Defense Media Network

The LAAR Lightweight Combat Aircraft Is Coming to the Air Force

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.


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-62">

    They’ve done it again!

    The leaders at the top want the capabilities of an aircraft they dumped in favor of other more expensive toys – when they COULD have saved all of us a LOT of money just keeping it in the inventory all this time…
    The OV-1 was an excellent bird, one we loved to see…. the OV-10 follows in it’s footsteps with increased capabilities and the leadership at the top needs to consider this before spec’ing out a radically new aircraft that’s going to cost all of us a lot of money to obtain and support.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-63">

    This will be an interesting competition to follow. I’m biased towards a new OV-10 having worked on them before. I believe they offer the most military capability of the choices seen so far. The center pod configuration has a lot of room for ammunition bins to feed a variety of machine gun, cannon, or grenade launcher weaponry. It already has hard points on the centerline and sponsons for bombs or missiles as well as hard points on the wings that can hold a variety of weapons including air to air missiles. An extra engine is a nice thing to have in a fight also. I believe a “dust off” of the design to correct any weak points identified during the past 40 years, current engines and props, as well as a modern sensor/comm suite would turn the OV-10 into a vicious little fighter.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-64">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    It will be interesting to see how the bids play out. The OV-10(X) sounds like an attractive option, if all the tooling still exists somewhere, which it presumably does. But the question is how far will “upgrades” go to avionics, sensors, etc., and how much will that add to costs? If the Air Force gets carried away with the requirements, it could turn a simple “dust off” of a design into an expensive proposition. But as I understand it, the point is to procure something virtually off the shelf to hold costs down. We’ll see.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-65">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Some would argue that the military, except for special operations forces, threw out the entire COIN book after Vietnam, and not just the weapons platforms, and that it’s cost us lives and treasure to relearn it.

    As far as development costs, the Super Tucano already flies in several South American air forces, and as the article mentions, is now flying for NAVSPECWARCOM. The AT-6B prototype flew last year. And of course the Bronco and Porter flew COIN missions during the Vietnam era. The hope here is to obtain something that won’t require huge development costs, which sounds reasonable enough. If we’re talking Afghanistan, though, the question is which of these would perform best in “hot and high” conditions.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-67">

    The Air Force already owns 550 Cessna 172 and 182 airframes and gave them to the Civil air Patrol which is now a 501(c)(3) but is being used to do things decidedly un-civilian.

    Granted, a glass cockpit 182 isn’t an OV10 and isn’t going to come screaming out of the clouds firing rockets…but I have seen Piper Cubs come screaming out of the clouds firing rockets and Some CAP 182s are sporting predator pods under their wings.

    182s are flown as military aircraft in ten countries. So we have those and we have OV10s and we still have some Skyraiders..and for a cheap thrill, we still have a lot of A4s rotting at Davis-Monthan. Why not use what we already paid for and have sitting out there?.

    I may be biased. If we need something new I think a small, fast airplane with laser illumination and sensing capabilities would work nicely and my choice, from having flown all of these is a Vari-Eze. I understand that it does not meet ANY of the specifications but maybe the specifications are wrong.

    A beefed-up Vari-Eze is almost invisible to radar, as hard to hit with groundfire as a hummingbird, and could EASILY carry ordinance. And it flies like a P51 on steroids. If you remove the pilot, you can buy hundreds of them for the cost of a few Predators.

    We have to stop wasting money we don’t have. We have simple solutions available but no way to implement them over the influence of lobbyists.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-68">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    I appreciate your point, and certainly the Bird Dog, for example, did great work in Vietnam. And it would be nice to save some money by adapting something that’s already in the inventory, so to speak.

    But Air Combat Command’s RFI document seeks capabilities a 172 or 182 just can’t deliver. No argument that the 172 and 182 are great aircraft. But when the RFI seeks a 180 knot cruise minimum, which is 5 knots over the 182’s do not exceed speed, the writing is on the wall.

    Some other requirements from the RFI:

    Carry at least two 500-pound bombs, one or two minigun pods, laser designator, onboard sensors, flares, 2.75-inch rockets and other “rail-launched weapons” on at least four weapon stations to an altitude of 10,000 feet AGL. Again, a 182 has a useful load of, what, 1100 pounds? It must also have an operational altitude of 30,000 feet AGL. I won’t even go into required takeoff and climb-out performance, but, clean, it will be required to be capable, at least, an “aileron roll, barrel roll, chandelle, cloverleaf, Cuban eight, Immelman turn, lazy eight, loop, and split-S.”

    So there’s no chance there for a Cessna 172 or 182. They’re good little aircraft, but they’re just not strong, fast, or powerful enough for the requirements.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-69">

    Aloha Chuck,

    I agree with you. I happen to know of a a couple of aircraft that can perform to those specifications. But let me say that the ‘specifications’ themselves are somewhat arbitrary. Fighter aircraft are designed to surpass the capabilities of other fighter aircraft but ground attack aircraft aren’t. What has evolved in the industry is a gamed system. Someone has an aircraft they want to sell and they get their senators behind it and the specifications are written so that aircraft is one of only a couple that can meet them. But we still have an aircraft in mothballs that was designed for these specifications….probably these EXACT specifications. And, as mentioned it is the OV-10. If you step back a bit, an A1D Skyraider does everything but haul passengers. If you want a medium aircraft that is mission-capable with a turboprop mod look no further than the B-25 and B-26.

    I happen to be a great OV-10 fan. In 1969 they cost the military $480,000 each. They were funded as OV (ObserVation) aircraft but they were really light attack. Let’s make them OV-10X glass cockpits and charge the government $5 MILLION each that’s 500 million for a hundred. 2 BILLION is excessive. We don’t have it to spend but no one has quite got the message yet.

    I am not seriously touting 182s for the role but something is seriously wrong with the specification and procurement process.
    For instance…where are we planning to use the new aircraft? Do we actually HAVE a mission for them or is this the sort of deal that if you don’t spend the money you have to toss it back in the pot?

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-70">
    Chuck Oldham (Editor)

    Well, if I were a betting man, I’d say that that with a 30,000-foot altitude requirement, and the mountains of the Hindu Kush at around 25,000 feet, it might be that someone sees us being in Afghanistan for awhile.

    I like the Bronco, too. There were still a few around when I was coming up. I always liked aircraft that seemed no-frills and purpose-built. The last Marine Corps variants were so ugly they were beautiful.

    Always liked the Spad, too. But the Mitchell… Nothing sounds like a Mitchell’s radials. Talk about the sound of freedom.