by Aaron W. Clark
There is much debate over whether the US Air Force should field a Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) aircraft for use in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations like Afghanistan. Advocates exist in the US Air Force and the US Army alike. Generally, those in the Army like the idea because they envision the aircraft stationed near their area of operations, directly supporting their missions; an understandable desire, and supporters in the Air Force see LAAR as a tangible commitment to future COIN warfare. Thus both were disappointed last year when the US Air Force announced it would only purchase 15 aircraft to train pilots supporting the Air Force's Foreign Internal Defense mission. Critics believe this is just another example of the USAF's "historical reluctance" to support ground troops. Yet, even a cursory survey of the factors involved forces the question, is it really that simple?
As I write this, it is important to know that I have nothing to do with the LAAR program, nor do I know anything more about the details of its acquisition than anyone else that reads military journals or news articles. As a pilot, I think it would be a great aircraft to fly and I believe that, in certain environments, it could be an excellent combat machine. It is my curiosity that has caused me to write this article. Not long ago I sat in an audience and listened to someone ask an Indian Air Force General why they were not purchasing a LAAR-type aircraft for their COIN operations, instead of using high-priced fighter aircraft. Another time, I read an article from an Army Lieutenant Colonel touting the LAAR as the perfect solution for Afghanistan, and of course, I have often heard the argument about how cheap the plane would be relative the aircraft currently used in theater. Eventually I decided put pen to paper, or in this case a bar napkin.
Afghanistan is a country nearly the size of Texas. It is made up of rugged mountains and plains which cover 251,827 square miles (since this is a bar napkin we'll just round to 250,000). The current Theater Air Control System in Afghanistan is able to vector a jet aircraft to the location of an emergency close air support (CAS) request within 10-15 minutes of the call being sent. Since expedience may mean the difference between life and death, I will also use 10 minutes as an average response time for the LAAR aircraft. According to Wikipedia, the maximum speed for the proposed aircraft is approximately 300 knots. Bear in mind, the maximum speed of the aircraft will be affected by air temperature, altitude, and the weight of its munitions, but in this case 300 knots is easy to work with so we will use it. Now, an aircraft traveling at 300 knots can cover roughly 50 nautical miles in 10 minutes. Therefore, a LAAR aircraft could respond, in the necessary timeframe, within an area (A=πr2) equal to 10,395 square miles, but since it's a bar napkin we will round to 10,000. To summarize, an aircraft traveling at 300 knots, with a 10 minute response time, can provide cover over 10,000 square miles. Therefore, since Afghanistan is roughly 250,000 square miles, it would take 25 formations to obtain total coverage.
Many envision the LAAR aircraft as a platform that loiters over a given area, providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and on-call CAS to ground troops on patrol. To maximize loiter time, the aircraft would need to be stationed somewhere close to expected patrol areas. Also, if aircrews are to be in quasi-direct support of the ground contingent, then it is beneficial to be stationed near their ground unit. Optimally, each orbit would have its own airfield. This would allow for detailed coverage of that area, alert aircraft that could respond quickly when needed, and the ability to mass aircraft over an area in the event of a heavy firefight. Since it's a bar napkin, let's plan for 25 remote airfields manned with a capability to provide 24-hour coverage; considering the number of ground outposts in Afghanistan that shouldn't be too much to ask. We'll assume it takes six aircraft to provide 24-hour coverage. This assigns each 2-ship formation a four hour time-on-station period, and subtracting pre- and post-flight operations, leaves approximately six hours to conduct necessary maintenance. Also, to prepare for fog and friction, let's plan for two aircraft as spares for unforeseen maintenance problems and as alert aircraft. This amounts to eight aircraft at 25 airfields; or a total of 200 aircraft in theater.
Of the aircraft proposed for the LAAR program, the Super Tucano and AT-6 Texan, both have two-person cockpits. Generally, it takes 12 crews to man a 24-hour schedule on a temporary basis. However, since crews would be required to man this operations tempo over an extended period of time, it is more accurate to calculate it with 15 pilots and 15 weapons systems operators (WSO). This allows the schedule to be met and for the necessary management of the system. With 25 airfields this equates to 750 aircrew members.
Anywhere you have combat aircraft, you also need maintenance personnel, weapons loaders, life support, and security forces (there is probably more that are required, but remember it's a bar napkin). Without a manning document handy, let's suppose it takes 10 maintenance personnel for each 12-hour shift, two life support technicians, and five weapons loaders. Bear in mind this is probably grossly underestimated since the proposed LAAR aircraft would require sheet metal, avionics, communication, fuel, and engine specialists, but it suffices for this exercise. Also, let's not forget these aircraft would make a very attractive target. Since the ground personnel in the area would have other duties to attend to, we will plan for one flight of security forces troops (44-person unit) to protect the assets and personnel. Again this number is probably low considering they need to protect a 5,000 foot runway and the area around it, but it's a bar napkin. Added together and accounting for the low estimate for support personnel, this means each airfield would require 75-100 people for maintenance, control, and security. That equates to somewhere between 1,875 and 2,500 support personnel dispersed at the various airfields in Afghanistan.
Also, these airfields and personnel would require a steady resupply of ammunition, bombs, fuel, and food. This could either be trucked across the country or flown in. If it is flown in, it would require a field big enough to land a C-130 or C-27; that is unless you want 500 pound bombs and fuel air dropped on a crate. I'm not a transport pilot, but that doesn't seem advisable.
Like anything, money is another consideration. A quick search on the internet reveals the cost of a LAAR aircraft (AT-6 Texan or Super Tucano) is between $8 million and $12 million each. Using the math in public rule, we will use the average of $10 million per copy. At 200 aircraft this equates to a bill of just around $2 billion. But wait, that is only the bill for the aircraft in Afghanistan. The service would also require aircraft to train new aircrew members and maintenance personnel, plus spares to replace those in theater which suffer from battle damage or other unrepairable damage. Let's suppose that takes another 75 aircraft. The total bill for aircraft is now in the range of $2.75 billion.
Also, pilots and WSOs do not come cheap. Each pilot takes one year to train during the initial pilot training phase, an additional two months learning fighter fundamentals, and up to six months learning the specifics of the weapon system. The training regimen for WSOs is similar. Since this aircraft would not be a replacement for aircraft already in the inventory, the bulk of the pilots and WSOs would need to go through the entire process and not transfer from a different weapon system. According to the Air Force Times, the service spends approximately $2.6 million to train a fighter pilot. Accounting for a reduction in fuel costs (jet vs. propeller), a shorter training period for qualified pilots, and the bar napkin we will just use $2 million. To keep it simple, let's just suppose it costs the same to train a WSO. So, it would cost approximately $1.5 billion to train the aircrew members in theater. Of course, there are also crew members in the States going through training and waiting to rotate through Afghanistan for their tour. To keep it simple, let's suppose it takes another 750 aircrew members; this allows for a 1 to 1 swap. That also requires another bump in the number of aircraft. So now we have 1500 total aircrew members and another 200 aircraft—new subtotal $3 billion for aircrew and $4.75 billion for aircraft. This means, not including research and development, the bar napkin cost of putting 200 aircraft in Afghanistan is somewhere near $39 million per copy.
Now, for those of you sitting back and saying, "These figures are totally unrealistic. The author's analysis is way too simplistic," I agree. The analysis is simplistic. That's why it is a bar napkin and not a federally funded report. The simplicity of the calculations is also totally irrelevant. The point is that, like everything in war, the LAAR debate is a complicated subject full of what-ifs, it-depends, and yeah-buts. Granted the entire country of Afghanistan does not need coverage 24-hours a day and airfields could be consolidated for different coverage areas. However, each change made to one factor of the debate forces a corresponding change to another, and for all the considerations I didn't cover on the pro-LAAR side of the debate, there are at least an equal number of issues I didn't address on the anti-LAAR side. In the end, the bar napkin is always full and always complicated. More importantly, as I alluded to in the beginning, simple answers are rarely as simple as they first appear.
Lt Col Clark is a command pilot with over 1200 hours. He has previously served as an Air Liaison Officer with the 4th Infantry Division, 2nd BCT, and he is a graduate of the Air Force's prestigious School of Advanced Air and Space School.