by Mike "Starbaby" Pietrucha, Lt Col, USAFR
Recent discussions with respect to the application of airpower in Irregular Warfare have highlighted the applicability of light attack aircraft, currently missing from the US arsenal. Used extensively by the US in Vietnam, the light attack aircraft were widely exported, but were not replaced in US service when they retired due to age. Focused on the "high/low" F-15/F-16 mix envisioned to fight the Warsaw Pact in Western Europe, the USAF has been particularly resistant to the possibility that the USAF might operate a modern light attack aircraft at all. Key objections range from the superficial (it has a propeller) to the conceptually flawed (the aircraft can't be used in an MCO). Lost in the fray is the huge benefit to the forces currently involved in combat provided by an attack aircraft which can carry a similar warload to the F-16 with more hangtime, at a fraction of the cost, using a small sliver of the F-16's logistical and support requirements. If we are to take the long view, a modern high/low mix which includes light attack shows significant potential to expand the capacity of tactical air worldwide without compromising the capability of a force involved in Major Contingency Operations. Yes, of course you can use light attack in a major war.
Understand, of course, that a modern light attack aircraft is not your father's Oldsmobile. Taking under consideration either the Hawker-Beech AT-6B prototypes or the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, the aircraft are a advanced fourth-generation weapons systems installed in turboprop-powered low-winged monoplanes. Both are gun-equipped attack aircraft capable of delivering up to 500-lb precision-guided munitions, rockets, and missiles and possessing advanced FLIR sensors equivalent to those on legacy fighters. Each is powered by a reliable, responsive, electronically controlled turboprop engine that would make an earlier generation's engine designers weep with envy. From the inside looking out, the aircraft are advanced fourth generation aircraft repackaged in a different airframe type -- an airframe design with equivalent weapons delivery capability to its fast jet counterparts, that is not dependent on 8000-ft asphalt runways and can be fueled from 55-gallon drums hauled to a dirt strip in a pickup truck.
It is beyond dispute that the aircraft type is effective in IW. US experience in Vietnam and current Colombian and Brazilian experience in the Amazon demonstrate that fact. A question, which hangs over the potential for USAF procurement, is the effectiveness of a light attack aircraft in conventional operations. After all, the aircraft has no radar warning gear (they do have chaff and flares, missile warning and armor) and could be expected to suffer in an environment dominated by radar-guided surface to air missiles (SAMs) and enemy fighters. Nevertheless, the aircraft type can operate effectively in environments lacking the radar threat, and should be considered based on desirable capabilities; operating area, support and basing opportunities, warload and endurance.
Operating Area. With the Warsaw Pact long gone, the case for classic a come-as-you-are war is the Korean Peninsula. Here, US airpower consists of Korea-based F-16s and A-10s, and USAF, Navy and Marine aviation based in Japan (to say nothing of other 7th Fleet assets). Present also is the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), one of the most advanced in Asia. Lined up north of the 38th Parallel in the DPRK are a handful of aging fighters, hardened SA-2, 3 and 5 sites, and more AAA than seems possible. In such an environment, where does light attack fit?
The answer is simple. Every sortie flown south of the 38th parallel frees up a legacy fighter to go north. And there will be plenty of work to go around outside the north's fixed air defenses. (I will discount the DPRK's fighter force entirely for obvious reasons). The demand for Close Air Support (CAS) is likely to be very high, but other missions including CSAR, counterbattery work, maritime patrol and counter-SOF will be in high demand. There is even likely to be a demand for air defense missions -- it is notable that the Super Tucano's requirements were partially derived from a Brazilian Air Force anti-helicopter program.
In fact, the radar defenses which pose such a great threat to the light attack aircraft are not ubiquitous. After all, the A-10 and AH-64 prefer to avoid radar threats as well, to say nothing of the MQ-1 and MQ-9, and the utility of these aircraft in MCO is not challenged. The fact is that the majority of a country's airspace is unprotected by radar SAMs the majority of the time, particularly at low altitude. Expanding beyond Korea and beyond the borders of a potential aggressor, the low altitude environment may be unreachable by a long range SAM. In a scenario that envisions an invasion of Taiwan, the closest a land-based SAM can be to the Taiwanese coast is 75 nm. At that range, even a radar mounted on an 80-foot mast cannot reach below 2700 feet, leaving plenty of operating room for fixed-wing air to make life miserable for an amphibious force. Even here, there is a place for light attack.
Basing and Support. Returning to Korea, in the likely event that the USAF/ROKAF bases are overrun or subject to conventional or chemical attack, light attack need not be grounded like their fast-jet counterparts. With the ability to operate from roads and civilian airstrips much shorter and less pristine that required by the F-16 (including unimproved strips), attack capabilities can be distributed beyond military bases. And the fuel requirements are so substantially different that light attack aircraft can be kept flying from local fuel supplies. A 5000-gallon airport fuel truck is barely sufficient to top off a single 2-tank F-15E, but provides enough fuel to fill 27 Super Tucanos or AT-6B. That same fuel expenditure, powering the F-15E for maybe two hours is enough to provide 80 flight hours to light attack aircraft. Similarly, Taiwanese civilian airbases and roads become an effective surrogate for (presumably) unserviceable fighter runways. Traveling even further down the supportability scale, a light attack aircraft can be filled with fuel transported in 55-gal drums at 3 and a half drums per aircraft.
Ordnance remains a limiting factor. At a minimum, .50 cal guns can be reloaded by the aircrew with any linked .50 cal ammo that is available, and the 2.75 inch rocket is widely used by fixed and rotary-wing aviation. While not as robust a loadout as four GBU-12s, a gun-and-rocket loadout can be loaded by hand in the field (as could AGM-114 Hellfire, if available). Guns and rockets airborne trump GBU-12s on the ground. If the ability to operate from austere airfields is valuable in an MCO, and I submit that it is, then this capability expands the operating envelope for airpower writ large in any theater of operations.
Warload. A combat-loaded F-16 carries three external fuel tanks (or two and an ECM pod), four AAM, four 500-lb LGBs on two pylons, a targeting FLIR and an internal rotary cannon. A Super Tucano loads up with four 500-lb bombs on four pylons, one external tank, a targeting FLIR, and internal wing guns. The AT-6B loads up in a similar fashion with more pylons but external gun pods taking up the extras. Discounting a need for air-to-air missiles, the warloads are identical. The light attack aircraft have slightly more weapons flexibility because their weapons are carried on four pylons vice two and one of these aircraft could conceivably carry a very flexible mix: a 500-lb LGB, a Hellfire missile, a 2.75 inch rocket pod and a 3-pack of GBU-44.
Endurance. Given the above-mentioned warloads, an unrefueled combat sortie for the F-16 might stretch out to an hour and a half if weather at the recovery base is clear. The light attack aircraft gets three hours or more of air time. In a high-intensity conflict, the limit is likely to be ordnance rather than endurance, but even an aircraft that is out of bombs can stick around and perform FAC or OSC services. Tankers, of course, can stretch the endurance of the F-16, but require a break in coverage to refuel. The light attack aircraft cannot air refuel (they could, perhaps, but they don't) but gets all of its on-station time without interruption.
To be fair, the endurance comparison is stacked against the fast jet. It should be clear that the jet, because of its higher speed, will have a larger combat radius with any comparable warload. A light attack aircraft may be able to match an F-16's combat radius, but only by cutting the bombload in half and replacing it with external fuel tanks. This may or may not be offset by basing parameters. If the light attack aircraft can stage closer to the fight, then the radius is irrelevant if both aircraft can reach the same target set - and the light attack still wins the endurance competition.
From an airfield perspective, there are always more small airfields to go around, in more places. Nigeria, for example, has three airfields that can base military jets (8000' runway, appropriate bearing strength) and four civilian airports with the requisite runway length and strength. Added to that, however, are another sixteen licensed airfields that can support light attack and an unknown number of unlicensed strips. Expanding the same comparison to the Philippines, fast jets get two mil and 7 civil fields; light attack get another 37 on top of that. (Notably, that last number can quadruple, depending on the actual runway limitations of a light attack aircraft -- the Philippines has a lot of airstrips in fair condition or better). Again, if the light attack can stage closer to the fight, the range limitation becomes less critical.
All of this should illustrate the point that the light attack aircraft is not an "IW-only" platform. It is certainly much more of a combat platform than the MQ-1 and arguably the MQ-9, both of which the USAF has embraced with some degree of fervor. If Secretary Gates states that the majority of the force should be multipurpose, vice "IW-only" or "MCO-only", then surely there is room for light attack aircraft. In the worst of the MCO scenarios, there will be more demand for light attack than there is light attack to go around.
Lt Col Michael "Starbaby" Pietrucha is a USAF Reserve Officer with 156 combat missions in the F-4G and F-15E and two ground combat deployments in the company of the US Army. He has precisely zero combat sorties in any light attack aircraft, but would unhesitatingly strap his soft pink body in one tomorrow. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or any element thereof.