The Price of Payload: Light Attack for Pennies on the Pound

Whether trading speed for altitude or cost for capability, military aviation requires compromise. The current trend in United States airpower has been to acquire fewer aircraft with an emphasis on the ability to complete a wide variety of missions. Fifth generation aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 further blur the lines of traditionally distinct roles such as air superiority and strike capability. The ability to succeed in this wide variety of missions comes at a very real price.

This trade off between multiple missions and operating cost has come sharply into focus as coalition forces have launched repeated airstrikes against the Islamic State. This increased operational pace comes at a time that the number of planes available to the USAF is at an all-time low. This is not just an issue of budget sequestration and maintenance, but of acquisition. The USAF acquired more aircraft in the early 1950s than it did from 1956 to 2011.[i] The repeated delays in acquisition of the F-35 has left the United States in a tenuous position with regard to airpower readiness – a shrinking number of aging planes are required to conduct more strikes in a permissive environment at a high operating cost.

It is impossible to separate these issues from the operational environment in the Middle East and on Capitol Hill. The use of aircraft designed to penetrate highly sophisticated integrated air defenses is not conducive to waging a war at low cost. High-end capabilities are not problematic if used as the result of a conscious choice, rather than a lack of other options. However, the pace of operations against the Islamic State shows no sign of letting up, to say nothing of the intractable problem of Afghanistan and the suddenly intensifying conflict in Yemen. The Air Force has taken steps in both the interim and the longer term to mitigate these concerns. Most immediately, the fight to save the A-10 from retirement has kept a lower cost workhorse in the fight. The A-10 is an extremely useful platform in uncontested airspace and can save the wear and tear of operational flight use of more advanced aircraft. It is an imperfect solution, however, its age means that A-10 operations are becoming increasingly expensive to support. Age, along with a “low and slow” attack profile makes the A-10 vulnerable should it ever be called upon to operate in an environment with anything resembling a modern integrated air defense system armed with the S300,

High-end capabilities are not problematic if used as the result of a conscious choice, rather than a lack of other options.

Service and industry leaders have stepped up calls for a new aircraft to fill this role: the light attack aircraft. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Jordan, and Kenya have turned to converted civilian aircraft such as the AT-802 and Thrush to provide strike capability at a price point that is within reach for developing nations. Multiple South American and African countries fly the Embraer 314 Super Tucano, an airframe also flown by the Afghan Air Force (AAF) as the A-29. In the case of the AAF A-29, the aircraft have come with substantial training and logistical support as well as in-country advising by US and coalition forces.

The formal announcement by Acting Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow of United States intent to acquire a light attack aircraft takes these considerations out of the hypothetical and projects them with some certainty on to the current and future battlefield. The winner of the light fighter acquisition program may come from another current acquisition––the T-X program. The United States Air Force has envisioned the T-X program as a competition to replace it’s aging inventory of T-38 Talons, used as the primary advanced trainer. This competition to develop the next generation Air Force fast jet trainer has attracted substantial interest, with Stavatti, Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman, Leonardo, and Sierra Nevada all expressing interest. Outside of the eventual winner of the T-X program, the USAF may consider the Textron AirLand Scorpion, Beechcraft AT-6, and the A-29 for light strike missions. The Textron AirLand Scorpion was privately developed specially for light attack, but remains a dark horse T-X candidate. Within the United States, support for the A-29 has been mixed, and although the Super Tucano is built in the United States, objections to its Brazilian heritage have been lodged. Beechcraft has been most vocal in these complaints, putting forth their AT-6 as a locally developed and built option in the light strike category.

...can the introduction of light attack aircraft provide battlefield capability and fiscal relief?

With this background, can the introduction of light attack aircraft provide battlefield capability and fiscal relief? In some ways, the answer seems to be a clear yes. Among manned systems operated in permissive environments, the A-29 and Scorpion clearly deliver ordnance at the lowest possible cost. The low operating cost of these airplanes allow for one thousand pounds of ordnance to be delivered for slightly over $300 per operating hour (See Table A). Only heavy bombers, capable of delivering tens of thousands of pounds of bombs at a time even come close to the cost per 1000 pounds of ordnance delivered. Fifth generation aircraft such as the F-22 and F-35 perform poorly in this metric, making the adoption of inexpensive light attack aircraft to supplement their numbers particularly attractive.

This is not to say that a light attack aircraft is not without flaws. Most obviously, in order to achieve low operating costs a light attack plane gives up other capabilities. Stealth, speed, and sensor integration all suffer to various extents in relatively inexpensive aircraft. An A-29 will simply not arrive on station as quickly as an F-15, survive contested airspace like an F-22, or have the situational awareness of an F-35; nor does it need to. A key design feature of light attack aircraft is the ability to operate from austere airbases. Both the A-29 and AT-6 have demonstrated this ability, allowing them to refuel, replenish, and respond from forward locations and arrive at the fight quickly, without the need for high speed.

Additionally, the smaller size and lower power of light attack aircraft substantially limits the amount of firepower they can bring to the fight. Although an A-29 is less expensive to operate per pound of ordinance than a B1-B, it is infeasible to expect the same level of ordinance saturation, should the mission call for it. Even the Scorpion, with substantially higher payload, would take two aircraft to deliver the same bomb load as a single F-35C. In this way a light attack component would provide for greater efficiency, but at the sacrifice of flexibility should mission requirements change during the uncertainty of battle. The presence of light attack aircraft may reduce the need for the actual use of higher capacity airplane, but continued availability of some high-capacity aircraft would still be essential to ensure the necessary mission flexibility. That said, the complementary deployment of a light attack airframe alongside high-end capability like a B-1 or F-15E squadron could reduce the over-reliance on higher capacity aircraft in a manner that accelerates their wear, need for replacement, decreased readiness for other missions, and ultimately increased cost to our nation.

Another concern is that operational ability does not simply “stand up” without additional cost. Acquisition, training, integration, logistical support, and deployment of a new aircraft type will incur costs far beyond that of jet fuel. In carefully confined programs these hurdles may be easily overcome, but one needs only to look at the F-35 program to envision the kinds of roadblocks that the A-29 or Scorpion could face. On the other hand, the current operational status of light attack aircraft and more modest operational goals could mean that these aircraft could be quickly taken into the fight.

Adding several squadrons of light attack aircraft simply cannot eliminate the need to acquire substantial numbers of F-35s.

It is important to acknowledge that, with the possible exception of directly replacing only the close air support role currently filled by the A-10, a light attack aircraft component would be an additional capability. Adding several squadrons of light attack aircraft simply cannot eliminate the need to acquire substantial numbers of F-35s. Given the all-time-low size of the the USAF inventory, the acquisition of a light attack aircraft will increase the overall budgetary footprint. However, the use of light attack can be envisioned as a way to use that increased expenditure more efficiently, quickly build combat capable inventory, and provide a complement to the capabilities that are currently provided by expensive multi-role aircraft.

In the end, a light attack aircraft, whether derived from the A-29, Scorpion, or the eventual winner of the T-X would be a valuable addition to airpower capabilities while moderating the additional cost incurred by acquiring additional aircraft. It is not inconceivable to expect that the F-35 operating cost decline (or at least hold steady) as they reach operational maturity, bringing costs closer to with existing fast movers. Light attack capabilities with reduced operating costs could provide additional flexibility to ground commanders and greater CAS availability in a time of budgetary constraints. In an era of lower intensity warfare, this carefully husbands the use of 5th generation aircraft, ensuring their readiness for a time of need.

Brody Burks has a B.A from Austin College and a J.D. from The Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law. He is an Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Waco, Texas.

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Header image: Embraer 314 Super Tucano


[i]  Col. James C. Ruehrmund Jr. and Christopher J. Bowie, Arsenal of Airpower: USAF Aircraft Inventory 1950–2009 Arlington, VA: Mitchell Institute Press, 2010, p. 8