In a not-so-amazing turn of events, the Air Force has come to the realization that they need a lighter, more cost efficient, ground support aircraft. The Air Force hasn’t had those types of aircraft in the inventory since Vietnam and has been loath to even keep the invaluable A-10, preferring the sleek, sexier F-15, and the F-16.

But for the pilots who fly the missions in combat, especially in the Middle East, it is a no brainer and the Air Force is listening to them and will hold an attack experiment using light turboprop aircraft at Hollman, AFB.

Light attack aircraft were just that – smaller attack aircraft like the A-37 Dragonfly or Navy OV-10, with significant weapons loads but not designed to stand up in the front of the apocalyptic Soviet/NATO battlefield. For the Air Force, the long path to considering a new attack aircraft started in 2008. Faced with increasing airpower demand in Iraq and Afghanistan, the existing fighters were being wrung out. For the kind of air support we were providing for U.S. ground forces, the existing F-16, F-15E and Navy / Marine F-18 were a ridiculous overmatch.

But we also wanted aircraft that could be forward deployed to austere airfields, fueled from 55-gallon drums, and supplied from the back of a pickup truck – none of which a jet can easily do. And we needed it to be relatively cheap to buy and to operate. In short, we envisioned an aircraft that looked like earlier designs, with the weapons and sensors of a modern jet.

These aircraft existed. I had seen the A-29 Super Tucano in Colombia in 2007. Raytheon had a conversion of their T-6 trainer (the AT-6) that included a weapons capability. What we were looking for was off the shelf stuff, not needing a long development period. For combat operations in the Middle East, this seemed like a good match.

The aircraft that existed were two-seaters with light armor, good day/night electro-optical sensors, guns, and precision munitions. Unrefueled, they had twice the loiter time of the fast jets. They sipped fuel – the fuel they burned in an hour of flight approximated the fuel an F-15E used taxiing from parking to the runway. We were looking at traditional attack aircraft – combat aircraft that could be used for a wide array of missions from Close Air Support to interdiction to combat search & rescue. In 2009, these aircraft could have flown from a dozen US-operated airfields in Afghanistan that could not have supported fast jets.

The experiment will confirm what the combat pilots already know. In a combat operations area that the sky is controlled by the US, the light, turboprop attack aircraft offers better flexibility, cost effectiveness, better precision and can be more effective in the war on terror.

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Photo courtesy US Air Force