What does the USAF want with light attack aircraft?

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.



  1. One big reason I can think of is that availability of the light attack planes would greatly reduce the flight hours and wear and tear on the fast jets (F-15s and -16s) currently being used to perform the CAS role in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent, Iraq/Syria (the bad guys in Syria actually have air defenses beyond Dishkas and RPGs).

    Another possibility it that it could be another move in the USAF's long standing push to get rid of the A-10.

  2. There have been a lot of people that have been pushing for light attack aircraft for CAS – even going so far as to suggest bringing that A-1E Skyraider back. CAS requires a dedicated platform. The faster, more expensive birds can do CAS, but they're better and more cost effective in their other roles. They can get their fast, but their loiter time sucks, compared to a dedicated CAS platform like the A-10.

    There are arguments that the A-10 does need to be retired – mainly that age and wear is running the maintenance costs through the roof. The problem is, nothing can replace the A-10, at least nothing in the inventory. So, bring in light attack craft to carry the load in permissive environments. That lets you reduce your hours on the A-10 and save that platform for your higher threat environments, extending the overall life of the platform and lowering maintenance costs. Hopefully until you can get a dedicated replacement platform built.

    That's all logical, and we all know DoD doesn't operate on logic, so…I'm pretty sure all of what I said has nothing to do with the five-sided puzzle palace's plans.

  3. 1. The light attack birds are for the Afghan air force.
    2. CAS in an insurgency environment does not require an F16 nor an A10.
    3. CAS can loiter, and works off local radio. Drones can loiter, but you need a sat-phone to call back to HQ when you need it.
    4. CAS carries guns and a variety of relatively inexpensive ordnance. Drones carry relatively expensive ordnance. How much should it cost to kill a peasant with an AK?
    5. Drones don't carry much ordnance. They're great at targeted assassinations, wonderful at surveillance, but suck for extended force-on-force close support.

  4. Forgive my ignorance, I am trying to learn enough to think intelligently about this stuff….
    If the A-10 inventory is tired & expensive to maintain, etc., but the A-10 is to date the proven, proven in combat, best choice for CAS, then why not just build more A-10s, with upgrades where practicable? What can be improved upon at reasonable cost in the shortest time frame?

    If the venerable but upgraded B-52 can still contribute after all these years, because it is still the best design to achieve the desired mission, why not the A-10?

    Thx in advance.

  5. As for the USAF being light on pilots, they are taking half of the flight class grads and making them drone pilots. My co-workers son graduated 2nd in the heavy group training and the Air Force took half of the heavy class and the top 10 fighter class pilots to fly drones.

    This does not help pilot retention as well.


  6. The last A-10 was made 1984. Mfg is bankrupt

    So what? USAF owns the drawings. There are other factories.

    As to Peter's main question: it is clear to anyone with eyes that the military–in general–likes to spend a lot of money. They've also perfected the narrative so that you and I can go around forever questioning whether this is just another waste of money.

    The F-35 is a colossal, industrial-scale, supercharged waste. But they're going to spend that money, dammit!!

  7. As usual, USAF is 30 years behind in their planning. Scaled Composites (Burt Rutan) offered the DOD a low cost, highly effective CAS platform called the ARES, about that long ago. Maybe now that Scaled is a division of Northrup, they'd get a better hearing.


  8. It wouldn't suprise me if its some combination of

    1. Needing a cheap replacement for the A-10 so they can finally get the pressure of, retire it (like they've wanted to do for a long time despite that not really making sense – we need a dedicated CAS platform more than we need a mediocre fighter-bomber that is already on the edge of parity with potential Threats), and then shift the money full-on to the F-35.

    2. Not understanding that for a lot of missions supporting ground forces, a network of flying sensors, loitering missiles, supported by ROV's with big guns is the future and not – cost-effective as the Tucano may be – another manned platform. Ie, 'fighting the last war' (or in this case the war before the last war) because drone swarms aren't as sexy as fighters.

  9. 1) Stand on a hill. Look around, through a paper towel tube. That's a Reaper or any equivalent drone.
    Now take the tube away, and use the Mk I eyeball. That's manned surveillance.
    It's also orders of magnitude more responsive to ground control from the scene for CAS, especially adjustments.
    Drones run by satellite link from Nevada, or Qatar, are for immobile targets.
    Light CAS can respond to a red smoke grenade, which is both rapid and unjammable.

    2)USAF is short of pilots because there's nothing for them to fly, so they GTFO, and fly for Delta. More money, less headache.
    The new light CAS birds give them a bigger pipeline to work with for pilots to transition into for vastly more expensive aircraft. Training wheels, if you will, and try-before-you-buy to pick combat pilots.

    3) Using legacy jets for CAS has always been asinine, and USAF knows it. Only stubborn institutional pigheadedness would have a branch want to beat the crap out of third-generation airframes, at a gajillion dollars and maintenance hours per sortie, rather than use a Super Tucano or T-6 II for CAS in a permissive environment, which is everything in SWAsia since a day after the GW I opener in 1991. We've beaten thirty years of peacetime operational life out of F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, and more in ten years' time, and we aren't getting them back, ever.

    4) A "limited-utility" a/c like a T-6 II or T-29 that works is vastly cheaper than any number of functionally worthless F-35 Thunderjugs, of any variant, that don't work, won't for any predictable future period of time, and moreover, if they ever are functional, will never be risked for anything short of WWIII.

    This is operational USAF, finally getting the point across to organizational USAF, that the Go-faster hard-ons they've been sporting since 1950 are not only budget-busting, they're also not getting the job done – for any value of that phrase.

    If they keep dropping the ball on CAS, the Key West Agreements aren't carved in stone, and they'll end up being the missile and bomber USAF, and national guard Home Defense air force, and the Army will start flying armed fixed wing CAS aircraft by necessity. And they won't care how fast it goes, just how well it works to create opportunities on the ground. You know, like the AF is supposed to.

    Flash back that in 1990, until Stormin' Norman gently corrected the USAF three-star air commander by offering him early retirement in 24 hours, the USAF intended to leave all the A-10 wings behind in Europe to face the Iraqi armored divisions.
    A sudden adjustment was made, and the results and A-10 performance are the stuff of legends now.
    And Big Blue has tried to jettison the A-10 at least three more times since then, and been rebuffed virtually only at gunpoint.

    But even the 'Hog has a finite lifespan, and given the growth of drones, flying things with propellers may be the only way they get to keep manned pilots in cockpits at all twenty years out.

    This is the wing weenies learning to go along to get along.

    And it's a good thing.

  10. What's wrong with having (senior) enlisted fly the drones?
    Maybe even bring back the flying Sergeant's for those new propeller driven CAS aircraft.

    And the big proposal, get rid of the 1948 Key West Agreement.

  11. Jon – The Air Farce can't mess with the mythology of the elite pilot. That's why the Army has enlisted men fly drones – it's not rocket science, but it does take a few months of training and practice. The Army drone school is in Ft. Huachuca, AZ, where there are miles and miles of desert to crash 'cheap' training drones into. Plus they help monitor the thousand illegals who cross the border there every day.

  12. To the question of why not make more A-10s:
    Yes, the drawings still exist, but the tooling does not. It’s the same reason we can’t make a Saturn V rocket any more. It wouldn’t be cost effective to recreate all that infrastructure for a run of planes. It would be just as cheap to build a new plane.
    We also can’t make any more M1 Abrams. Now we’re taking older M1 stripping them down to the bare hull and building a current gen M1.

    The Basic question we need to ask is are we through fighting wars against other Nation States? If everything that the US is going to fight is going to be like we are right now in the middle east & Africa, then a light strike aircraft make sense for CAS. If we’re going to fight China or Russia or a Nother standing army, then the A-10 is needed. Can or should we have both? If we can have the B-52 and B-2, I say yes.

  13. "It wouldn’t be cost effective to recreate all that infrastructure for a run of planes. It would be just as cheap to build a new plane."

    THIS is why the .mil allows the original manufacturer to destroy the tooling and fixtures after they have built the required number of units. The builder doesn't want to pay to store the stuff. We should require the company to pack it and ship it to a .gov storage depot, for potential future need.
    (BTW, that statement isn't very accurate. It's the R+D costs that kill you with new designs. Making new tooling and fixtures is lots cheaper!)

    But the Generals figure that they will get newer playthings if the older stuff can't be copied anymore, and certain politicians will get to play games with where the new toys get made. That cycle needs to end!

  14. From an AF pilots perspective, being assigned to a tiny fighter would be a kiss of death at Officer Evaluation time. After all, the real fighter guys would get the top ratings and the "light" pilots would get screwed.

  15. How much use would this aircraft have domestically? Could this be used to keep an eye on citizens. Maybe I'm paranoid but that doesn't mean there not out to get me.

  16. Saving the tooling would be frankly asinine.
    That last A-10 made in 1984? The youngest guy on that line is probably retired already.
    The machines the tooling was for?
    They were scrapped twenty years ago too.
    Crates of old tooling would be a scrapyard boondoggle.

    The A-10 was a great airplane.
    But it's a 1970s design.

    Let's come at the goal with new aerospace technology, that's younger than the pilots who'll fly it.

    Start with a new tank-busting gun, and work outward. Just like they did the first time.

    One rule:
    "Every pound for air-to-ground."

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