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Back To The Future: The Pentagon Considers Flying Prop Warplanes

Air Force weighs a cheaper way of waging wars in developing countries

Beechcraft AT-6
A Beechcraft AT-6, one of the contenders to be the Air Force’s new light-attack warplane, flies over the White Sands Missile Range. (Photo: USAF / Ethan D. Wagner)

Today’s U.S. warplanes were built to destroy the Soviet Union: B-52 Stratofortresses would fly low to avoid Moscow’s radar and rockets before destroying their targets; B-1 Lancers would sweep back their wings to plunge in fast to avoid being shot down; bat-winged B-2 Spirits would sneak in by trying to render themselves invisible to Soviet air defenses. And F-22 fighters were designed to tighten the U.S. Air Force’s grip from air superiority into air dominance over Soviet warplanes.

So why has the U.S. Air Force been using these costly warbirds to destroy mud huts, obliterate crude drug labs and take out terrorists for the past 16 years? “That puts an aircraft that costs between $40,000 and $80,000 an hour to operate, and then you’re dropping about a $54,000 weapon to kill a guy on a motorcycle,” said Taco Gilbert, a retired Air Force brigadier general seeking to push the Air Force in a cheaper direction. “We’re going to lose that war, eventually, just economically.”

No wonder he retired with only a single star. Gilbert is a now senior vice president at Sierra Nevada, one of the companies competing for the light attack program.

Using the world’s most sophisticated and costly warplanes to bore holes in the sky over Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere doesn’t make any sense. Now that Congress and the Air Force are asking the right question, here’s hoping they can come up with the right answer.

Last year Senator John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the armed services committee, said the Air Force should buy 300 so-called light-attack prop planes to curb this financial fiasco. Last month, the Air Force launched a competition between two relatively cheap aircraft to keep from going broke. The service is pitting the Textron Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine against the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano at New Mexico’s Holloman Air Force base to see if it can find a winner. At about $20 million each, that’s roughly half the cost of the Air Force’s “cheap” F-16 fighter, and less than 1 percent of a B-2’s price tag. But it’s also about the inflation-adjusted price of the service’s A-10 Warthog.

McCain said the Air Force should keeping flying its beefier, low-and-slow A-10s, beloved by grunts for helping to keep them alive on the ground. The Air Force has been trying to ground them, unsuccessfully, for years. Some critics in and outside the Air Force sense the service’s ardor for the prop planes is a ruse to rid itself of the pesky A-10, which has bedeviled an Air Force eager to pump money into more costly aircraft.

“No question we badly need larger numbers of more combat capable close-support planes, but this light attack is a grossly ineffective platform that's nothing but a Trojan horse to kill the A-10,” says Pierre Sprey, an air-power iconoclast who helped design the A-10 and the F-16. “The Air Force brass, which has always hated the mission of supporting the grunts, has no interest in buying cheap close-support planes.” They’d much prefer, Sprey says, to buy far more costly “Rube Goldberg kluges” like the hyper-complex F-35 fighter and B-21 bomber.

But make no mistake: a light-attack plane would have been ideal for many of the smaller-bore combat missions sophisticated warplanes like the F-22, F-15 and B-2 have been flying since 9/11 over Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. After all, recent U.S. foes like al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Islamic State and the Taliban don’t have air forces or air defenses. And using 21st Century weapons against primitive targets more than doubles the wear and tear they’re experiencing, cutting their lifespans and driving up maintenance costs.

Using such sophisticated warplanes wins no awards for efficiency. A trio of B-2s flew nonstop from Missouri to Libya and back to bomb a pair of Islamic State camps during President Obama’s final hours in office in January 2017. Air Force tankers had to refuel the bombers in mid-air 15 times. Even some of the aerial tankers needed mid-air refueling. The 34-hour, $11 million mission dropped about 100 500-pound bombs (the same size the light-attack planes can carry) and killed at least 80. That works out to 1.25 500-pound bombs per dead terrorist.

Dedicating a smaller plane (perhaps less than half the weight of the F-16) to the smaller fight would let the Air Force husband its bigger planes for bigger wars. “If we can get light attack aircraft operating in permissive combat environments, we can alleviate the demand on our 4th [F-15 and F-16] and 5th generation [F-35] aircraft, so they can be training for the high-end fight they were made for,” Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed weapons-buyer, said last month.

Like any big bureaucracy, the Air Force is willing to buy the aircraft so long as Congress gives it the extra money to do so (it’s seeking $2.4 billion over the next five years as a down payment on what could be a $6 billion program). Unlike the A-10, whose funding continues to come from the Air Force’s hide, an add-on for the light-attack planes is the ideal don’t-make-us-make-tough-choices Goldilocks solution.

U.S. military officers also say flying one of the cheaper and simpler light-attack planes would make it easier to work with allies flying the same aircraft. Countries like Brazil, Chile and Indonesia are already flying A-29s. But the A-29 is also flown by the Afghan air force. There’s something about sharing an aircraft with an impoverished nation that sticks in the Pentagon’s craw. And Air Force and Navy pilots already fly a neutered AT-6 Wolverine—as student pilots. In other words, neither is the kind of cutting-edge war machine the Defense Department craves.

This is a good example of where the Pentagon’s desire to have the “best” weapons—which also tend to be the most costly—presents a problem. When you’re readying for World War III, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lasting seemingly forever can get expensive. “We should not be using an F-22 to destroy a narcotics factory,” Air Force Secretary Heater Wilson conceded last month after F-22s did just that in Afghanistan. “It’s not a particularly cost-effective way to combat violent extremism.”

But the Pentagon prefers to prepare for Major-League wars, not sandlot skirmishes. It’s the same reason hundreds of U.S. troops were killed by crude roadside bombs in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early years of those campaigns. Following prodding from Marine Corps civilian whistleblower Franz Gayl and bipartisan allies in Congress, it finally took an order from Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2007 to get the military to spend nearly $50 billion on 24,000 Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles. But most of them have since been scrapped or mothballed. The MRAP highlights the danger of buying a system custom-designed to deal with a narrow threat.

That’s why Sprey and other skeptics don’t like the current contenders. They believe the two competing planes are too costly, carry too few bombs or other weapons, can’t loiter over the battlefield long enough, and are too lightly-armored to go into harm’s way. They’d be worthless—and “RPG bait”—if they had to fly against even rudimentary air defenses. “Even people on camels,” Sprey notes, “shoot back.”

Given the Air Force’s repeated efforts to retire the A-10, there’s little doubt the service would use a new fleet of cheaper aircraft as a lever to force A-10s into the boneyard more quickly. That’s why close-air support boosters would like to see the Air Force buy a more robust successor to the A-10. Instead of the A-29 or AT-6, they’d prefer to see something like aviation pioneer Burt Rutan’s ARES—Agile Responsive Effective Support—“mud-fighter”.

Boring holes in the sky for decades over Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere with the world’s most costly warplanes makes no sense. Now that Congress and the Air Force are asking the right question at last, here’s hoping they can come up with the right answer. Just don’t hold your breath.

Photo of Mark Thompson

By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

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