Early in the US intervention in Vietnam, the services began to realize that the supersonic fighters and strike aircraft developed in the 50s were not well suited to providing close air support in a counter insurgency environment. Jets flew too high and too fast to detect targets on the ground. And while the services did operate light observation aircraft such as the O-1 Birddog, these planes didn’t have any built in capability to strike targets on their own. Further, their low performance left them vulnerable to ground fire. The Air Force and the Navy both operated the superb A-1 Skyraider, with excellent loiter time, good performance, and a large payload. But the Skyraider was a large, complex aircraft, and needed a large, complex maintenance effort behind it, which limited it to major airfields.
Something smaller and simpler was needed. Ideally, this plane would have higher performance than the light liaison planes, carry a meaningful payload, have decent loiter time, and still be small and simple enough to operate from very forward airstrips in support of the infantry. The first attempts to provide this capability turned to training aircraft, modified to provide some armament. In fact, the first US fixed wing aircraft shot down in South East Asia was a modified T-28.
In addition to being handy for the US, the T-28 was simple enough that our partner nations in SEA could operate it.
But as my coauthor Craig pointed out to me in an email, turning trainers into fighters doesn’t always work that well. The T-28 had a small payload, used high octane aviation gasoline, and the radial engine wasn’t all that easy to maintain. And the landing gear, while robust, wasn’t really optimized for rough field operations.
Another trainer to fighter conversion was the Air Force’s T-37. After extensive modifications, the A-37 was born. Over 500 Dragonflies were eventually built, and served very successfully in operations in South Vietnam, both with the USAF, and the South Vietnamese Air Force.
But while the A-37 was very good at close air support (compared to supersonic fighters), it lacked endurance, and consequently, had little loiter time over the troops it was supporting. There was still room for improvement.
The “ultimate” Counter-Insurgency airplane was the OV-10 Bronco. It was optimized to work from very austere airfields, had outstanding visibility, better performance than earlier types like the O-1 and O-2, had an endurance of up to five hours, and could carry a very respectable warload. It was pretty versatile too. The Bronco was used by the Marines, Navy, and the Air Force. If the Army had been permitted to use fixed wing attack aircraft, no doubt they too would have wanted some.
While all three services used the aircraft, each actually tended to use them in slightly different ways. For the Marines, the OV-10 was used pretty much as a direct replacement for the O-1, spotting artillery fires, and acting as a forward air controller in direct support of the troops on the ground. The Air Force used their Broncos in much the same way, of course, but also used them to hunt down North Vietnamese forces on the Ho Chi Mihn trail. This interdiction mission was conducted outside the parameters of direct support of troops. Air Force Broncos also routinely operated well inside the southern portions of North Vietnam, with no friendly ground troops anywhere close to the action.
The Navy, on the other hand, operated the Bronco in as a dedicated close air support platform in and of itself. In order to provide a quick response capability to support the Brown Water Navy, the Navy commissioned a squadron of OV-10s as a Light Attack Squadron, VAL-4. Typically loaded with 5” rockets, and occasionally with a 20mm gun pod on the centerline, the Black Ponies of VAL-4 would be overhead from dawn to dusk, and could almost instantaneously provide close air support to SEALs or Riverine forces in contact. If more firepower was needed, they would then switch to serving as a forward air controller to strike planes arriving on station. These “angels on the shoulder” light attack aircraft were very highly praised and treasured by the Navy folks down below.
With the end of the Vietnam war, the Navy gave up its riverine capability, and with it, its Broncos. The Marines and the Air Force both operated the Bronco in the Forward Air Controller role for many years afterwards, but as air defenses in likely theaters grew more capable, the Air Force got out of the Bronco business, and turned to modified A-10s and F-16s to fulfill the FAC role. The Marines held onto their Broncos until the loss of two OV-10s in Desert Storm convinced them they were too vulnerable to operate in the face of modern air defenses. They replaced them with OA-4M Skyhawks for a while, but eventually with the two-seat F/A-18D Hornet. By the early 1990s, there were no light attack/armed reconnaissance aircraft in the inventory of the Marines, Air Force, or Navy.
Fast forward a decade, and the US found itself deeply involved in two theaters, Iraq and Afghanistan, where aerial Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and CAS have both been in great demand. As much ISR as the Air Force, Navy, Marines and our coalition partners have been able to provide, there’s been a constant demand signal for more from the users on the ground. The massive proliferation of UAVs at all levels met some of the demand for ISR, and the ability of Predators and Reapers to provide a limited amount of call-fires has been a boon. But there are still limitations to what a drone can do. There is still no substitute for a pair of human eyeballs and a human brain right on station.
Sometime around 2007, the Navy Special Warfare community began to get fed up with the difficulty of working with existing ISR and CAS assets, and looked to find a cheap, off the shelf method of providing both capabilities that would be organic to SPECWAR.
Pretty soon, the Navy had leased an Embraer “It’s not about flying in from 1,000 miles away, dropping some thousand-pound bombs and leaving,” Mullins said. “It’s about working with [the ground force], doing the intelligence preparation of the battlespace, doing a [communication] relay, close air support, eyes on target and if there’s squirters leaving the target, keeping up with them and tracking them down and doing [bomb damage assessment] at the end.”
Pretty soon, the Navy had leased a single Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano to test some of the ideas behind the program. The next step planned was to lease four more Super Tucanos, and give them a tryout in Afghanistan. But Congress never appropriated money for that. The Navy had hoped to reprogram some funds from other programs to fill this requirement, but Congress balked at that.
About the same time, the demand for CAS and ISR from the Army was getting louder, and when SecDef Gates fired the Secretary of the Air Force and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force for not meeting the needs of the current war, the idea of making a large purchase of what became known as “Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance” or LAAR aircraft, started to gather steam. I’ve written several times about the LAARA program, here, here and here.
Now, leasing a handful of aircraft is one thing, but when the possibility of a fairly large (50-100) aircraft purchase rolls around, that calls for a competition. As the LAARA program first started, several firms bandied about proposals. Boeing even raised the possibility of reopening the OV-10 production line with an updated model. But one of the key demands of what came to be known as the O/A-X (observation/attack-experimental) program was that the airframe and sensors had to be non-developmental, readily available off-the-shelf. Pretty soon, the competition narrowed to two real candidates, the Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, and the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 Texan II. Both aircraft are roughly similar in configuration, size, performance and capability.
Let’s take a brief look at the pros and cons of each aircraft.
Hawker Beechcraft AT-6
- The basic T-6 trainer version is already in production and service with US forces
- It is made in the USA
- The training and support infrastructure is already mostly in place
- The AT-6 version is not fully developed yet
- There may be unknown challenges in weapons integration
- The AT-6 is based on an airframe optimized as a trainer, not as an attack aircraft
Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano
- The Super Tucano is already in service with several friendly nations
- The ST has already been cleared for weapons, if not fully integrated for some likely weapons in US service such as JDAMs and Small Diameter Bombs (SDB)
- The Super Tucano is combat proven (in South American service)
- It was designed from the start with both trainer and combat versions in mind
- The Super Tucano is not currently in US service
- There is no existing support infrastructure in place
- There would be a new training burden in adding a new airframe to the inventory, both in terms of training aircrew, and training maintenance personnel
Of course, there are also numerous political factors in play in any possible competition for a buy of aircraft. The first and most obvious is the number of jobs any deal will provide to US workers. Hawker Beechcraft is mounting a full court press (as are several “non-partisan” organizations) with their primary argument that buying Beechcraft would provide more jobs in the US than buying the Embraer aircraft would. And on the surface, that’s probably true. But things are never as simple as they seem at first glance. Did you know Brazil is currently looking to replace its aging fleet of high performance fighters? One of the aircraft they are considering is the Boeing F/A-18E/F SuperHornet. A major factor in international aircraft sales isn’t “what is the best plane we can buy?” but rather “what is the best trade offset that we can leverage when we buy?” That is, there’s rumors of a quid pro quo that if the US buys the Embraer design for the LAARA project, the Brazilians are far more likely to buy the F/A-18 than the French Rafale fighter. And just think of how many Boeing jobs would be saved or created by the sale to Brazil. Further, the balance of payments would almost certainly be the US’s favor in any deal of that sort.
As noted above, the Navy had wanted to reprogram funding to allow the lease of a handful of Super Tucanos for a combat test in Afghanistan, but Congress prohibited that. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to suspect that Hawker Beechcraft lobbied members of Congress to stop that reprogramming authority in order to give them a chance to compete. Further, that delay has given Hawker Beechcraft more time to develop an armed version of the T-6 to suit the LAARA requirements.
A couple other objections to choosing Embraer are common among Beechcraft supporters. First, many claim that if the US chooses the Super Tucano, we could find ourselves denied spare parts by the Brazilian government if they don’t approve of our use of them. After all, the Brazilian government retains de facto control over Embraer through a “golden share” of the company’s stock. But how likely is it that Brazil would in fact be able to cripple our operations through an embargo of parts? First, it is highly likely that any US use of the Super Tucano would include procurement offsets that, in addition to final assembly in the US, would mandate a US source for most of the spare parts for the planes in US hands. Second, any embargo of parts by Brazil would almost certainly be met with a corresponding US embargo of parts for US built aircraft being sent to Brazil, and even if we don’t sell the F’/A-18 to Brazil, they operate enough US built aircraft that they would certainly feel the pinch long before we did. Remember, we don’t NEED to operate the LAARA, we want to. But Brazil absolutely depends on US parts for a large percentage of its defense needs. In effect, we have and would retain an effective veto over Brazilian defense policy.
One other complaint that Hawker Beechcraft supporters like to raise is that the AT-6 is designed to be an ergonomic fit for a wider range of pilots body types than the EMB-314. By limiting the pool of available aircrew, we’re supposedly denying some people the chance to serve in a career enhancing position. Well, if the entire US Air Force was to consist of LAARA aircraft, that might be a concern. But with a buy of about 100 aircraft, you’re looking at about 150 to 200 pilots being trained on the type. And traditionally, flying jobs in COIN type aircraft isn’t the route to stardom in the Air Force. For careerists, it is seen as more a dead end. That there are a large number of folks that would leap to serve in any LAARA community is more about those pilots wanting to be involved in a personally rewarding job, rather than striving to gain further advancement in the Air Force.
Conclusion- Either LAARA candidate is likely to prove roughly suitable for use in low intensity conflict in permissive environments like we’ve seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Either aircraft would provide a niche capability for ISR, CAS, and FAC(A) this is currently lacking. This LAARA capability will also fit in nicely with the US aim to partner with and build the security of a host of nations that we work with, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and any number of small nations that need a credible air combat capability, but aren’t really in the market for supersonic jet fighters. One such example might be the Philippines. Almost certainly, political considerations will shape the choice of which aircraft is chosen. While there may well be a “competitive fly-off” to choose the winner, the ground rules of the fly-off will be heavily influenced by Congress, and virtually predetermine which aircraft will win. Further, as I’ve already theorized, the tightening defense budgets, and the looming drawdown of forces in Afghanistan will likely lessen the pressure to buy a LAARA aircraft, and the Air Force will probably sacrifice this program on the altar of budget cuts, in favor of programs it prefers. And that’s a damn shame, because a light, cheap attack and surveillance aircraft, either the Super Tucano or the Texan II, could be a valuable tool in the ongoing low intensity conflicts we will likely face for the foreseeable future.
Disclosure- This post was written at the behest of John Hawkins, of Right Wing News. I am receiving consideration in the form of a link at Linkiest.com. John has not exerted any editorial control over the content of this post, nor has he asked for an endorsement of one platform over the other. While I can anticipate increased traffic from the link at linkiest.com, this blog is in no way monetized, and is produced solely because I enjoy writing it and fostering understanding and discussion of military and security matters.