We’ve written a few times about the Air Force program to develop a Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft (LAARA), primarily to arm nations such as Afghanistan and Iraq; allies that cannot afford, nor need, to operate high performance jets. These LAARA aircraft would normally operate in a permissive air defense environment over the host nation’s territory, and not have to cope with a sophisticated Integrated Air Defense System of radars and radar guided missiles. At worst, they would face the occasional MANPADS shoulder launched missile. The Air Force would likely own a small batch of any such production run primarily to serve as a training base for foreign users. The two prime candidate aircraft have pretty much always been the AT-6B Texan II from Beechcraft, and the A-29 SuperTucano from EMBRAER.
Given the rather stupendous costs of operating fast jets, in terms of cost per flight hour, we’re rather amazed how lukewarm the Air Force has been about the program. Fielding a wing or two of small, inexpensive aircraft would cost relatively little. It would also tend to show the Army that the Air Force was serious about meeting the needs of the Army, rather than maintaining its reputation for jealously guarding its independence. I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Unfortunately, what I wrote in that last link seems to be rather spot on:
At this point, I’m not really concerned with which platform they choose, just that they choose one.
But I’ve got unfailing insight into the future. Let me tell you what will happen. The fighter mafia, not wanting to get stuck with unsexy airplanes, have been dragging their feet on this, and will continue to do so. As US involvement in Afghanistan is trimmed back, the push to buy these LAARA birds will diminish somewhat, and then the fighter mafia will use the looming $400bn in defense cuts to argue that we can’t afford to buy and operate a new airplane.
LAARA is a good idea, long overdue (I mean, we’ve only been fighting in Afghanistan for 9 whole years!) and will almost certainly never reach operational status.
LAARA isn’t a dead program yet, but I haven’t seen it twitch much lately, much less move forward. Part of that is institutional foot dragging. And then there’s the political side, with various blocs in Congress pulling for one or the other of the two bidders. Beechcraft has been rather irritating in its insistence that the program be rewritten and recompeted time and again to give them a chance, never mind the EMBRAER product has been ready off-the-shelf almost since day one.
The Air Force’s argument is that to a great extent, it’s armed MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones provide the capability for long endurance Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and Light Attack that the ground units need. To a certain extent they do, but they lack the responsiveness that Army commanders want. Unfortunately, Army commanders don’t get to dictate what the Air Force buys.
But there is another constituency that really wants a manned ISR/Light Attack capability, and while they can’t force the Air Force to buy stuff, they can lobby their own service to provide a niche capability. Navy Special Warfare, primarily the SEALs, has long wanted to have a LAARA type aircraft available to support some of their operations. Big Navy may not want to see the world revolve around NavSpecWar, but they do want to see them succeed. And so the SEALs brothers in NavAir started poking around to find a way to field about four airplanes to support them.
Under a program name of Imminent Fury, NavAir in early 2009 leased a SuperTucano, and tested it extensively. But when the Navy looked to move to Phase II, sending a detachment of four planes to Afghanistan, Congress slapped them down, hard. Imminent Fury had been run outside the normal procurement channels. That’s a pretty fair sized sin, in and off itself. But worse, the Navy was seen as giving EMBRAER the inside track on the Air Force LAARA program itself. NavAir was told in no uncertain terms that not only could they not lease four SuperTucanos, nor send them to Afghanistan, they couldn’t lease a single one, even stateside.
But Naval Aviators are wiley warriors, and a little thing like losing their airplane wasn’t going to ground them. They simply started looking around for another airplane. What they wanted was a light turboprop airplane, seating for two, capability to carry a fair ordnance load, and the ability to carry a sophisticated sensor system. Oh, and they had to be free. And as it turn out, they had a pretty good idea where to find a couple. After all, the Navy (as well as the Marines and Air Force) had operated just such a plane once. The OV-10 Bronco. The Marines had modernized their fleet in the 1980s. When they’d retired them shortly after Desert Storm, they’d put some in the boneyard, given some to friendly nations, and given a couple to NASA, who are always in the market for cheap aircraft to support various test programs.
And so, under a program called Combat Dragon II, the Navy is quietly operating those two NASA Broncos, updated and designated as the OV-10G+.
And it appears that whatever modifications the Navy wanted done were completed in-house at Patuxet River, MD, as now the aircraft, with Black Pony insignia as a nod to the heritage of VAL-4, are out west at Nellis AFB supporting various exercises to demonstrate their capabilities.
Click to greatly embiggenfy.
And the Bronco isn’t the only Cold War era COIN aircraft in the news.
Where the Bronco started as an attack aircraft with some reconnaissance capability, the Mohawk was a reconnaissance aircraft with some attack capability. But other than some very brief use early in the Vietnam War, its attack capability has languished.
But there is a market for quite a few nations that face internal instability, such as in South America, for an airplane or two (rather than a squadron) to support ground operations. And maybe the Bronco would be an ideal fit for them. But most of the Bronco fleet is worn out from hard use. But there are a goodly number of OV-1Ds sitting in the desert with a decent amount of fatigue life remaining.
Obvious changes from a stock OV-1D include the sensor turret under the nose, the rocket launchers on pylons outboard of the standard external fuel tanks, and most intriguingly of all, the 30mm M230 Chain Gun under the centerline. Presumably it is articulated in a manner similar to its use on the AH-64 Apache.
All this retro aviation stuff has me looking for some bell bottom jeans and a Nehru jacket.