The OA-X experiment: is there a future for light attack aircraft?

4 June 2018 (Last Updated January 29th, 2020 12:47)

New light attack aircraft that target low priority threats could be built quicker and cheaper than jet fighters, but does sending lightly armoured planes into battle put pilots at unacceptable risk? Julian Turner talks to aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia about a controversy that is 70 years in the making.

The OA-X experiment: is there a future for light attack aircraft?
The debate over the benefits of using quicker, cheaper aircraft against low-priority targets versus the risk of sending pilots into permissive airspace in lightly armoured, propeller-driven planes has been raging since the Vietnam War. Image: United States Marine Corps / Staff Sgt. Gabriela Garcia.

Do light attack aircraft have a fighting chance of mass mobilisation in the US Air Force (USAF)?

The debate over the benefits of using quicker, cheaper aircraft against low-priority targets versus the risk of sending pilots into permissive airspace in lightly armoured, propeller-driven planes has been raging since the Vietnam War – yet military aviation experts are no closer to reaching a consensus.

The arguments for a fleet of light attack aircraft centre on cost and practicality. The air force regularly sends state-of-the-art jets such as the F-15, F-16 and F-22 on missions against the Taliban, Islamic State and other insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, none of which pose a serious aerial threat.

Not only are these sorties expensive – an F-22 Raptor costs about $70,000 an hour to fly – they also waste fourth and fifth-generation aircraft on counterterrorism tasks when they could be patrolling the Korean Peninsula or engaging Russian targets as part of the European Reassurance Initiative.

The alternative is to employ an ‘off-the-shelf’ OA-X light attack aircraft such as the AT-6 Wolverine or A-29 Super Tucano for strikes against extremist targets. The latter model typically costs about $1,000 per hour to fly; that’s less than 1/20th of the cost of an F-16, and 1/60th of the flying cost of an F-22.

“If we can get light attack aircraft operating in permissive combat environments, we can alleviate the demand on our fourth and fifth-generation aircraft, so they can be training for the high-end fight they were made for,” said Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition in May.

Testing times: inside the US Light Attack Experiment

Critics of the strategy – and there are many – argue that sending large numbers of slow, limited, propeller-driven aircraft into battle is at best a false economy, and at worst potentially disastrous, citing as evidence heavy casualties among light attack squadrons during the conflict in Vietnam.

“In the 1980s the USAF came to a pretty smart compromise in that they designed a dedicated light attack, low-altitude plane, but a survivable one, the A-10,”states Richard Aboulafia, vice-president for analysis at aerospace consulting firm Teal Group. “It extrapolated from there and in my opinion has now gotten into the realm of the absurd.

“Is there a niche requirement for a few dozen turboprop planes to fulfil low-end missions? Yes, you can make a very strong argument. Is there an argument for hundreds for use against countries with zero air power, zero sophisticated surface-to-air power and a lack of any serious military capability beyond the odd AK-47? That is a foolish and extremely dangerous argument.”

The military top brass are committed to pressing ahead regardless. The second phase of the USAF Light Attack (OA-X) Experiment began earlier this month at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Pilots are flying the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and Textron Aviation AT-6 Wolverine for three months to test the planes’ in-air interdiction, close-air support, armed overwatch, and combat search and rescue capabilities, as well as flightline and in-shop maintenance requirements.

The air force has earmarked more than $2bn over the next six years for a new light attack fleet if the decision to go into production is finally made, and the emphasis is on partner nation interoperability.

“We’re looking at light attack through the lens of allies and partners,” Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “A big part of the Light Attack Experiment is a common architecture and an intelligence-sharing network, so that those who would join us would be part of the campaign against violent extremism.”

Potential advantages: cost and operational efficiencies

Advocates also point out that light attack aircraft could also be used to keep pilots fresh, allowing them to transition to more sophisticated fighter aircraft if required, as well as perform close-air and counterinsurgency missions, freeing up F-15, F-16 and F-22 jets for high-threat combat training.

The Afghan Air Force, a US Air Force ally, took delivery of a further two A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft last month, bringing up the total number of A-29 turboprops operated by the AAF to 19.

Speaking to Air Force Times, Aboulafia pointed out that the pilot of a lightly armoured OA-X could be vulnerable to man-portable air defence system, heavy machine guns, or rocket-propelled grenades.

The Super Tucano has a maximum airspeed of 366mph and a ceiling of 35,000ft feet. Even the Wolverine – a variant of the T-6 trainer aircraft used by the US Air Force – manages 510mph and has a ceiling of 31,000ft.

“If they are experimenting with a great deal of money in order to buy a couple of dozen planes it is bureaucracy gone amok, but it’s harmless and it might have some positive effect in terms of joint operations with the Afghans,” concedes Aboulafia.

“However, O-AX has been posited as 350 planes, which is like building a vast army to finally deal with that gopher problem in your backyard.”

Struggle for supremacy: the Key West Agreement

Quips aside, Aboulafia believes the debate has its roots in the battle for resources between the USAF and the US Army that began in 1948 with the signing of the ‘Key West Agreement’, which, among other things, outlined the division of air assets between the army, navy, and newly created air force.

Up until that point, the army and the navy had each essentially maintained their own air forces.

“The cynical part of this argument, which began decades ago, it is that the USAF wants to keep the army from obtaining any fixed wing aircraft that carry out combat duties, while the army is eager to paint the USAF as not quite daring enough to undertake ground missions,” he explains.

“In the background you have the US Marines, who are now the specialists in counterinsurgency and whose operations aren’t governed by the Key West agreement. If you asked a marine if he’d like the turboprop light attack aircraft, he’d likely reply: “Are you kidding? We don’t our pilots to get killed.

“The whole thing has become a talking point to keep anti-air force world at bay,” he continues.

“The US is the hot-house environment for some bureaucratic dysfunction from 70 years ago.”

Finally, does Aboulafia believe the US military will come round to his point of view and abandon plans for a large OA-X fleet?

“The whole argument is predicated on the idea you have these big operating theatres where there will never be a threat to air power, which is beyond stupid, and the economic alternative is that pilot lives aren’t worth much, so put them in cheaper planes that are easily shot down,” he says.

“Let’s look at the parallel realities; let’s look beyond the Key West Agreement and beyond USAF versus US Army. The last time I checked, the Royal Air Force and the Israeli Air Force are still great – and they are both laughing their heads off at the idea.

“Look at other good militaries around the world. Who else is buying planes in this class?”