The Pentagon’s lead on special operations and low intensity conflict was looking forward to the Air Force selecting a light-attack aircraft this December, but like many, he was disappointed after the service got cold feet.
“If you are asking if we are disappointed the Air Force cut or delayed the light-attack program, the answer is yes," Assistant Secretary Owen West said at a recent defense industry symposium, adding that he wouldn’t elaborate on the subject in an open forum.
He did, however, say earlier in the conference that his office is exploring ways in which the U.S. military’s counter-insurgency mission could be better resourced as the Pentagon implements the 2018 National Defense Strategy.
Some of the new resourcing initiatives could include a greater reliance on U.S. special operations troops commanding partner forces, while others could involve selling cost-effective equipment to foreign militaries so they can replicate some of the capabilities U.S. personnel once brought to their fight.
“It will be a cheaper, more effective way to take on many of our enemies than we do with, say, the high-generation platforms that we do today,” West said. “It’s amazing to probably hear from me that in 2020 a propeller airplane could be effectively employed on the modern battlefield in the hyper connected age, but it’s really cheap and in some areas it’s highly effective."
“Most important, many of our local forces can maintain these aircraft,” he added.
West’s comments aren’t necessarily new, and they’re shared by some pilots who have flown light-attack aircraft in testing.
Lt. Col. Arthur Dixon, a former Marine F/A-18 Hornet pilot and weapons officer who conducted test flights in the AT-6 Texan II in 2011, told Air Force Times that while he doesn’t receive updates on testing, he remains a fan of the light-attack concept.
The derivative of the plane Dixon tested, the AT-6 Wolverine, was up against the A-29 Super Tucano in the competition before the Air Force shut it down, at least temporarily.
“I believe it would benefit the United States to have an aircraft like that in the inventory because air warfare is always changing,” Dixon said. “And cost does mean something, because we’re in a cost-conscience culture."
Many pundits have noted that rather than using a $90 million F-35 stealth fighter to bomb insurgents with no air defense capability, it would be wiser to use a cheap light-attack plane.
But U.S. officials may have encountered resistance to the two selected aircraft in their discussions with possible partners. They are now talking about widening the competition to rotary-wing aircraft and drones.
Aircraft like the AT-6 already have a large presence in the U.S.
“We used it as a trainer and have the parts, and you have people who know how to operate it all around the U.S., and it’s already proliferated around the world,” Dixon said. “It just makes a lot of sense. I would love to see the AT-6 continue to fly off against the A-29.”
In September, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein said he envisioned the light-attack aircraft as a platform that could be sold to partner nations unable to afford or maintain high-end jet aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but that still needed to be able to send and receive intelligence in the skies.
“If I hear one thing from my international air chiefs, it’s ‘we need to figure out how to share information both ways,’” Goldfein told Military Times. “So, for me, with the light-attack experiment, I’m just as interested in the information sharing and intelligence gathering."
To address Goldfein’s vision of integrating U.S. allies across domains, the light-attack experiment was testing the integration of a network that allows the U.S. to share unclassified data with partners using off-the-shelf products like Aeronet.
But after the Air Force pumped the brakes on the light-attack experiment in January, it doesn’t seem likely the U.S. will have an aircraft to offer up anytime soon.
Goldfein said in a Jan. 26 interview that the service is still finalizing its strategy on how to proceed with the light-attack program. He also hinted that a lack of interest by partner nations may have shaped the decision not to press ahead with a program of record late last year.
“What is the right mix of fixed wing, rotary wing, manned and unmanned that can do the business of light attack?” he said. “What is the right mix and how do we bring allies and partners in right now with us — not just periodically parachute in — but how do we expand this experiment to bring them into the tent with us?”
It’s unclear what an unmanned option would look like. But given the capabilities of open-source hunter-killer drones, like the MQ-9 Reaper, Dixon said a manned light attack like the AT-6 still makes sense, at least in conjunction with something else.
“You have more options with the AT-6 on the ordnance you can carry and then you also have that human factor of being able to look out of the aircraft, and see with eyeballs beyond the wing-line," Dixon said. "That’s something you don’t get with an unmanned aircraft like an MQ-9.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer