Combat Aviation and Foreign Policy
Michael Pietrucha and Jeremy Renken
The US Air Force has been continuously at war for a quarter century. Since the opening of DESERT STORM, combat operations in the Modeast and Europe span one continuous, unbroken line across an unexpectedly wide spectrum of conflict. The fighter / attack portion of the Air Force has spent vast energy adapting to the “lower” end of the spectrum, fighting conflicts of limited objectives against irregular adversaries. Unfortunately, the US Air Force’s fighter procurement plan puts America’s Combat Air Forces (CAF) on a pathway to become smaller, less capable, and less relevant to the strategic challenges faced by the nation and our allies. The pursuit of air superiority through technology is likely to yield a transient advantage, if it yields an advantage at all. Failure to adapt American airpower to a form that the U.S. and our allies need is a strategic failure that diminishes American power around the world. Strategy trumps technology.
With sequestration removing much of the defense largesse of the last decade, the Air Force is deep in an unacknowledged crisis. Without upgrades, it cannot sustain the combat aircraft it inherited from the Cold War, now wearing out from 24 years of constant deployment. It cannot afford to build a future where such enduring strategic missions are conducted by even more exquisite, more expensive, and less suitable aircraft. It cannot cultivate sustainable partners because it has divested the kind of airpower they can operate in favor of advanced designs few can afford.
Until the Islamic State’s offensive into Iraq, many in the Air Force had believed that the end of the combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan could finally reduce rotational deployment demand for Air Force fighters to the point where force structure could be cashiered to afford a breakout of the Air Force’s 20 year fighter “procurement holiday.” That kind of thinking is encouraged by language such as the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review’s promise of no more “large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” Regardless of the pleasant political fiction of the QDR, fighter forces have maintained a continually high operations tempo because air patrols are a preferred instrument for projecting American power abroad.
Figure 1. Air Force fighter procurement holiday and fleet age.
To suggest that the need for a stabilizing American air presence in the Middle East will finally end after 24 years is to ignore the threat of violent extremists, or the constant challenge posed by regional rogues and their proxies. Further, it takes little imagination to see how a broad spectrum of airpower capabilities could help America enhance a South East Asian security partnership as a counterweight to China’s power projection in the Pacific. Yet after two and a half decades of the Long War, the Air Force has yet to develop a mix of forces that can sustain the strain of long-term operations while preserving high-end airpower, ready to quickly dominate any aggressor who may seek a decisive battle.
The simultaneous challenge posed by the Islamic State (IS) and Russia is a case in point. The US President’s immediate instrument to deter Russia in Ukraine included “theater security packages” of F-16s to Poland. Those same F-16s were drawn from a dwindling pool of squadrons scheduled to rotate to combat operations in the Middle East. Throughout last summer, airpower allowed the US and Iraq to halt the advance of the IS with only 350 U.S. “boots on the ground.” The air-enabled counter offensive against IS does not require many of the high-end capabilities of U.S. fighters, but the underfunded training and maintenance programs of USAF fighter squadrons means it is a challenge for them to be credibly ready to execute air support missions in the Middle East and be ready to take on adversaries like the Russian Air Force. As the force structure and flying hour programs of legacy combat forces get further cut without an immediate replacement, this spiral will accelerate and eventually break as fewer units are expected to deploy more frequently and be ready for high-end contingency missions.
The Air Force’s current budget program expects to transition all of the A-10s’ mission and most of the F-16s’ mission to F-35s by the middle of the next decade. The inevitable result of pairing a high-end airframe to a permissive mission will be a catastrophic tightening of the current vicious cycle. Expensive airframes used in long-duration missions will strain budgets and wear-out quickly while the associated aircrew skills fade. Further, it will be impossible to transition the mission to local partners – willing as they may be – because the burden of operating high-end fighter forces is more than they can bear and we have nothing appropriate to offer them. The challenge of training and equipping the Iraqis today with refurbished F-16s has proven so daunting that then Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki lamented “I'll be frank and say that we were deluded when we signed the contract.” Simpler and older Russian SU-25s immediately became an important part of Iraq’s air campaign against IS, despite the fact that the Iraqis hadn’t flown them since 1991.
The solution is to re-capture a high-low mix of forces that allows planners to optimize performance and efficiency. As much as the authors hate the term “low-end”, the reality is that the majority of combat airpower applications do not require fighters to penetrate advanced air defenses, shoot their way to the target, and deliver multiple precision weapons on a single pass – hallmarks of the modern multirole fighter and a “bookend” which defines a “high-end” force. Low-end aircraft can be purpose-built for long-endurance air support missions and designed to be more deployable, more affordable and easier to support logistically. Every high-end fighter that can be freed from deployment on an air support mission is one that can he honed and ready to fight more advanced aggressors. We need a high-low mix to retain flexibility and initiative in responding to a complete range of threats.
A “low-end” force must provide three things to be relevant:
- Provide a menu of tailorable capabilities to include airpower experts and technology to provide apply Air, Space and Cyber tools to specifically defeat adversaries who prefer an irregular format of combat.
- Provide a strengthened Combat Air Force (CAF) cadre of personnel trained for the full range of military operations, while simultaneously reducing the costs of doing so.
- Enhance national security by providing a robust capability to train, equip, advise and assist partner air forces, strengthening preventive measures while preparing our partners for the inevitable cases where deterrence fails.
The goals are mutually reinforcing. Key among the solution sets is a restoration of a high-low aircraft mix that was utilized in Vietnam (the low end being O-1, O-2, OV-10, A-1, with high-end aircraft such as the F-100, F-105, F-4, etc.) and led to the development of the A-10, F-15 and F-16. Today, this could be achieved by the introduction of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) into the force mix, providing a capable force mix for the USAF and Air Guard - regaining the capability to provide aircraft to our partners that are both capable and affordable. While American Airmen provide the foundation, it is interoperable airpower in the hands of a broad array of partners that will augment the Air Force’s global reach, power and vigilance.
An Alternative Force Structure
An alternative pathway is available if the Air Force can capitalize on two existing requirements: the new-start T-X replacement for the T-38 Pilot Training (UPT) mission and the competitors for the Afghan Light Air Support (LAS) Aircraft. One presents the opportunity to develop a new low-cost multi-role fighter, and the other is an off-the-shelf combat air support aircraft. The timing for introducing LCA means we can invest now to begin growing fresh capacity at reasonable cost. Even after the F-35 completes development, a maximum annual buy of 24-36 F-35s per year should allow the Air Force to complement high-end fighters with many more low-end aircraft, reversing runaway fleet age by recapitalizing a full-spectrum force at a rate of over 100 aircraft per year.
Figure 2 Potential competitors for the USAF T-X, the pathway to AT-X and FT-X.
A current vision of LCA includes three aircraft types which are intended to be front-line fighter / attack aircraft procured for an uncertain global environment faced with logistical and basing challenges.
- The FT-X, a two-seat air-to-air variant of the T-X; a missile-equipped fighter with a radar system optimized for air sovereignty and counter-cruise missile missions. It would be the modern strategic equivalent of the F-5E that was designed as an export fighter but also used by the USAF and Navy.
- The AT-X, a two-seat air-to-ground variant of the T-X, similarly equipped with modern weapons and sensors. Strengthened for carrying heavier loads than the FT-X, the aircraft would be optimized for air support missions and reconnaissance. Conceptually this aircraft is akin to the Skoshi Tiger F-5Cs, which were demonstrated effectively in Vietnam but not procured for the USAF, or the A-4 Skyhawk, used extensively by the Navy and Marines.
- The OA-X. Essentially an off-the-shelf aircraft, OA-X is a two-seat, turboprop-powered light attack aircraft, represented by the AT-6C or A-29 Super Tucano. Equipped with .50 cal guns and precision weapons, it is the modern equivalent of the A-1 Skyraider.
These aircraft are not designed to take on the most demanding combat scenarios that exponentially add requirements and cost. They are intended to be 80% solutions that more closely match the kind of long-term, routine combat operations that have characterized airpower applications for over 20 years, at 10-25% of the cost to buy and operate the F-35. In this model, no attempt is made to design and build a “one size fits all” aircraft. LCA need not be identically equipped and consequently the different models are a cost control measure. FT-X is the fighter variant, sacrificing potential air to ground capabilities in favor of a lighter and more agile airframe. AT-X might have some airframe attributes different from FT-X such as a more robust landing gear, stronger wing, high-lift devices and engine protection in order to operate from poorly maintained or damaged airfields.
None of the LCA is a true multirole aircraft in the sense of the F-16 or the F-15E, though neither the F-16 or F-15 airframes began as multi-mission aircraft. The F-16 started life as an agile day fighter with the capability to accurately employ dumb bombs, while the F-15E was derived from the F-15, itself having “not a pound for air to ground.” Any attempt to make a T-X derivative that is a true multirole fighter similar to late-model F-16 is likely to cause the cost to skyrocket.
Figure 3: Still flying - the last US export fighter, an upgraded Brazilian F-5EM with Python IV and Derby medium range AAMs.
OA-X is a different animal entirely, being a turboprop light attack aircraft rather than a fast jet. OA-X trades off the high speed of the jet for the ruggedness and fuel economy of the turboprop. OA-X is intended to operate further down the spectrum in an environment free of an air threat, from smaller, rougher and more austere airfields on a logistical shoestring.
Figure 4: The AT-6B delivering a GBU-12 LGB (Beechcraft).
Operations and Support
The benefits of sharing combat aircraft with partner nations are obvious. The F-4 and F-16 were widely exported to nations that could afford them – building enduring partnerships that helped the United States avoid war by shaping the peace. For air forces with lesser means, the US provided A-4, F-5, OV-10, and A-37. Notably, two thirds of the F-5s sold overseas are still operational. Today, even an F-16A delivered for “free” from desert storage brings with it an upgrade price tag of over $30 million, leaving the US completely devoid of exportable combat aircraft. In 2007, a modernizing Colombian Air Force was forced to turn from American designs to upgraded C-10 Kfirs from Israel because the US could not fill this niche of modest performance and low cost. Demand for combat aircraft and manned-reconnaissance is part of a new global “normal” that cannot be satiated without the introduction of LCA or an equivalent.
For smaller air forces, maintainability and operating cost are key contributors to effectiveness. Many air forces buy prestige aircraft that they cannot afford to operate; the USAF is not immune to this problem itself. There are secondary effects in countries without a large industrial base – the ability to independently maintain their aircraft can spur domestic aerospace capabilities. The acquisition of LCA also offers a maintenance option no longer available to the legacy or future fleet – a return to organic maintenance rather than reliance on central repair facilities. Contract logistics and consolidated depots have contributed to the runaway cost of fighter operation, with the “per-hour” sustainment costs of USAF fighters doubling over the last 20 years – a period corresponding to the Air Force abandoning “three level” organic maintenance activities where components were fixed on the airbase itself in favor of “two level” maintenance, where broken components are shipped to depots and contractors for repair. This presents opportunities to rebuild core domestic and partner nation military competencies that control cost and have strategic military value. This has a secondary effect as an industrial base issue – training skilled personnel who can perform actual repair rather than simply swapping out malfunctioning components that only specialized facilities can return to service.
LCA logistical commonality will be an important factor for distributed and austere basing. AT-X, FT-X and T-X, derived from a common airframe, should share a majority of their parts. Use of interchangeable external systems like ECM pods and targeting pods is a common practice in the legacy fleet already. Making a virtue out of necessity, logistical commonality across the combined inventory could be a major consideration for containing long-term campaign costs, but also for enhancing operational flexibility. If a USAF LCA squadron can either operate from a host nation base or have aircraft “drop in” for rearming, refueling and possibly even repair, then the operational flexibility of the combined force is greatly increased.
Part of the attraction of LCA is that they could operate from shorter, rougher airfields than legacy or future fighters, and that they will require less fuel and logistical support. This is not only an important capability for small air forces, but is a critical element of global reach for the USAF, allowing LCA to operate from places where legacy fighters cannot. In large portions of the world, if there is no carrier air wing available, there are no options for combat air forces support to far-flung special operators. Had Soviet and Yugoslav engineers not built large airfields in Afghanistan and Iraq, we might have faced this problem a decade ago. In the Asia-Pacific region, the ability to operate from 6000-ft. fields more than doubles the potential basing opportunities and provides opportunities on island bases which cannot accommodate a longer strip. In Africa and much of South and Central America, long-runway military airfields are few and far between, but there are many short airstrips with limited jet fuel supply.
LCA serve obvious roles for Building Partnerships (BP), a role greatly enhanced by the fact that the first LCA would be USAF-owned and operated, with the United States developing the supporting manuals, tactics, and procedures to maintain them. For partner nations, LCA could reasonably fill primary and advanced trainer roles as well as a combat role; either jet could serve as an advanced trainer or as a combat aircraft. An export version of the FT-X might serve well as a lightweight fighter similar to the original F-16A or F-5A/E. In addition, this pair of aircraft, T-X and OA-X, provides a ready-made developmental path for both trainers and combat aircraft – an offering which the US currently cannot provide. The last two exportable fighter competitions, F-X (1962) and International Fighter Aircraft (1970) were won by the F-5A and F-5E, respectively. No such competition has been held in more than 40 years.
The High-Low Mix is about Strategic Agility
The US Air Force’s preference to prepare only for the high-end fight and consider all other airpower tasks lesser-included activities, in which the taxpayer will accept any degree of inefficient stewardship, has diminished American airpower. It has forced an awkward expansion in the use of bombers and remotely piloted aircraft to backfill the diminished capacity of a dwindling fighter and attack fleet. It has stymied the America’s ability to build appropriate aircraft to onramp a broad global partnership.
Strategically, for all of the F-35’s implied capability in future combat, that capability will be resident in only the most well-funded air forces, essentially abandoning the idea of forming wide coalitions with diverse airpower in favor of small coalitions with uniform vulnerabilities. There are many potential partner nations worldwide who cannot afford the F-16, much less the F-35; and who likely do not want to possess a weapon like the F-35 that an opponent might perceive as inherently offensive. The F-35’s offensive focus offers little value in the way of winning the peace. The Air Force should pursue a procurement strategy, buying some F-35 to ensure exquisite capability where required, upgrading legacy fighters to bear the heaviest burden in major combat operations and developing LCA adjuncts to take the vast majority of rotational air support missions, provide inexpensive capacity, and provide a reserve of air combat and air defense capability that could be exported to build the capabilities of willing partners.
Ironically, the Air Force’s own 30 Year Strategy declares that “[w]e must commit to changing those things that stand between us and our ability to rapidly adapt” while remaining locked on to an F-35-only procurement pathway is the antithesis of adaptability. The Air Force’s unwavering commitment to buying a plane designed before Al Qaeda and the Islamic State metastasized into a global cancer, before the People’s Republic of China matured into an aggressive regional near-peer, and before technology evolution whittled our asymmetric airpower advantage is the exemplar of strategic paralysis – not adaptability.
A “high-low mix” procurement strategy offers opportunities to re-build a force that is sustainable, affordable, and strategically relevant. The “low” side of a high-low mix is not a luxury; it is in fact the reason why the high-end will be more ready and more capable.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.