The Need For A Light Attack Aircraft

Beechcraft Defense’s AT-6 Wolverine

It seems every few years, we’re hit with a slew of reports that the USAF wants to retire the A-10C, followed near immediately by a slew of reports from Congress pushing back against the idea. It’s not a new occurrence. The USAF originally pushed to replace the A-10 before Desert Storm, with the A-16 concept, then proceeded again with the F/A-16, and most recently with light attack turbo props, such as Beechcraft Defense’s AT-6 and Embraer’s Super Tucano.

Both the AT-6 and Super Tucano got their starts as lead in flight trainers, specifically the T-6 II and Tucano. From there, their respective manufacturers saw a need for a low cost, but competent, armed aircraft for low intensity conflicts and counter insurgencies (COIN). Since the Super Tucano first rolled out in 2003, it’s seen a high degree of success in the Brazilian military, as well as on the export market. The reason for their success is simple; they’re cheap to buy (roughly $20M), incredibly cheap to operate (roughly $1000 an hour), and they’re extremely effective for COIN and low intensity conflicts. For a quick comparison, a brand new A-10C would cost around $50M USD to manufacture today, and costs roughly $17,000 an hour to operate.

While the A-10C has become a fan favorite, it’s combat record does not paint the same rosey image its fans tend to. A-10Cs were actually the single most lost airframe in Desert Storm. The USAF’s air boss for the conflict, General Chuck Horner, in an interview conducted shortly after the conflict ended stated:

“The other problem is that the A-10 is vulnerable to hits because its speed is limited. It’s a function of thrust, it’s not a function of anything else. We had a lot of A-10s take a lot of ground fire hits. Quite frankly, we pulled the A-10s back from going up around the Republican Guard and kept them on Iraq’s [less formidable] front-line units. That’s line if you have a force that allows you to do that. In this case, we had F-16s to go after the Republican Guard.”

Interview: http://mackenzieproductions.com/Gen._Horner.html

Which helps show the limitations of the A-10. That was also near 30 years ago now. Complex air defense systems like the Russian-made BUK and TOR used to be reserved for only the strongest of nations. Today however, they can be found even in the arms of semi-failed states, like Syria and Yemen. This shows that the A-10 has only a very limited combat use, without the expectation of severe losses. At that point, the A-10C becomes effectively limited to simple COIN and low intensity conflicts, such as countering ISIS. That’s not a slight against the A-10C, they excel in that role as we can see;

With that said however, $17,000 an hour for COIN, is insanely expensive when we look back at the AT-6 and Super Tucano’s $1000 an hour, and the USAF is in as much of a budget crunch as the other branches. With the massive procurement of several thousand F-35As, the B-21 program kicking off, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, etc. the USAF needs every dollar it can get. That’s a lot of big ticket items, with only so much funding. As a result, the USAF desperately needs a light attack aircraft to replace the A-10C.

While some may decry the idea of replacing a heavy turbofan — powered aircraft with a light turboprop-powered aircraft for CAS in COIN, it’s a sound concept.

This chart compares the A-10C, AT-6, and A-29 (Super Tucano) performance, and their ability to carry the primary precision guided munitions (PGMs) used for CAS. For platforms that cost less than half to buy, and 1/17th to operate, that’s insanely impressive. The biggest faults of the turboprops are their top end speeds and range. However, for CAS in COIN, neither are realistically an issue. These aren’t assets that are going to be positioned 1000nmi from the conflict, they’re going to be forward deployed so they can respond quickly. Also, things like the F-15E, F-16, F/A-18, and F-35 will do the bulk of quick reaction CAS, simply because they can get overhead faster than anything else. That means those negatives aren’t really all that big of a hindrance. They also have less hardpoints, but they also have IR and laser designators built into the airframe, so they don’t require taking up a hardpoint with an IR/laser designator like the A-10C requires. There’s a sizable difference in gun caliber sizes as well, but realistically speaking it doesn’t matter. The 30mm hasn’t been able to take out a tank since the base model T-62 rolled out in 1961, and even a 12.7mm gun will shred technicals and light APCs just as well as the 30mm will. Plus, with the ability to carry 4 Hellfires, 14 APKWS, and 2 12.7mm gunpods, there’s realistically nothing else an AT-6 would need to carry in order to be able to take out any threat there is on the ground.

While the AT-6 and A-29 offer nearly the same capabilities at the A-10C, that’s not the reason to buy them, the cost savings is. With a fleet of approximately 282 A-10Cs, and pilots averaging 250 flight hours a year, you’re looking at a combined 70,500 flight hours a year for the fleet. At $17,000 an hour to operate, that’s $1.2B a year to operate the A-10C fleet. On the other hand, a same sized fleet of AT-6s or A-29s flying the same amount of hours, would cost just $70.5M a year. Now, that doesn’t include the cost of buying the airframe, which the A-10C has the advantage in that it’s already here, so lets add in the cost of buying those turboprops. It would be approximately $5.6B to buy 282 of the turboprops. So after not even 5 years of operation, the USAF would break even, and after that, they would save over $1.1B a year. USAF has a current estimate for the B-21 of $560M per aircraft. That savings would afford two B-21s a year, which is huge, given the USAF will likely buy around 10–15 a year.

Buying a light attack would be perfect for CAS in COIN, serving alongside existing F-15Es, F-16s, F/A-18s, and F-35s that even today provide the rapid response CAS. There would be no realistic loss in capabilities, while the cost savings would be invaluable at a time the USAF is trying to find every dime it can for a multitude of big ticket items it has underway. To prove that point, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM), is currently looking at procuring some 70+ light attack aircraft, in order to provide their own air support. If SOCOM believes these platforms are good enough for their operators, why are they not good enough for everyone else?

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