The Pentagon borrowed Bronco bombers for Middle East mission
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
On Oct. 1, 2012, the U.S. Special Operations Command and the U.S. Navy made a deal with NASA to borrow a pair of Vietnam-era OV-10 Broncos, which the space agency used for experiments.
Now after a series of missions in the Middle East, the combat career of NASA’s two OV-10 Bronco planes appears to have ended … for good. According to documents and official statements, the Pentagon never planned to keep the aircraft.
In October 2015, the Broncos came back in the United States and the sailing branch prepared to return to them to the space agency’s hangars in Virginia.
“The terms … have been met and concluded by all parties,” a public affairs officer at the Pentagon’s main headquarters for operations the Middle East told War Is Boring in an email. “[We are] not aware of any new agreements between NASA and other parties concerning these two aircraft.”
“The OV-10G aircraft … have been recently returned to NASA,” the official added.
Since at least 2007, American commandos have looked to add light attack planes to their arsenal. In 2008, the Navy leased a single EMB-314 Super Tucano as part of a project nicknamed Imminent Fury.
The sailing branch’s elite SEALs requested the low- and slow-flying plane to hunt terrorists and militants as part of the ever growing War on Terror. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the commandos relied heavily on high-flying and fast-flying jet fighters for air support.
Facing an enemy without surface-to-air missiles or other high-tech defenses, the commandos felt these faster planes were poorly suited for attacking targets on the ground. More importantly, the SEALs had to rely on other units to fly the missions … when they could be spared.
At the same time, the Air Force was looking to buy similar aircraft to train and arm foreign allies. To save money, the Defense Department, Navy, Air Force and U.S. Special Operations Command agreed to work together on the project in 2009.
The arrangement quickly ran into trouble.
While the planes might have been similar, the Navy and Air Force had very different ideas of what they each wanted the aircraft to do. On top of these issues, some American lawmakers were deeply upset about the choice of a foreign plane — the Brazilian EMB-314 — over American options.
Now dubbed Combat Dragon II, the program languished.
On May 20, 2010, Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a major proponent of the project and then in charge of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan, pleaded with the Pentagon to get any appropriate planes into combat. The following year, Congress rejected a Navy request to buy or lease more EMB-314s for Combat Dragon II.
Enter NASA and its OV-10s.
The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps got the first Broncos during the Vietnam War. In 1995, the Marines became the last U.S. armed service to actively fly the twin-engine planes.
The original aircraft could fly nearly 300 miles per hour over a distance of 1,300 miles. In addition to four 7.62-millimeter machine guns the planes’ small stub wings, the Broncos could lug additional guns, bombs and rockets.
NASA eventually ended up with a number of the Broncos. The Langley Research Center flew the planes to study low speed flight, noise and other effects.
After more than 15 years out of military service, NASA’s Broncos were not ready for mock combat, let alone a real battlefield. While the OV-10Gs did have newer engines and four-bladed propellers, they lacked modern military gear.
The Pentagon seems to have chosen the aircraft because they were readily available. According to a draft abstract of the agreement, NASA expected it would be able to get the planes to the Navy by April 2012.
The deal made it clear that the Pentagon planned to return the OV-10s. Under the terms, the space agency would actually get the two planes back with numerous improvements.
The Naval Air Systems Command took the Broncos and installed new digital computer gear in the cockpits, night vision video cameras and the ability to carry and fire laser-guided rockets.
NASA and the Navy designed the requirements for the new cockpit setups together. When the Pentagon was done with its tests, the Navy would remove the weapons and other military specific systems from the Broncos and send them back to NASA.
The sailing branch also had to make sure to strip any military markings or camouflage paint jobs. The Navy ultimately chose a boring, if typical overall gray scheme.
Under the original plan, the Pentagon said NASA would get its improved Broncos back by October 2013. The meteoric rise of the Islamic State terrorist group in Iraq and Syria the next year reignited interest in the aircraft.
The agreement left open the possibility of renegotiating the terms and extending the loan period. In May 2015, the two aircraft left for the Middle East. Once there, the crews flew 120 combat missions over the course of more than two months. We don’t know what the Pentagon ultimately gained from the experiment.
But the Pentagon will likely have to look for new aircraft if it wants to give commandos cheap propeller-driven attack planes in the future. In January, the Air Force did help deliver the first A-29 to the Afghan Air Force.
A version of the EMB-314, these planes would definitely satisfy the SEALs’ original requirements for the project. Unfortunately, fights over contracts and congressional lobbying to “buy American” held up Kabul’s planes for at least two years. This could easily happen all over again with any new plans to buy small attack aircraft for American commandos.
While the Navy and Special Operations Command could reach a new deal with NASA for their Broncos, the aircraft are only getting older and harder to keep flying. As of 2016, no company makes new OV-10s or has any plans to do so in the future.
The days of American OV-10s fighting overseas are now probably gone forever.