To Strike the Islamic State, America Should Unleash Light Attack Planes
The A-29A and AT-6C are low-cost, reliable and can fly from bases close to the front lines
The Obama administration is searching for options in Syria. The conflict, which has raged for four years, shows no signs of abating. The Russian entry into the war on behalf of the Syrian regime is an unwelcome development that will serve to increase civilian casualties.
For the United States and NATO, there are few good policy options available, and western governments have long since lost the illusion that they can exert any sort of control over events in Syria. The conflict has become a battleground for long-deferred grievances, policy agendas and power struggles throughout the region.
At this stage, U.S. strategy options arguably revolve around containing the conflict within Iraq and Syria while trying to mitigate the effects on vulnerable populations in the conflict zone. Air power offers tactical options to support containment while remaining at a distance and minimizing the involvement of U.S. ground forces.
There are geographical challenges inherent with supporting the fast-jet fighter and bomber force, and there are emerging options for introducing a light attack capability that America hasn’t employed since Vietnam.
If the United States is planning on increasing the presence of ground forces in support of Iraqi and Kurdish ground elements, we should bring along a little local air power and reintroduce light attack aircraft.
Above — AT-6C taxis at Tucson International Airport. At top — A-29 Super Tucano above Georgia. U.S. Air Force photos
First, the United States has a problem — there are no bases in Iraq which currently support the coalition’s fast-jet fighters. The existing fighter bases which served us through Operation Iraqi Freedom are generally too close to the enemy or no longer in the hands of the Iraqi government.
Fighters operating over Mosul in northern Iraq have to come from Kuwait, a carrier in the Persian Gulf or airfields in the Gulf states — a one-way trip covering 500 to 1,000 nautical miles, depending on the base.
Incirlik Air Base in Turkey recently reopened for fighter operations for the first time in more than a decade. Incirlik’s proximity is a bonus, in that it knocks 125 nautical miles off the flight from Kuwait to Mosul, but the base is subject to constraints imposed by Turkey.
Even at the height of the no-fly zone enforcement, Turkish authorities regularly canceled flying operations on short notice, usually because of “special missions.” Turkish special missions, in the parlance of the time, were air strikes against Kurdish targets in Turkey, Iraq and even Iran.
The distance from suitable bases places a huge burden on aircraft, requiring massive amounts of tanker-delivered fuel and eating up the airframe life on a legacy fighter force that has an average age of more than a quarter century. The fuel consumption that this operational distance drives is equally large, and made more expensive in that tankers deliver the majority of it.
While the Air Force justifiably boasts of “Global Reach,” that reach is bought at huge expense and is completely reliant on secure bases with long runways and deep logistical support. This leaves small airfields in Turkey and Iraq out of reach.
Another issue is that distance equates to response time. If we are going to introduce additional ground forces to fight the Islamic State and shore up our Iraqi and Kurdish allies, those soldiers will still be highly dependent on aircraft flown from very distant basing.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to base combat aircraft inside Iraq. More accurately, it would be possible if the Air Force had any.
In Vietnam, the Air Force relied heavily on the Korean War vintage A-1E Skyraider for close air support and escort for rescue aircraft. The Pentagon transferred those aircraft to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1973, and the U.S. Air Force transitioned to the A-7 Corsair II and the A-37B Dragonfly.
By 1991, the Dragonflies had been retired and the United States was out of the light attack business.
Turboprop light attack aircraft like the AT-6 Coyote or A-29 Super Tucano require a less constrained basing structure and much less logistical support than their fast jet counterparts. Fully armed, they carry the same bombload as an F-16 with three external fuel tanks, while gaining roughly twice the unrefeueled endurance.
They can operate from rough fields and are comparative fuel-sippers. The engines are highly reliable and resistant to foreign object damage.
Importantly, they use the same weapons and tactics as modern fighter/attack aircraft, capable of aerial gunnery, rocket employment and release of a variety of precision bombs. Today, every Air Force and Navy pilot receives flight training in the T-6 Texan II, making them familiar with low wing turboprops in this class.
The AT-6 and A-29 are off-the-shelf aircraft. The AT-6C is a fencer, benefiting from commonality with the A-10C Thunderbolt II and T-6 Texan II — and possesses a very robust communications and data array. The A-29 is a bruiser, with a higher, heavier airframe and a slightly heavier stores load. They each use the PT-6A-68 turboprop delivering 1,600 shaft horsepower, making them some of the most powerful single-engine turboprop aircraft in the world.
Both aircraft, combat loaded, are comparable in power-to-weight ratio and wing loading to a similarly configured P-47D Thunderbolt of World War II fame.
The A-29A Super Tucano is under production in Jacksonville for the Afghan Light Air Support program. The 81st Fighter Squadron at Moody AFB operates these aircraft to train Afghan pilots. The Navy Development Group also used this aircraft for Phase I of the Imminent Fury initiative.
The A-29 is the most widely deployed modern turboprop light attack aircraft in the world, with the most experienced users being Brazil and Colombia. Almost 200 aircraft have been produced with another 200-plus aircraft on order.
Colombian aircrews have extensive combat experience, including with precision munitions, due to the conflict with the FARC. Brazil has used them extensively for counternarcotics, reconnaissance and counter-air operations. The aircraft are in service worldwide from South America to Africa and Asia.
The aircraft can carry rockets, free fall munitions, air to air missiles (AIM-9L class), air to ground missiles (AGM-65 class) and laser-guided bombs including the Enhanced Paveway II — but not the JDAM or Small Diameter Bomb.
The AT-6C Coyote is a derivative of the T-6B Texan II with hardpoint wings, an uprated engine, and avionics from the A-10C, including the Central Interface Control Unit which provides the primary mission systems for the AT-6C. The AT-6C uses a modified A-10C Operational Flight Program, leveraging all of the A-10’s stores management, datalink, map and helmet mounted cueing system interfaces.
Commonality with the T-6 trainer is more than 70 percent. There are two prototypes — one production validation aircraft and one production aircraft on the production line. The aircraft underwent a two-year evaluation at the Air National Guard Test Center in Tucson, where it was judged to be an “operationally effective and suitable light-attack and armed reconnaissance aircraft.”
The U.S. configuration used by the Air National Guard is fully NVG compatible, and includes SATCOM, SADL and a Gentex Scorpion helmet-mounted sight. It has a MIL STD 1760 databus instead of the 1553B and is fully compatible with GBU-38/54 and GBU-39 weapons.
The AT-6C carries almost as much fuel as the A-29 despite a smaller airframe, and has accomplished weapons tests with the GBU-12/58 Paveway II, guns, guided and unguided 70-millimeter rockets — and Mk-81/82 bombs.
The low logistical requirement of light attack aircraft makes them suitable for airfields in northern Iraq that are too short or rough for jet fighter and attack aircraft, or too dangerous to support with large quantities of fuel.
As a general rule of thumb, any airfield capable of operating a C-130 is suitable for the light attack birds. Five airfields in Iraqi Kurdistan fall cleanly within that category — Irbil, Sulimaniya, K1, Sirsenk and Kirkuk. K1 is a former U.S. Army airfield, Kirkuk is a former Air Force installation, and Irbil has an existing U.S. presence and serves as an emergency airfield at need.
Sirsenk Forward Support Base (Bamerne) was the primary coalition fixed-wing airstrip during Operation Provide Comfort. Its condition is unknown.
Of these, Irbil’s international airport has the best mix of ramp space, fuel supply and security — and has a long history of U.S. air operations dating to 2003.
Close proximity of light attack aircraft allows for a rapid response time. With a scramble time of five minutes, the light attack birds can be overhead any point up to 75 miles away, half an hour from the scramble order.
From Irbil, this coverage encompasses all of Iraq east of the Tigris and north of Kirkuk and over Mosul almost as far as Sinjar Mountain. From Kirkuk, this coverage arc stretches almost from Balad to Mosul.
Either location could conceivably support Iraqi government or Peshmerga forces in operations to free Mosul from the Islamic State’s domination. By comparison, a fast jet scrambled from Incirlik is still 30 minutes behind the light attack aircraft.
The largest logistical requirement could very well be weapons, as up to 500-pound precision munitions might be employed. The new APKWS II laser-guided Hydra rounds used by the Marines in Afghanistan are compatible with light attack aircraft, and give the capability to demolish bunkers or hit moving targets. Flexible warhead choices would allow them to kill light armored vehicles.
The incorporation of a rocket-and-guns loadout means that field rearming by the aircrew is a practical possibility. During the Jaded Thunder 10-1 exercise, the Navy validated its light attack concept using an armed A-29. These planes repeatedly demonstrated rapid turns at Creech Air Force Base, as summarized in the after action report:
From two austere locations, with as little as 40 minutes between events, the aircraft was maintained, refueled, reconfigured between ISR and strike configurations, rearmed with multiple loads of rockets and guns, and launched / recovered during day and night operations. FARP evolutions were limited only to the Creech AFB fuel truck timelines, but were always accomplished in under 20 minutes from touchdown to launch. Incorporating organic refueling with fuel bladders by Imminent Fury maintainers would have cut each of the FARP evolutions from 20 minutes to 7-10 minutes.
We can draw the current cost estimates for purchasing turboprop light attack aircraft from existing contracts for the Super Tucano. The typical contract is for a small package of aircraft — less than a squadron — and include training devices, simulators, two years of support and a robust spares kit.
In 2004, Colombia bought 25 Super Tucanos for $235 million, plus another $89 million to cover purchase of the EO/IR sensors. In 2013, the Light Air Support contract, covering 20 aircraft, was negotiated for $421 million dollars.
While the individual aircraft, combat equipped with EO/IR ball run about $14 million, the support contracts, training devices and spare parts accounted for a third or more of the total contract cost. The Colombian contract remains the largest contract executed to date outside Brazil.
There are other cost analyses which include data on sustainment estimates here, here, here and here. For a smaller demonstration along the lines of Imminent Fury, both manufacturers have previously offered lease options on their aircraft.
Air power options
For policymakers who are reasonably wary of introducing additional ground forces into Iraq, the option of providing these forces with additional protection and on-call air power should be an attractive policy choice.
The Air Force does not currently possess operational attack aircraft that can operate out of northern Iraq, but those aircraft are available, and we have aircrew – including the author — with varying degrees of familiarity with the AT-6 and A-29.
The majority of the burden for rolling back Islamic State territorial gains will fall on Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, but air power has proven itself effective when supporting those operations.
With a minor adjustment to our force structure, we could improve air power flexibility, shorten the response timeline and reduce risk to deployed forces by basing combat aircraft inside Iraq itself. The Air Force could send light attack planes in short order — to provide air power where we need it.