Lara Seligman | Mar 15, 2017 | Aviation Week & Space Technology
The U.S. Air Force has taken another baby step toward possibly buying 300 low-cost, light- attack aircraft to fight violent extremists in the Middle East. Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has approved a light-attack fighter flight demonstration at Holloman AFB, New Mexico, this summer to look at the capabilities of existing commercial designs.
But the “OA-X” concept is not a new idea. It dates back to 2007, as the surge in Iraq reached its peak and demands on air power there were at an all-time high, says Mike Pietrucha, now a colonel in the Air Force Reserves. At the time, the Air Force was starting to realize it had a fly-and-sledgehammer problem in the Middle East: Since 1991 it had been wearing out its expensive fighters striking terrorists armed with much cheaper and less sophisticated weapons.
“It is as if we were trying to shuttle kids to and from school, large numbers of them, in a Porsche,” says Pietrucha, one of the creators of the OA-X concept. “It’s not that our current aircraft are not good at the job—they are. It was just the most expensive solution.”
Inspired by the Colombian air force’s modern fleet of turboprop light-attack aircraft— including Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano, the older EMB-312 Tucano, Cessna’s Vietnam-era A-37 Dragonfly modernized with a partial glass cockpit, and the Douglas AC-47 gunship— Pietrucha, Lt. Col. David Torres-Laboy and Lt. Col. Mike Saridakis began studying a more cost-effective solution to fighting terrorists. They looked in particular at the Douglas A-1 Skyraider, a Korean War-vintage aircraft that had been retired by the U.S. Navy, and the North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco, an observation aircraft that was repurposed as a light-attack bird.
“We said, ‘OK, we’re combat-experienced dudes, let’s take a look at that kind of aircraft and update it conceptually with what we expect in a modern combat aircraft: precision weapons, sensors, situational awareness tools, data links, communications, etc,” says Pietrucha.
Out of this study came the OA-X Enabling Concept, officially approved by Air Combat Command in 2008, which laid out the requirements of an affordable light-attack and observation aircraft. The guidelines then were almost exactly the same as they are today: a commercial-off-the shelf aircraft with a turboprop powerplant—easier to maintain and more fuel-efficient than a jet engine, thus much cheaper to operate—and big guns, along with
modern precision munitions, sensors and communications suites. A key advantage of OA-X, then and now, is that it eases the burden on the A-10, bomber and fighter fleets currently flying close-air support (CAS) missions in the Middle East, while simultaneously lowering operating costs of CAS and armed reconnaissance missions in low-threat environments.
The original OA-X fell victim to the funding challenges of 2008, says Pietrucha. However, it did lead to several other initiatives, including Light Attack and Armed Reconnaissance, canceled in fiscal 2012, and the more successful Light Air Support effort to buy a small fleet of light-attack aircraft—eventually Super Tucanos—to train the Afghan air force.
The U.S. Air Force is looking at possibly buying 300 low-cost, light-attack OA-X aircraft, inspired by the legacy OV-10 Bronco, to help fight terrorists in the Middle East. Credit: Technical Sgt. Bill Thompson/U.S. Air Force
“By 2008 we already had more mission than we had Air Force, and so if we got additional dollars we really needed to fix things that were broken or were on the verge of breaking,” Pietrucha says. “When you are under those kind of conditions with your funding stream, you spend a lot of time patching holes rather than reassessing.”
The air force is now reviving the OA-X concept. Potential contenders include the Super Tucano, Textron’s Scorpion and Beechcraft’s T-6. Money is still a problem—Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) detailed a 300-aircraft buy for just less than $6 billion over six years in a recent white paper—but the time may be right to introduce a light-attack fleet. The Trump administration has promised to lift sequestration cuts and invest more money in defense, from building a 350-ship Navy to boosting the number of Air Force combat-coded fighters to 1,200.
In addition, the Air Force has a pilot-retention problem. One way to keep experienced pilots in the service and simultaneously boost the ability to train new pilots is to buy additional seats.
“We are almost 1,000 pilots short, and that situation will never get better unless we have more cockpits,” Pietrucha says. “Because the cost to operate a turboprop is so much lower than a jet, if you compare to a Strike Eagle, you are probably looking at between one-sixth and 1/10 the cost, so you can fly the cheaper aircraft a whole lot more.”
Still, OA-X faces many obstacles. Gen. (ret.) Herbert Carlisle, chief of Air Combat Command until March 10, questions the utility of investing in a light-attack fighter—designed for low- end combat— that would not be survivable in more hostile air space.
“Would it be viable in the environments we are trying to operate in the future?” Carlisle asks. “The threat is getting greater capability, and the threat environment is increasing. So when we look at OA-X, we can’t look at it based on what we are doing today. I think the procurement cost and then the savings in [operations and maintenance] are very compelling, but I think the environment it is going to operate in is the one we really have to understand before we commit too many resources.”
However, Pietrucha argues that “permissive airspace is the majority of the planet, the majority of the time.” Many countries, and particularly nonstate actors, cannot afford the
advanced radars and surface-to-air missiles that pose a real threat to nonstealth aircraft, he notes. Turboprop aircraft are actually less vulnerable to the more common infrared seekers because the exhaust plumes are much cooler than those of the traditional jet fighter, he asserts.
The Air Force will be fighting coalition and irregular wars in permissive airspace for the foreseeable future, says Pietrucha. As long as that environment exists, a light-attack aircraft will be invaluable. “We are not talking about a radar threat environment, so for the vast majority of the world and certainly in our fight against violent extremists, you are looking at a lightly contested environment that these aircraft might as well have been designed for,” he says.