The U.S. Air Force Almost Sent ‘Starter’ Attack Planes to Europe
Air Force said NATO members were ‘less capable’ than the Afghans—and needed a little’s plane’s help
In September 2009, the U.S. Air Forces in Europe asked to host the first squadron of light attack planes that, at the time, were planned for purchase by a more ambitious and less cash-strapped Pentagon.
The Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance warplanes—LAAR for short—were meant to be cheap, easy-to-fly “starter” aircraft that the Air Force could use to help stand up new air forces and also fly some easy bombing missions.
For a host of dumb reasons, the American flying branch never actually ended up getting the LAAR planes. But USAFE’s keen interest in the tiny attackers, unreported before now, is the latest indication that potentially multi-billion-dollar LAAR really was a pretty good idea.
Publicly, the Air Force said it wanted to deploy LAAR to countries like Afghanistan to conduct training. Officially, Europe was not even on the radar.
But according to Air Combat Command’s annual history from 2009, USAFE officials identified “at least five newer NATO nations [that] have air forces less capable than the Afghan National Army Air Corps”—and which would have benefited from exposure to American LAAR planes.
In 2009, only five NATO members—Albania, France, Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States—met the alliance’s requirement to spend two percent or more of their GDP on defense. And unlike Afghanistan, new NATO members including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania didn’t enjoy a major U.S.-led military assistance program.
USAFE thought that sending the proposed LAAR aircraft to Europe could help the new NATO members get their air arms started. American airmen could have flown the light attackers alongside new alliance aviators, introducing the Europeans to air power basics.
The aircraft might also have provided a cheap way of training ground forces on procedures for calling in air strikes—an important consideration for NATO troops deploying to Afghanistan.
In December 2009, planners managed to narrow down the potential LAAR designs to four candidate types—a turboprop trainer, a turboprop agricultural aircraft, a twin turboprop light utility aircraft or a jet trainer. The Air Force felt the turboprop trainer was the most promising.
But the LAAR program wasn’t meant to be. The effort was doomed by legal restrictions, institutional reticence, congressional criticism and budget cuts.
Gen. Norton Schwarz, then chief of staff of the Air Force, was adamant that the aircraft would never be used in actual combat. LAAR would be limited to training foreign forces.
But the foreign training mission traditionally belongs to America’s Special Operations Forces. The Air Force’s Air Combat Command had no legal authority to set up units to do the job. In essence, the planned 100 LAARs could have wound up homeless within the Air Force.
Air Combat Command had tried to sort out the issue by squeezing itself into a very similar program being run by the Navy and Special Operations Command. The Air Force joined the Imminent Fury initiative in 2010.
But the flying branch never managed to fully resolve the legal problem. The Air Force found itself briefing Congress about buying aircraft that it could not legally fly. Lawmakers had already been skeptical of spending money on LAAR aircraft over things like upgrading F-15 and F-16 jet fighters.
The LAAR program won no new friends when the Air Force announced it would purchase the aircraft on a sole-source basis, quite possibly from a foreign company. Congress was already upset that the Imminent Fury program used a Brazilian Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano.
The “Buy American” issue continues to stall attempts to purchase a LAAR-style airplane for the Afghan air force. The Pentagon has awarded the Light Air Support contract to Embraer, working in partnership with the Sierra Nevada Corporation, twice now—and still has nothing to show for it.
In February 2012, the Air Force said it would not seek any funding for the LAAR in its next budget request, finally bringing the saga of the tiny attack plane to an anti-climactic close … and ending any possibility of USAFE using the aircraft to help NATO members grow their own air forces.