Saturday, August 1, 2009

Is the USAF also going the 'low-and-slow' route?

A few days ago I wrote about a US Navy effort to field a few propeller-driven strike aircraft for use by Special Forces. Now, a number of reports suggest that the USAF is considering precisely the same thing, but on a rather larger scale.

First, we hear that the USAF may recommend the establishment of a counter-insurgency (COIN) air wing in the latest Quadrennial Defense Review, currently under preparation.

A top Pentagon official told a small group of defense reporters this morning (July 23) that the upcoming QDR will likely propose the formation of an aviation cadre devoted solely to irregular warfare.

The Pentagon's guru for special operations and low intensity conflict, the renowned Michael Vickers, told us that he believes a light strike, light reconnaissance aircraft would be useful to troops in an unconventional fight.

"That's one of the issues that this QDR is looking at about how to create these sort of irregular warfare air units -- should we do that, number one, because nothing has been decided -- then what that mix might be. But it might not reside in the special operations forces, it might reside in the general purpose forces as sort of a counterinsurgency capability," Vickers said.

Of course, this jibes with the Navy's Imminent Fury initiative and rumblings from Norty Schwartz (USAF-COS) to create an irregular air wing in the Air Force.

Vickers went on to raise an interesting point -- one that the brief I posted yesterday from the Navy's IWO hinted at in the section on Imminent Fury -- that an aircraft like that could also be an advantage to training local forces in counterinsurgency air techniques.

"One of the advantages with that kind of aircraft being adapted to the counterinsurgency battlefield is that they tend to be very inexpensive and something that a partner nation could afford. ... They're getting a look," he said.

. . .

"I'm fairly confident we'll end up with something. The question is how large a force and what capability to we put in there and whether we put it in over time. But some kind of irregular warfare something or other -- some Air Force unit, whether it's a series of squadrons or a wing or a group or whatever -- I think is an idea whose time has come."

There's more at the link.

Almost immediately, two new aircraft requirements have been 'floated' to industry by the USAF. The first is for a fleet of up to 60 light transport aircraft, suitable for use from unprepared airstrips.

Broadening its interests in the irregular warfare mission, the US Air Force has asked industry to submit ideas for aircraft that can fulfill a requirement for up to 60 "light mobility airlifters" (LiMA).

While the US Air Force and US Army are jointly buying at least 38 L-3 Communications/Alenia Aeronautica C-27Js, the LiMA requirements calls for an aircraft in an even smaller class.

Alenia C27J Spartan (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Possible candidates in the LiMA class may include the Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350, Cessna 208 Grand Caravan and EADS CASA C-212.

Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350 of the Royal Australian Air Force (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The USAF's requirements call for taking off with at least six passengers, or a combination of passengers and cargo weighing 1,800lbs, from "unimproved, austere landing surfaces", the RFI says. The aircraft could be single- or multi-engine, but it must be certified for single-pilot operation.

Cessna 208 Grand Caravan of the Iraqi Air Force (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The USAF plans to reach initial operational capability with the new LiMA fleet in Fiscal 2012.

EADS CASA C-212 of the Spanish Air Force (image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The LiMA requirement has emerged along several new types of aircraft expected to play different roles in the irregular warfare mission. The USAF is buying 37 MC-12 Libertys, modified King Air 350s, to serve as manned intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft.

USAF MC-12 Liberty (image courtesy of USAF)

In the upcoming quadrennial defense review, Seretary of Defense Robert Gates has revealed plans to dedicate 10% of the US military's resources to irregular warfare needs.

Again, there's more at the link.

Hot on the heels of that report comes the news that the USAF also wants up to 100 'fighters' for operations in the same field.

The US Air Force has issued a request for information to identify sources that can supply 100 new fighters to perform light attack and armed reconnaissance roles.

Air Combat Command released a request for information on July 27 that calls for first aircraft deliveries to start in Fiscal 2012 and the first operational squadron to activate a year later.

The requirements call for a two-seat turboprop capable of flying up to 30,000ft and equipped with zero-altitude/zero-airspeed ejection seats, full motion video camera, data link, infrared suppressor, radar warning receiver and armored cockpit. Weapons must include a gun, two 500-lb bombs, 2.75-inch rockets and rail-launched munitions.

The known competitors for the requirement include the Air Tractor AT-802U [about which I wrote on this blog back in June - click the link for details and photographs], Embraer Super Tucano [covered earlier this week in my article on US Navy COIN aircraft], Hawker Beechcraft AT-6B Texan II and Pilatus PC-9.

Hawker Beechcraft T-6A Texan II training aircraft of the USAF
(image courtesy of Wikipedia). A proposed armed version will be known as the AT-6B.
This aircraft is based on the Pilatus PC-9, shown below.

Pilatus PC-9 of the Slovenian Air Force (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

The light attack/armed reconnaissance fleet, if finally approved, would join a growing COIN air force within an air force.

Once again, there's more at the link.

It looks as if the light strike fighter for a COIN role is an idea whose time has come.



Anonymous said...

How about a "Weekend Wings" on the Douglas A-1 Sky Raider to put this in perspective?

Peter said...

Already done - see Weekend Wings #31 (link is in the sidebar).

reflectoscope said...

I wonder if they'll pull an F-16: Start with a simple, cheap design then over its life cram it so full of electronics that the original simplicity is hopelessly lost.


Rick R. said...

I would really like to see something closer to a turboprop A1E design, than a light trainer.

The A1E had SERIOUS payload, and the gun package was nice for CAS, too. 4x 20mm cannon + 8000 lbs external ordnance on 7 hardpoints is a winner. As opposed to a little over 1 tonne (total) armament, all external.

A larger aircraft is also (all other things being equal) able to soak up more bullets -- a primary consideration for an airplane planning on flying where this one will.

Of course, they started with a carrier dive bomber/torpedo bomber, not a trainer. . .

Dirk said...

There's several WWII designs that are tried and true, and would fit the parameters of what the USAF is asking for. Why not resurrect some of those designs and put them back in the air? Minimal design costs - just the upgrades needed to bring them into the 21st century.

Rick R. said...

Hey, I'd like to see what an A1E refitted to take a turboprop would yeild.

Smaller powerplant and lower fule consumption per joule of delivered energy = more room for other stuff.

Smaller electronics = more room for upgraded avionics (including battle management stuff like plugging the bird straight into the digital fire control network instead of having to rely on VHF voice comms to relay target data).

We already know the basic airframe is a damned fine CAS bird.