Air Force Magazine reports:
The Air Force has set aside $2.4 billion in the five-year future years defense program to start buying a new fleet of light attack aircraft ... The service announced earlier this month it was scrapping the planned combat demonstration in favor of a second experiment with two of the four original participants. That experiment, which will take place this summer at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz., will be focused on integrating sensors onto the aircraft.
. . .
Exactly how many aircraft the service intends to buy, though, is still not clear.
. . .
Air Combat Command boss Gen. Mike Holmes told reporters at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber conference in September the service was looking at using the light attack experiment as a model for new experiments, noting the possibility of a “light” intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft ... the service is “experimenting in a lot of different ways” with ISR in an effort to satisfy the “insatiable demand” for “persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.” That could include adding certain sensors onto whichever light attack platform the service chooses.
There's more at the link.
This is very interesting from many points of view, not least for the questions it raises. The purchase appears to fly in the face of established USAF doctrine - so what is the service trying to achieve?
- UAV's such as the MQ-9 Reaper (and UAV's in the US Army such as the MQ-1C Gray Eagle and smaller craft) are already handling the tactical ISR mission. What do these small manned platforms bring to the table that such UAV's don't already provide? That's not immediately clear - unless the manned aircraft are intended to control "drone swarms" of smaller UAV's during a mission, providing oversight and direction. That would be a new departure.
- The USAF is already critically short of pilots. It needs 1,200 more just to operate its existing planes. Where will it get the additional numbers to fly a group (2-4 squadrons) or wing (2-4 groups) of light attack aircraft - not to mention the weapons systems operators in the rear seats, plus the maintenance crews and administrative personnel?
- Light attack aircraft such as those due for further testing (the Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano and an uprated, armed version of the Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II) could not possibly survive in heavily defended airspace. They're intended for areas where ground-to-air and air-to-air defenses are sparse (e.g. Afghanistan, where the Afghan Air Force is receiving 26 Super Tucano aircraft as military aid from the USA). Is the USAF therefore willing to deploy some combat aircraft that will have limited combat capability? That would make sense if the group/wing concerned were tasked with training and (at least initially) operating alongside the forces of allied minor powers, who would be the most likely customers for such aircraft. It might also make sense if the light attack unit were regarded as a "feeder" organization, where newly-qualified junior pilots might be sent to gain experience, after which they would "graduate" to more powerful strike aircraft. That might be justifiable in terms of the much lower cost per hour to operate light attack aircraft, compared to full-blown attack jets.
- The USAF is apparently moving much more quickly than originally planned to bring this new light strike aircraft unit into being. Why? With all the other demands on its budget (the B-21 bomber program, ongoing F-35 purchases, maintenance backlogs, etc.), why is the service diverting critically needed funds to buy aircraft of limited utility? There are clearly "wheels within wheels" that have prompted this decision, and we're not being told everything. I'm curious - and puzzled.
This will bear watching.