The OV-10 Bronco rides again?

I was intrigued to learn that the Vietnam-era OV-10 Bronco observation and light attack aircraft has recently returned to combat in the Middle East, some 50 years after its heyday.

The twin-engine Broncos—each flown by a pair of naval aviators—completed 134 sorties, including 120 combat missions, over a span of 82 days beginning in May 2015 or shortly thereafter, according to U.S. Central Command, which oversees America’s wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Central Command would not say exactly where the OV-10s were based or where they attacked, but did specify that the diminutive attack planes with their distinctive twin tail booms flew in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led international campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The Pentagon has deployed warplanes to Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries.

There are plenty of clues as to what exactly the Broncos were doing. For one, the Pentagon’s reluctance to provide many details about the OV-10s’ overseas missions implies that the planes were working in close conjunction with Special Operations Forces. In all likelihood, the tiny attackers acted as a kind of quick-reacting 9-1-1 force for special operators, taking off quickly at the commandos’ request and flying low to hit elusive militants with guns and rockets, all before the fleet-flooted jihadis could slip away.

The military’s goal was “to determine if properly employed turbo-prop driven aircraft… would increase synergy and improve the coordination between the aircrew and ground commander,” Air Force Capt. P. Bryant Davis, a Central Command spokesman, told The Daily Beast.

Davis said that the military also wanted to know if Broncos or similiar planes could take over for jet fighters such as F-15s and F/A-18s, which conduct most of America’s airstrikes in the Middle East but are much more expensive to buy and operate than a propeller-driven plane like the OV-10. An F-15 can cost as much as $40,000 per flight-hour just for fuel and maintenance. By contrast, a Bronco can cost as little as $1,000 for an hour of flying.

There’s more at the link.

I think the Bronco was – and is – a very well designed aircraft for a counter-insurgency war.  I wish we’d had some in southern Africa when I was ‘up the sharp end’, so to speak.  It – and its equivalents – wouldn’t be of much use in a high-technology air defense environment, where guided weapons would probably eat it for breakfast;  but in a less sophisticated theater of operations, it’s probably still very effective.

However, I’m curious as to why the US would employ a fifty-year-old design when more modern equivalents are available.  For example, the USAF is in the process of providing 20 Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano counter-insurgency aircraft (shown below) to Afghanistan.

The specifications and performance of the Super Tucano are at least equal to, if not better than, those of the OV-10 Bronco in almost every respect;  and because pilot training and operational deployment of the former is currently in progress, its support would doubtless have been easier than resurrecting a 50-year-old design, refurbishing it to modern standards, and sending a mere two examples to the operational area.  One wonders whether Boeing (which is considering putting the OV-10 back into production) exerted any pressure to have its preferred design used, instead of the more modern Tucano.

Nevertheless, I’m pleased to see the Bronco back in its natural element.  If Boeing can come up with a suitably improved design, doubling the power of the original engines, using more efficient scimitar propellers, and upgrading the weapons and systems the aircraft can carry – and if it can do all that at a price that remains competitive with the Super Tucano and other potential competitors such as South Africa’s AHRLAC (which looks like a Bronco in miniature, and for which Boeing is developing the weapons system) – we might have something very useful.



  1. Some years ago the BATF was trying to get hold of the OV-10's.
    Apparently there was some concern about why a tax agency needed counter-insurgency aircraft. They got shot down on that one.

    1. For the same reason they "need" a private, heavily equipped, army. Because they may be a tax agency, but they like to pretend they're law enforcement. Heck, the same reason the department of education has a private army, or the EPA! Heck, when you come down to it, the same reason the FBI exists: because the constitution is just a piece of paper, the contents of which only apply when it's not too inconvenient.

  2. The OV-10A is an exceptionally robust aircraft. I'm a fan of that airframe in the same way that I favor the Warthog. Low intensity conflicts scream for a FAC aircraft like the OV-10 where you have a pilot and an observer.

  3. The FAC capability is the key here, because the aft fuselage can be fitted with a fair amount of electronics, so the ground troops can have a good overhead spotter.

  4. Some of the Broncos were outfitted with cargo areas that were used for equipment deliveries and for paratroopers – it could be that they wanted a fighting aircraft with cargo capacity, or as mentioned above they might be used with recon or elint gear as well as weapons. Since they go low and slow, they also could be serving FAC or observation missions too.
    As mentioned in the articles, they have been widely used for counter insurgency roles throughout the world.
    I wonder if they were in US markings at the time? Since some Middle Eastern countries did (or do?) operate the type, they could have been used to blend in with other aircraft and not appear overtly US.

  5. From what I understand, the Navy pretty much requires all their aircraft to be twin-engine just in case one engine fails over water.


    1. Makes sense. Of course the F35 only has ONE engine…because reasons. *sound of head slamming into wall, repeatedly*

  6. I believe that a pair of broncos was pulled from the boneyard, rehabbed/upgraded, and fielded to support SEALS as part of a test in Afghanistan as the Combat Dragon II. These aircraft may be the same as the ones in Syria.

  7. As Jonathan H. pointed out, the Broncos can be fitted out for a number of mission, including dropping teams behind enemy lines. I've severe doubts about their abilities at exfiltration, but an OV-10X taking full advantage of new targeting devices, engines, materials, props, STOVL aerodynamics (basically making it a mostly new plane), relatively lightweight armor might make it a light, multimission aircraft par excellence

    I've watched them at Clark AB in the 1980's on low-level approaches (it'd be much lower in combat) at max speed suddenly zoom-climbing with 4 (6 if rear doors removed) and dropping 4-6 SF troopers out the back. They already had their parachutes partially deployed on static lines on the ceiling (IIRC — someone please correct me if that was just a story making the rounds). They just slid out in a group on the climb, the OV-10 immediately rolled to one side or the other and dove for the deck.

    Tucano would be cheaper, but nowhere near as versatile (unless we went back to WWII Soviet "paratroopers"/partisan liason being dropped without parachutes from underwing pods without parachutes into snowdrifts in early 1942 and hoping for the best…

  8. Raven:

    the ATF GOT their Broncos. That was discovered when they got custom paint jobs, and someone copied the numbers and did a search of owners. IIRC, they had to be demiliterized (pylons and weapon mounts removed), but they were equipped with night vision and FLIR systems, along with various communication/evesdropping systems. Supposedly they've been spotted orbiting over US cities a few times. They didn't refurbish all the allocated airframes, as some were held as spare parts, or in reserve for possible losses.

    It is designed for unpaved field environments. The landing gear can handle rough fields that are beyond the crew's ability to tolerate.

    It's biggest drawback encountered in SE Asia was a lack of sufficient engine power. Some were lost due to being unable to climb as fast as the rising ground did. The reason it is under-powered is the original design was about 1/2 the size of the final version. It was intended to be flown off of normal sized country roads, with a wingspan of ~22ft. TPTB decided they wanted a bigger plane, so it could do more than just observe the enemy. That, and the mandated ridiculously over-engineered landing gear was very heavy. Unfortunately, they then refused to allow the USAF to arm it with offensive weapons. I think the Marines were armed up appropriately, though.

    For some unremembered reason, it is not survivable when ditched. I wonder if the current user group has been warned about that?

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