Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein recently acknowledged that the Air Force is unbalanced to fight at the high end of the conflict spectrum — in high-intensity conventional war. The world is rapidly changing, and the high and low ends of conflict are moving further apart. The high end is getting more difficult as a result of warfighting advances by near-peer competitors, while the low end is moving tangentially towards an enduring commitment. Excessively depending on a single exquisite aircraft to span this widening rift between the spectrum ends dilutes capability, capacity, and resources that are all constrained today and for the foreseeable future.
One platform cannot be expected to span this gap today, and certainly not tomorrow. During a recent think tank discussion, Lt. Gen. Mike “Mobile” Holmes, the deputy chief of staff of the Air Force for strategic plans and requirements, informally circulated a concept called OA-X (O/A denotes an observation/attack role, while X stands in for an undetermined identification number). OA-X is the low-cost, off-the-shelf light attack solution the Air Force is bruiting to relieve the spiraling operating costs of conducting low-intensity operations with multirole fighters, working within existing fiscal constraints to free resources to invest in the high-end fight.
This has led to speculation, confusion, and even backlash about exactly what the tech-centric service is thinking. The reality is that the Air Force must embrace the much-touted, but seldom-executed high-low force mix to evolve the force of the future — something I’ve devoted an entire article to cover before. While this idea dates back to 2009 and has gained various levels of traction along the way (Imminent Fury and Combat Dragon II), the concept has been revived by Congressional authorities granted this year that could get new aircraft flying within two years.
The OA-X concept comprises much more than light attack, though.
Observation, Not Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR)
The evolution of global ISR surveillance and reconnaissance has fundamentally changed how America fights wars, but left behind another key component to actionable intelligence: observation.
In the context of airplane capabilities, observation is not surveillance or reconnaissance. Instead, it should be viewed from a combined-arms perspective — not simply an overhead remotely piloted aircraft (RPA). Observation is more akin to a spotter for a sniper or a cavalry scout for an Army battalion. Neither the sniper nor the battalion would be as successful without the observation element integrated into the fighting element. In observation, the processing, dissemination, and the ability to take action reside in the realm of the ground element, even if the observation is completed from the air. This is the same conceptual base as the Marine Corps’ investment into the highly capable UH-1 Super Huey/Venom. Though the Air Force continues to provide reassurances that it does indeed embrace the close air support (CAS) mission, it is worth asking: What ever happened to its observation requirement to buttress CAS?
The Lineage of Observation
Military observation from ballooned flight dates to the 1700s, followed shortly by the first manned flight. Benjamin Franklin even remarked that, “filling a balloon with hot air…may be sufficient in elevating an engineer to take a view of an enemy’s army, works, etc.” Accordingly, the first Wright military flyers were assigned to the Army Signal Corps, and observation formed the basis of military flight at the beginning of World War I, predating fighter and attack roles.
In World War II, observation experienced transformative growth into air reconnaissance, and a plethora of aircraft were modified to perform photographic recon. In the era before today’s naming convention, these aircraft carried “F” designations to denote this role: the F-3 (A-20), F-5 (P-38), F-6 (P-51), F-7 (B-24), F-9 (B-17), and F-10 (B-25). Despite the vital intelligence gained by these missions, in Europe this effort supported the massive strategic bombing campaign rather than maneuvering forces on the ground. This represented a significant departure from how the Air Force viewed information gathering from the air and how it related to supporting fielded forces, partly due to the changing perspective of air power. This created a rift between reconnaissance and observation that would remain for decades.
At the same time, the Army relied on “liaison” aircraft to perform the more traditional WWI-era observation of fielded forces and artillery spotting. The venerable Piper Cub became the L-4 Grasshopper, of which several thousand were used in the war. These were augmented by the purpose-built Stinson L-5. Similarly, the British Army used Lysander and the Luftwaffe had the Storch. The U.S. Navy also relied extensively on observation from the air, as ships did not yet have radar. The Navy flew thousands of SOC Seagulls (“SOC” for scout, observation, Curtis-Wright) and OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes from cruisers and battleships that provided critical information on enemy location, size, and disposition. Hundreds of miles away from U.S. fleet elements, submarines also scouted.
Fueled by the establishment of the U.S. Air Force as an independent service in 1947 and the rise of the bomber mafia, the Air Force widened this fracture between recon and observation when it left observation behind for the Army to assume — even though the Air Force retained close air support along with both strategic and tactical reconnaissance under the 1948 Key West Agreement. The Army soon ordered a new observation plane to replace its weathered L-4/L-5 fleet, resulting in the O-1 Bird Dog that entered service in Korea in early 1951 to augment observation helicopters in the war. Over 3,000 O-1s were produced for the Army and Marine Corps in the 1950s, but it wasn’t until Vietnam that the aircraft would become widely popular.
The O-1 was used in the early days of the Vietnam War with the Red Markers in 1961, and Air Force advisors trained the Vietnamese Air Force in forward air controller (FAC) duties using borrowed O-1 aircraft. This closed the book on a dark era of the Air Force’s view of Army air support and promptly ended a hiatus of FAC training, which had been terminated in 1956. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) also used O-1s in the covert Raven FAC programs under the cover of Air America. By 1965, the Air Force realized it was in a new type of war and assumed control of over 100 O-1s from the Army, used for reconnaissance, target acquisition, artillery adjustment, and the forward air control of tactical aircraft. The Air Force was back in the observation business.
While the Air Force commissioned the O-2 Skymaster to augment the OA-1, a tri-service light armed reconnaissance aircraft competition was well under way. In 1964, the winner was announced: the legendary OV-10 Bronco, which would serve for almost 30 years. The OV-10 was retired after Desert Storm, when some A-10s were anointed the superficial OA-10A designation to fill the role. That too eventually ended, and times were changing — or so it seemed.
The Rise of RPAs
The extinction of observation platforms coincided with the rise of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs). Though drones date back to World War II, modern RPAs originated from the classified Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Teal Rain program in the 1970s. A need for surveillance remerged during the mid-1990s Bosnian War and drove CIA-sponsored drone development based on the follow-on Amber program, which resulted in the RQ-1 (now called MQ-1) Predator. This expansion continued in Kosovo, before the explosion of RPA use after 9/11.
Despite the rise in surveillance platforms, the optical field of view shrank to singular electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) soda-straws. The sensors used on the MQ-1, MQ-9, U-28, MC-12, AC-130 — and all fighter/attack planes in the inventory — generally operate within a narrow 5-degree field of view with no peripheral sensing. While most RPAs possess synthetic aperture radar to map terrain and moving vehicles, this is not useful for observing people and dismounted troops. The Air Force has been adapting air-centric surveillance born from air-centric operations to fight a ground-based post-9/11 war with more in common with Vietnam than Kosovo. Observation was lacking, and everyone knew it.
The military invested in wide-area surveillance programs such as Angel Fire, Constant Hawk, and Gorgon Stare to move beyond the soda-straw of the RPA legion. But these were forensic in nature, not observational, and they don’t perform within the realm of combined arms. At the same time, the Army augmented its growing indigenous RPA fleet by adapting wide-area surveillance onto tethered aerostats (which also carried soda straw EO/IR and other sensors), but those were relegated to base defense for obvious reasons. Think of OA-X as attack-oriented observation, whereas remotely piloted aircraft are surveillance-oriented attack.
Talk, Action, and Reality
Over the past 40 years, Air Force acquisition can be neatly categorized between two camps: “surveillance/reconnaissance” and “shock and awe.” But then what? As Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley puts it, “after shock and awe comes march and fight.” The realities of follow-on ground operations and the requisite air support have not informed force structure and military strategy for decades. Then again, in this, the lack of consideration mirrors the U.S. track record of predicting conflict — 100 percent wrong for 50 consecutive years.
For 16 years, the Air Force has been hemorrhaging money by using aircraft that are over-built and under-qualified for the mission. It’s not too late for force to adapt — far from it. New Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein recently commented he firmly believes the United States is only 15 years into a 30-year conflict with violent extremism. Experts think this ideology-based conflict might last through the end of the century. OA-X would be the first meaningful step, albeit a small one, in finally moving toward a high-low force structure. This “balanced capabilities mix” structure is described in the Air Force’s strategic master plan and future operating concept — documents that shape the landscape for operations in 2035. In this light, “balanced” means more low-end platforms that change the cost imposition must be embraced to supplement the small but capable A-10 fleet, which accounts for a mere 15 percent of the fighter/attack inventory today.
The Unaffordable Cost of Inaction
As highlighted before, the realities of 21st century conflict must account for intermingled state, ethnic, and religious actors coloring outside the lines drawn on a map or defined areas of operations. The force of both today and tomorrow must be prepared for conflict that devolves into flat, long-duration operations with a wide range of multifaceted objectives. This problem should not be treated with the force structure built to counter a nation-state from the 1990s.
In this arena, the low-end mix of platforms needs to prioritize efficiency in order to provide a low-cost, efficient, and enduring operating capability to support the joint force by prioritizing attributes of a low threshold for acquisition, low operating costs, and life-limited terms. This is how to manage the cost-curve for the long haul.
These platforms can consolidate the current CAS eco-system, which is tried and true, but extremely tired and growingly geriatric. A pair of F-15Es or F-16s performing air support is supported by a KC-10, receives intelligence or targeting information from an ISR asset (i.e. MQ-1/9, MC-12, or U-28), and controlled by a Joint Terminal Air Controller (JTAC). This construct is simply inefficient and expensive. What’s more it only exists as a result of continually adapting conventional assets instead of investing in an enduring solution. Adaption in the beginning of the conflict with current resources is tolerable a stop-gap, but 16 years later, this expensive stop-gap formula remains.
The total cost to operate a single CAS orbit as described above is astonishing: over $64,000 per hour or $1,000 per minute per combat air patrol.* The F-35 will only increase the bottom line, as it actually brings less, not more, capability to the type of air support used the past 15 years — and it will cost exponentially more to operate than the aircraft it is replacing. The F-35 will not have the following for several years (or longer): the small diameter bomb, IR marker, video down-link, and EO/IR sensor fidelity that equals currently deployed fighters. Accepting the published $42,200 cost per flying hour, a formation of two F-35s will grow this price-point by 68 percent, to $107,800 per hour. By comparison, OA-X is projected to operate for under $4,000 per hour, including personnel costs — a 96 percent reduction in operating cost to support a generational war against violent extremism.
If the now-operational F-35A deployed to the Middle East and flew a typical 8-hour Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) sortie, it would cost nearly $800,000 per mission as described, not including ordnance expenditures. For every 20 forecasted OIR F-35 missions flown, the Air Force could buy an OA-X platform (assuming $15 million for either the A-29 or AT-6). As another comparison, suspending a single day of current OIR operations ($11.9 million/day) would almost buy an OA-X platform.
Bridging gaps, growing capabilities
While capable and immediately available as-is, leveraging an off-the-shelf solution provides huge advantages to build on. But organizational coordination must become equally agile in today’s world. While potentially an Air Combat Command asset, OA-X could use Air Force Special Operations Command programs and processes to expeditiously field mature equipment. This potential relationship is not unheard of. Similar administrative/tactical/operational command relationships already exist in force application, just not in force equip-and-employ agreements — yet. Mature sensor suites from the Air Force’s Big Safari program office (of Project Liberty MC-12 lore) could streamline acquisition and integration; acoustical boomerang sensors from the Army could also be adapted to aid in triangulating fire from the enemy. These adaptions could be measured in months instead of years that are typical of the conventional processes.
A commonly held presumption was that these light attack aircraft could not bring to bear the firepower beyond one or two attack runs inherent to a limited gun magazine or bomb carriage. That too has changed. The new Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (a laser-guided rocket) provides more firepower at reduced fly-away weight compared to bombs, and incorporating the unique laser-guided small diameter bombs (Laser SDB) from the MC-130W would bring even more firepower when warranted.
It is easy to succumb to the rhetoric that capability advances require tech-heavy solutions, especially given the Air Force’s tech-centric foundation and today’s third offset strategy movement. While there is a clear distinction between fighting the last war and acknowledging conflict in a new era, the path must be approached differently than the last few generations of leaders have done. The Air Force must avoid the siren of a “game-changer singularity panacea” that will solve growing problems that require tough decisions by tough leaders.
While some unusual arguments against OA-X stem from the guise of its low-tech approach, don’t let the propeller façade fool you into thinking of the platform as simply a lightweight, low-cost, low-tech version of an A-10. Nothing else today can boast the visibility of an F-15, the EO/IR sensor capability of an MQ-9, the firepower of an F-16, and the agility of an attack plane — and all for an operating cost that is pennies on the dollars of today’s multirole fleet.
The OA-X concept is not perfect, nor does it claim to be. Robert Watson-Watt, the man who pioneered radar to defend Britain in WWII, famously stated: “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.” That encapsulates the essence of O-AX. It may not be a solution yet, but it’s certainly introducing options that align with Air Force strategy and intent to build agility into its ranks.
Back to the roots of observation, OA-X can support the asymmetric, flat, trans-regional wars against non-state actors the joint force will be engaged in for the foreseeable future. We must move forward — we can’t afford not to.
* Computed using the following operating costs: two-ship of F-16’s at $20,300 each, KC-10: $20,000, MQ-1: $3,500.
Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Air Force phot by James Haseltine