remain in the United States and train U.S. pilots in tactics and procedure.” Future LAARs, if there are any, will be built primarily for the purpose of enabling U.S. airmen to train allied pilots in their use.
The Air Force’s LAAR plan, at least as initially presented to industry, calls for a small plane with an advanced sensor suite, hardpoints to carry light missiles, bombs, and rockets, and the independent capability to find and engage targets at night. The LAAR would also function as a forward air control aircraft, directing gunfire and ordnance from other platforms. The aircraft will need to operate from austere forward operating bases, including crude airstrips of grass or gravel. It needs to be largely self-sustaining, since it will operate in locations where maintenance support is all but nonexistent.
Some of these requirements, including those for high-altitude capability and for an on-board oxygen generation system, seem tailored to the war in Afghanistan.
“If you’ve got three or four SEALs or Green Berets stuck on a mountain and the enemy is engaging them, this is a reasonable answer,” said former Pentagon analyst Pierre Sprey in an interview. “All they need are some really accurate airborne .50-caliber machine guns or light cannons assigned to them and guaranteed available within 10 minutes.” Sprey said a purchase of 50 to 100 LAARs would be a reasonable expenditure but would not substitute for “a real Close Air Support [CAS] aircraft,” by which he means a replacement for the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II. He said the Air Force and Navy have both ignored the CAS mission for years, making do with warplanes that were not designed for direct contact with troops.
FIVE LIGHTWEIGHT OPTIONS
Pentagon official Day told Defense Aerospace Edition that LAAR is part of a series of initiatives. He listed the following:
1. LAAR: Day said it is now defined as a “Building Partnership Capacity (BPC)-focused platform to train U.S. pilots in TTP (tactics, techniques and procedures) for engaging partner nations.”
2. OA-X: Once understood to be a synonym, the “Observation Aircraft, Experimental,” according to Day, is now a “future program that looks for a follow-on platform for the A-10/CAS [close air support] role in the Air Force.”
So far, OA-X seems to be only at the thinking stage. One reason for OA-X (and presumably for LAAR as well) is 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.
3. Imminent Fury: Day called this a “Navy-led concept development/validation in response to CENTCOM [Central Command] RFF [request for forces] to combine find, fix, finish with persistent ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance].” Day said he could not elaborate.
4. Afghan Light Air Support: Day said this is a “CENTCOM request to fulfill requirement in the ANAAC [Afghan National Army Air Corps] for a light attack platform that can do advanced training and combat operations. This is a separate, distinct requirement that is being purchased on behalf of the ANAAC.” It’s unclear whether this program and LAAR intersect.
5. A National Guard Bureau AT-6B Texan II “technology demonstration funded by Congress [that] integrates ISR and weapons system capabilities.”
Asked why there appears to be considerable overlap among these programs, Day responded: “The Air Force requirements/acquisition process is a deliberate process, regardless of how simple the choices may seem on the surface. The LAAR program is nearing the end of the requirements process and will then go on to the acquisitions process; another deliberate process. At this point, more refined characteristic will be articulated in the form of Key Performance Parameters.”
Day also referred to Air Force interest in a “Light Mobility Aircraft” (LiMA), which he said “is a related program to LAAR exploring a materiel solution for Light Mobility.” He said a LiMA request for proposals would be issued at the end of fiscal year 2010, or at about the same time as an RFP for the LAAR aircraft.
For the short term, the Air National Guard Bureau AT-6B Texan demonstration – the result of a $15.4 million Brownback legislative “earmark” and a project that is distinct from LAAR – is proceeding comfortably.
While the AT-6B demo is federally funded, Hawker Beechcraft used its own funds to build two AT-6B prototypes, which are owned by the company rather than the U.S. military. The maiden flight of the second aircraft took place on March 31, 2010, at the Wichita assembly plant when test pilots Randy Black and Derek “Turk” Hess (who is also the company’s AT-6B program manager) flew the second AT-6B “production representative test
vehicle,” called AT-2. It is the first Texan II to be powered by the next-generation 1,600 shaft horsepower Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68D turboprop engine.
The second company-financed aircraft differs in important ways from the first AT-6B, known as AT-1, which completed its maiden flight on July 27, 2009. The first aircraft was intended initially as an avionics and sensor test bed. It uses the lower-powered engine, a 1,100 shaft horsepower PT6A-68A, found on T-6A and T-6B trainers, about a thousand of which are flying around the world. The lower-rated engine also powers the Texan II armed trainers for Greece’s Hellenic Air Force (AT-6A) and Morocco (T-6C).
Beechcraft reported that the AT-6B will “address the mission needs of the USAF for a Light Attack and Armed Reconnaissance [LAAR] aircraft.” A potential drawback is that Congress’ biggest supporter of the AT-6B, Brownback, is a “lame duck” not seeking re-election this year. On the plus side, every recent U.S. military pilot has already flown the T-6A (or the Navy T-6B) in primary flight training, so transition to the armed version should be easy.
The private-sector investment in the AT-6B, along with legislation favorable to the aircraft, spurred a demonstration (actually, a flight test program) at one of America’s least known flight-test centers, the Air National Guard/Air Force Reserve Command Test Center (AATC) located at the Tucson, Ariz., International Airport. Detachment 11 of the National Guard Bureau tests upgrades to A-10, F-15, F-16, and MC-12W aircraft, among others. Today, the detachment is wringing out the AT-6B.
The unit is using the first of the two armed Texan IIs, the airframe called AT-1. “This is a really neat project,” said test pilot Lt. Col. Keith “Coma” Colmer. “AT-1 has an opening in the lower fuselage where we’ve installed a color electro-optical wide [angle] camera, an MX15VI FLIR [forward-looking infrared] sensor, and electro-optical/near-IR sensors.” The aircraft has six hardpoints for ordnance and uses the same mission computer as the A-10C Thunderbolt II. Just as a pilot trained on the Texan II will fit right in, if the AT-6B enters U.S. service, Colmer said, “It will be simple to drop an A-10C Warthog pilot into the cockpit and that pilot will be right at home.”
AT-1 arrived in Tucson on March 29 and was declared “fully operational” in the demonstration program on April 5. In a telephone interview, Lt. Gen. Harry “Bud” Wyatt, director of the Air National Guard, said the Tucson demonstration “will inform the [active-duty] Air Force on its LAAR effort and test capabilities that can be used on other aircraft” – a choice of words permitting Wyatt to maintain the position of most Air Force leaders that they are “platform agnostic” when it comes to selecting a LAAR aircraft.
The Tucson-based demonstration made a temporary move on April 10, 2010, to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., where the AT-6B joined other U.S. combat aircraft in a Joint Expeditionary Forces Experiment (JEFX). The purpose of JEFX 10-03 was to test new communications and tactics but it was also the first trial of the AT-6B in conditions like those encountered in battle.
AT-1 appeared at the JEFX in a new, low-visibility gray paint scheme. Colmer and Hess said the aircraft was being used in simulated surveillance and attack missions, with simulated firing of guns and dropping of bombs. As part of the JEFX, the demo team planned to land the AT-6B at Texas Dry Lake near Las Vegas, land an MC-130P Combat Shadow tanker beside it, and simulate a ground refueling in an austere setting behind enemy lines in a combat zone. Later in the summer, with the demonstration returning to Tucson, the demonstration team planned flights that would include live-fire trials of mini-guns and dropping of real bombs.
This article was first published in The Year in Defense: Aerospace Edition, Summer 2010.