Two interesting bits of news came to my notice over the past few days. Despite spending billions of dollars on the bloated, overpriced, underperforming F-35 Lightning II program, the US Air Force is still able to devote at least a few dollars to other needs, it seems.
First off, the USAF has invited Brazil's Embraer to bring its EMB 314 Super Tucano counter-insurgency and light attack aircraft (shown below) to what it calls the 'Light Attack Experiment', a weapons and tactics demonstration in New Mexico this August.
It'll be joined by US company Textron's Beechcraft AT-6B, a light attack variant of that company's T-6 Texan II turboprop trainer (based on the Swiss Pilatus PC-9), and also Textron's new Scorpion light attack and reconnaissance jet aircraft, which hasn't yet been sold to any air force, but is attracting interest due to its low price and very low operating costs (compared to those of traditional strike aircraft). I wouldn't be surprised to see mainstream unmanned aircraft such as the USAF's MQ-9 Reaper and (if inter-service rivalries can be overcome for long enough) the US Army's MQ-1C Gray Eagle take part as well.
The USAF describes the experiment as follows:
“This is an evolution of the close air support experimentation effort which we have now broadened to include a variety of counter-land missions typical of extended operations since Desert Storm,” said Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition’s military deputy.
. . .
The Air Force will host the live-fly experiment to assess the capabilities of these off-the-shelf attack aircraft. Industry participants will participate with suitable aircraft, which will be flown by Air Force personnel in scenarios designed to highlight aspects of various combat missions, such as close air support, armed reconnaissance, combat search and rescue, and strike control and reconnaissance.
The live-fly experiment also includes the employment of weapons commonly used by other fighter/attack aircraft to demonstrate the capabilities of light attack aircraft for traditional counter-land missions.
“After 25 years of continuous combat operations, our Air Force is in more demand than ever,” said Lt. Gen. Jerry Harris, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements. “Since we don’t expect deployment requirements to decrease, we have to look for innovative and affordable ways to meet capability demands in permissive environments while building and maintaining readiness to meet emerging threats in more contested environments.”
The live-fly experimentation will include a number of mission events including medium altitude basic day and night surface attack, precision munition surface attack, armed reconnaissance and close air support.
There's more at the link.
I find this intriguing. None of these aircraft can approach the A-10 Thunderbolt II in overall close air support capability; but that aircraft is getting long in the tooth, and will need replacing in the medium term. The USAF simply can't afford to develop another A-10, given the amount it's spending on the latest and greatest in fast, stealthy jets. It has to find another approach. Obviously, for well-defended environments, stealthy and/or fast jets will get the nod for the job, as will UAV's when appropriate; but for less contested environments, where the aircraft doesn't have to worry about strong anti-air defenses, a light strike aircraft like those mentioned above might get the job done. It's in the same vein as armed trainers like the T-6 Texan after World War II (which bore the brunt of French close air support duties in Algeria, and Portugal's colonial wars in Africa) and the Cessna A-37 Dragonfly, which was widely used by US allies.
Another report mentioned an aircraft we've met in these pages before, most recently last month: General Atomics' Avenger jet-powered UAV. Strategy Page reports:
Meanwhile the air force has apparently settled on an eventual successor for the Predator. This is Avenger, which looks like a larger jet powered version of the Reaper ... The Avenger is designed to fly high (up to 20,000 meters/60,000 feet) and cross oceans. Until 2009 the Avenger didn't officially exist and was a "black" (secret) program. Avenger is, like Reaper, a combat UAV that will often carry weapons as well as sensors. The air force likes the ability to arm Avenger with a smart bomb, including the 900 kg (2,000 pound) GBU-34 penetrator version. Each Avenger costs over $15 million. The Avenger B would probably be a little larger and more expensive. The air force has not yet revealed their wish list of changes for Avenger B. A UAV like Avenger would require the same kind of EW equipment carried by manned warplanes.
Meanwhile all this attention to stealth for Avenger should be no surprise. The Avenger manufacturer, General Atomics, has a division devoted to building stealth features into aircraft. This includes the world's largest indoor radar cross section testing facility. Despite the bomb bay, the Avenger is expected to be used primarily to carry ground surveillance radar, which could be mounted on the bottom of the aircraft in an aerodynamically smooth enclosure.
The U.S. Navy, and several air forces, are also looking at the Avenger as an ELINT (electronic intelligence) aircraft. The ability to carry a ton of sensors and stay in the air for twenty hours per sortie has a lot of appeal for an aircraft that is already stealthy and doesn't carry a pilot. Moreover, the Avenger can perform ELINT missions entirely autonomously, making it more difficult to detect.
Again, more at the link.
This fits in with my earlier speculation, and answers a number of intriguing questions. If the USAF's drone fleet moves to the much faster, much higher-flying Avenger, it's less likely to be used for close air support (although that remains a useful mission for it, particularly if it can drop 'smart' bombs at standoff ranges that keep it out of sight of enemies - its arrival would be announced only by the explosion of its weapons). If light strike aircraft can take on some of the duties currently fulfilled, in part, by the earlier Predator and Reaper drones, the Avenger will be freed to take on the demands of future combat in a less permissive air environment. Its stealth characteristics will help it to survive in places where the older, slower models would be shot out of the sky.
All this looks very interesting for the future of the USAF. I still think the F-35 program needs to be euthanized as quickly as possible, but that's so politically ring-fenced it's unlikely to happen. (I suspect sheer economic pressure will eventually win out; the F-35 is simply unaffordable in the numbers the USAF wants.) These lower-cost options may take some of the budgetary pressure off the USAF and our allies, and open up new opportunities to get some of the service's tasks done at a more affordable cost.