Fighting ISIS from the Air: The Light Attack Alternative
With procurement funds steadily shrinking, requirements are markedly informed by budgetary constraints rather than mandated by capability considerations. Consequently, innovative and cost-efficient solutions are increasingly sought and valued. This is particularly true for counterinsurgency operations in low-contested environments in which the enemy possesses only negligible air-defense assets. In this regard, unorthodox and inexpensive options for air support are becoming ever more appealing both to military planners and political deciders. As a result, the light attack aircraft (LAA) category is gradually gaining attention globally as an expanding variety of more sophisticated systems are integrated in these low-cost platforms.
Whether one endorses or not the USAF push to retire the A-10, it is beyond doubt that the intended replacements - the F-15E, F-16, F-35 and B-1B - were not developed as dedicated close-air support (CAS) platforms for low threat contexts but designed for a wide range of missions in highly contested theatres. Their full potential would thus remain unheeded and their operational costs would stay out of proportion for the task at hand. This is especially true for fighting ISIS and other similar terror militias with no credible air defense. ISIS only possesses light anti-aircraft guns and a handful of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) seized from Iraqi and Syrian army stockpiles. Even though they managed to down a small number of Iraqi helicopters, they are not capable of true air denial. Consequently, supersonic speed, stealth or advanced electronic warfare systems are not an imperative for missions over ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq. Hence, an enhanced employment of LAAs would free more high-end platforms for usage in specific areas where third parties have some air defense capability. Indeed, one does not need a bowling ball to play billiard.
In these circumstances, low-cost platforms capable of supporting a variety of aerial reconnaissance, surveillance and strike missions could fulfill the required tasks efficiently and inexpensively in close coordination with other forces. Currently, the industry offers a number of machines that may be apt for the job. Namely the turboprop-powered Embraer A-29 Super Tucano, the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6C Texan II, as well as the Textron AirLand Systems’ Scorpion Light Jet. All these platforms present several advantages in terms of affordability (both acquisition and ownership costs), promptness of delivery, simplicity of maintenance, reliability and safety, and interoperability with an array of systems. Besides, employing them would extend the service life of higher platforms as they would be flown less frequently. As for the fly-away costs, while a Block 52 F-16C/D comes for approximately $ 45 million and an F/A-18E/F for over $ 60 million, a Super Tucano is typically priced from $ 9 - 14 million and Scorpion Light Jets start off at under $ 20 million. The difference in operational cost per flying hour (CPFH) is equally significant. For example, the Scorpion’s estimated $ 3,000 CPFH is about one seventh than the F-16C/D’s and one tenth of what the USAF expects to pay for operating its F-35As.
Far from being akin to 1950s machines, all the above platforms are fitted with EO/IR sensors, all-glass cockpit featuring high fidelity multi-functional displays (MFDs), hands on throttle and stick (HOTAS) controls, advanced mission computers and head-up display (HUD). In addition, they are fully compatible with NATO systems; for example, the Super Tucano is certified with over 130 weapon configurations including a large assortment of precision guided munitions (PGMs). Safety-wise, the LAAs are equipped with a set of protective features that, apart from ejection seats, in the case of the turboprops also include armored cockpit and rotors. Additionally they can be fitted with missile warning and counter-measures dispensing systems. Also, due to their higher speed, they are arguably more survivable than helicopters. Moreover, even though these platforms are technologically enhanced, the risk of advanced tech appropriation in the event of a combat or operational loss is much lower than with high-end aircraft, as they do not feature sophisticated jet engines, advanced electronic warfare systems and other sensitive elements. Similarly, in the remote eventuality that a LAA is captured intact and used by the enemy, it can be easily destroyed by superior US or partner states’ air defense.
Allegations that the USAF would lose martial credibility and actual capabilities by fielding LAAs in combat are unsubstantial. On the contrary, the preference for smart and efficient theater solutions is what distinguishes future-oriented and tactically-flexible militaries from ossified and obsolescent Soviet-style models. Unlike in Syria, the large majority of ISIS assets in Iraq consist of small targets such as technicals, armored vehicles, artillery pieces, and individual operatives that can be neutralized with light PGMs. For this reason, heavy aircraft would be redundant for the task. Also, the deployment of LAAs would not in any way impinge upon the air supremacy of an organizationally virtuous force like the USAF. In other words, the USAF high-tech connotation and prestige would not be questioned but augmented. In fact, the LAAs are very suitable for regional use, as they possess a relatively large combat radius. And even more so when fitted with drop tanks granting them additional loiter time over the target area for strike coordinated air reconnaissance (SCAR) missions which, given the lack of forward observers on the ground, are essential for locating ISIS targets; the Scorpion, for example, is optimized for long endurance at slow speed.
In the light of their versatility, features and tactical value, the LAAs are particularly appealing to regional air forces and army aviation units, especially the budget attentive ones. It might be surmised that fielding attack helicopters makes such acquisition unnecessary. However, if compared with helicopters, these aircraft have greater combat radius, similar operational costs, carry a more diverse and heavier payload, and are more affordable. Illustratively, an AH-1Z Viper helicopter costs two to three times as much as a Super Tucano. Moreover, the turboprops have a very good short take-off and landing capability and can operate from unprepared airstrips. In sum, the LAAs are valid territorial defense and close support planes, as well as a surveillance asset with armed attack capability. Therefore, they would be of great utility to the Iraqi and Jordanian militaries and integrate the air power of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and Bahrain. Tellingly, the UAE Special Operations Command is already employing 24 well-armed AT-802i “Air Tractors” light attack planes and Abu Dhabi is in discussions with Textron AirLand about purchasing the Scorpion. Moreover, the U.S. has approved an Iraqi request for 24 AT-6Cs and the Afghan Air Force will soon join the nine states in Africa, Asia Pacific and Latin America already flying Super Tucanos. Finally, the Iraqi and Lebanese air forces can count on a small number of lightly-armed Cessna AC-208B “Combat Caravans.”
Both the Super Tucano and AT-6C are highly reliable platforms. The former has been extensively fielded in anti-narcotic and COIN operations by several Latin American countries. The latter is based on Beechcraft’s T-6 trainer which is used to certify pilots in air forces ranging from Canada to Morocco. Notably, being Iraqi pilots normally trained on the T-6A, their familiarization process with the LAA variant is going to be expeditious. As for the Scorpion, even though it has yet to see service, its specificities make it an appealing candidate for the LAA role, as shown by its successful international debut at the Farnborough Air show in July 2014. Another potential candidate reaching operational capability is Paramount Group’s Advanced High Performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft (AHRLAC). This South African single-engined turboprop platform is a cost effective solution designed for flexible roles previously carried out by four separately configured aircraft which can be used for both intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance tasks (ISR) or deliverance of light guided and unguided munitions against small highly-mobile and dispersed targets.
In the event of joint operations, LAAs should not be regarded as direct competitors to unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) such as the widely-used Predator and Reaper. On the one hand, LAAs are less expensive to acquire and operate than UCAVs on the account of them not requiring the expensive support systems needed for remote control of unmanned aircraft. On the other hand, the two platforms can synergistically complement one another. UAVs would conduct ISR and enhance the situational awareness of Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) and LAAs from above. The turboprops, on their part, would provide CAS. Being highly visible and acoustically imposing, these planes would cause significant psychological distress to the enemy and function as morale-booster to the ground troops. Warfare is not based only on deception, but also perception.
In conclusion, employing LAAs in anti-ISIS and other COIN operations would present a number of advantages and offer significant tactical apport. First of all, these platforms would serve as gap fillers in the case of the USAF and enablers for several regional militaries. Secondly, utilizing them would liberate synergies for more threat-intensive geostrategic theaters. Thirdly, it would economize on firepower without sacrificing effectiveness. Finally, it would mitigate inter-service budgetary rivalry as LAAs are financially viable and compatible with the doctrinal postures of both air forces and army aviation branches. Essentially, fielding LAAs would be an intelligent and affordable way to prize strategic aims over tech-centric means and biases.