Field of Dreams: A Farm-League Approach to OA-X

May 26, 2017

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If you build it, [they] will come. — The Voice, Field of Dreams (1989)

The Moneyball concept helps identify talent and predict potential, but “superior knowledge doesn’t guarantee greater effectiveness.” To improve the odds of prospects achieving their full potential, general managers often wait years before introducing top draft picks to the big leagues. Even instant successes, like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, both of whom won “Most Valuable Player” awards in their first two to three years in the pros, spent two to three years in the minors before being called up to “the show”. The idea is simple and even more relevant for the thousands of draft picks who are not immediate superstars. By establishing a network of minor league teams, major league managers cultivate player talent in a developmental environment and manage prospects for the long-term health of their franchise.

The light attack concept, or OA-X, is indeed a legitimate prospect. Despite misleading media headlines touting it as an immediate A-10 replacement, OA-X is not in the same league, let alone the same ballpark. In spite of logical defenses, OA-X’s critics contest this project will struggle to find a purpose outside a permissive environment. Such a prospect could indeed fail if prematurely debuted for an Air Force that demands immediate, full-spectrum relevancy of its major league team.

An off-the-shelf OA-X platform does not by itself pose a technical solution to full-spectrum major combat operations. However, potential OA-X procurement provides an opportunity to create multiple solutions to several joint challenges. The opportunity is not to equip our forces with superior technology, but rather to organize and train them with superior integration. Emulating baseball’s farm leagues, a network of OA-X squadrons directly supporting joint terminal attack controller (JTAC) units could begin to develop full-spectrum solutions. This approach would allow the Air Force to address its fighter manning shortage, improve its JTAC training capacity, and respond to the Army’s Warfighting Challenges.

Turning Left to Get Right on the Pilot Shortage

I think it means that if I build a baseball field out there that Shoeless Joe Jackson will get to come back and play ball again. — Ray Kinsella

You’re kidding. — Annie Kinsella, Field of Dreams (1989)

Purchasing new multi-cockpit planes during a pilot shortage sounds about as crazy as building a baseball diamond in a cornfield, but executed properly, the idea has merit. Given similar flight characteristics and avionics to current training aircraft, OA-X pilots could be track selected directly from Primary Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT). Although most pilot trainees would continue through the current pilot training construct, a parallel OA-X track could eliminate several courses spent learning new airframes, handling characteristics, formation references, and instrument procedures.

Comparison of Fighter/Bomber (top) and OA-X (bottom) paths to combat mission readiness.

In truncating undergraduate pilot and formal fighter training, an OA-X track could easily shave a year or more off a prospect’s path to combat mission readiness. Of course, such an expedited path would result in a qualified pilot with far less flight time. Many would regard this as lowering standards to address the pilot shortage, but this view is shortsighted. This is actually where the farm league construct can thrive.

OA-X in the Field

This field, this game: it’s a part of our past … It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again. — Terence Mann, Field of Dreams (1989)

As a follow-on to the formal training course, a now qualified OA-X pilot would move on to an assignment in operational flying squadrons alongside existing Air Support Operations Squadrons. These squadrons are the Air Force’s conventional JTAC units that work in direct support of Army divisions. They liaise with ground force commanders on the planning and application of airpower, and terminally control the weapons employed during execution.

These squadrons currently have no organic or formally tasked aircraft to provide themselves with close air support training, let alone to integrate with their supported divisions’ training. Most of these battlefield airmen rely on cold-calling regional flying units for air support to accomplish their jointly-mandated training requirements. If the JTACs are fortunate, they may have cultivated relationships with some of these units over time. Yet many of these Air Support Operations Squadrons have been forced to spend their budgets on civilian contractors for air support.

Fielding OA-X with the Air Support Operations Squadron would boost joint training capacity and capability to previously unthinkable levels. With the proposed 300 aircraft, the Air Force could equip approximately 10 of these squadrons with 24 aircraft each and still have the capacity for two squadrons of basic course instructors and a small test and/or Weapons School squadron. A 24 aircraft unit could easily produce more sorties in a day in-garrison than a detachment of JTACs would expect to receive while traveling for an entire week’s training not to mention the guaranteed ability to debrief the events face-to-face. Although many garrisons have relatively small airfields and training ranges, the smaller, slower OA-X’s airfield and airspace requirements are closer to aircraft already in use by the divisions’ combat aviation brigades than typical fighters. The logistical cost of dispersing OA-X operations initially appears contrary to the Air Force’s low cost, “shovel ready” vision. However, the solution to JTAC training issues and potential for improved joint integration are well worth the marginal cost increase.

This minor league network is about developing talented prospects, both technological and human. In the context of a jointly-integrated unit, this is where an OA-X program has its greatest potential as an addition to the attack community. The OA-X platform and budget, in comparison to other aircraft programs, may only have a modest ability to develop technologically. Its small size and off-the-shelf procurement could leave little room in the airframe to add new capability without removing existing pieces. Even if technical improvements are possible, its limited budget may provide additional barriers. As is, OA-X certainly poses little direct threat to a near-peer adversary, but that does not mean it lacks relevance in major combat operations.

Changing the Game on a Budget

Man, I did love this game. I’d have played for food money. It was the game… — Shoeless Joe Jackson, Field of Dreams (1989)

In considering OA-X as an item in the JTAC’s kit, rather than a stand-alone entity, it represents an astronomical boost in technology and funding. Battlefield airmen are currently a low budget enterprise with relatively low upgrade funding priority for the Air Force, but the addition of a flying operation would be a budget and technology windfall for those on the ground. Where a $1 million contract for a digitally aided close air support system was formerly a high ticket item, dozens of $10 million aircraft would fill Air Support Operations Squadron ramps with all the operating and operational test funding to go with it not to mention a dedicated friend in the cockpit with aligned interests.

While these technological improvements are not likely to crack the code against advanced integrated air defenses, they hold substantial potential for major land combat operations. A regular office in the back seat of an OA-X, or simply connectivity to a trusted, organic asset, could solve a host of JTAC issues ranging from dismounted radio and datalink connectivity to mounted solutions for keeping pace with an armored brigade combat team. Although limited research and development funds may be just scraps in the Air Force’s budget, the sky would literally be the limit for the imaginations of pilots, JTACs, and soldiers finally working on and for the same team.

Despite the unforeseeable success of these technological dreams, the direct interaction of pilots, JTACs, and soldiers would undoubtedly develop the human dimension of the attack community. The deeper and daily interaction of this close air support team will breed airmen who bleed green, and soldiers who think and trust blue. With common interests, ideals, and goals, the trio’s homecoming to a tactical air support squadron construct provides yet another opportunity to address several of the Army’s Warfighting Challenges. These are “enduring first-order problems, the solutions to which improve the combat effectiveness of the current and future force.” Together, pilots, JTACs, and soldiers could take on several of the issues ranging from the obvious to the elusive. Although an OA-X clearly possesses capabilities to improve the conduct of air-to-ground reconnaissance and joint combined arms, with development, it could also begin to address the challenges of realistic training and multi-domain battle, among others.

The critics may still ask, “But how does this have any relevance in a contested environment?” The answer is in the “O” (observation) and not the “A” (attack) of OA-X. Most envision light attack as an airframe attacking jihadi fighting positions with advanced munitions and strafing Toyota pick-up trucks with its .50 caliber gun pods. What combined arms enthusiasts see is an attack pilot with the ability to observe far more than a grunt on the ground or a helicopter behind a hill. He is an expert with an understanding of the Army’s complex communications networks and a JTAC’s many responsibilities and tasks. It does not require the innovative use of unmanned systems or Fancy Bears to make a ground force lethal — only the ability to understand the ground force commander’s intent, the high ground to see the enemy first, and the knowledge to call upon the ground forces’ own organic lethality. It is not a new concept — light, fixed-wing aircraft have done it since World War I.

These solutions are the product one could expect from putting airmen and soldiers in the same foxhole. They are not technological revolutions — they are intellectual evolutions. For over a decade, services have sunk millions into fusing various battlefield networks in the interest of close air support, let alone other joint missions, only to be let down when one of the many moving pieces incrementally updates or is retired in favor of a newer, better component. Interoperable humans will always outpace the interoperability of disparate, service-specific technology. Intellectual capital is the path to this interoperability. The amount of this commodity produced by immersing young, impressionable, and motivated aviators with experienced, battle-hardened JTACs and the soldiers they support is the biggest opportunity OA-X offers.

Opportunities and Solutions

We just don’t recognize life’s most significant moments while they’re happening. Back then I thought, “Well, there’ll be other days.” I didn’t realize that that was the only day. — Dr. Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, Field of Dreams (1989)

The OA-X is not ideal as a platform solution alone. The A-10, among others, is a far more capable platform when it comes to the full spectrum of close air support. However, the A-10 cannot absorb more pilots without a significant increase in funding. With or without the OA-X in the budget, the past few years of Air Force budget submissions suggest the A-10 program is unlikely to receive more funding to grow its capacity. Instead, it is more likely to require congressional mandates for late funding and retirement prohibitions. These mandates keep the program alive but on life support as they continue to come too late in the budget cycle to produce the long-term, long-lead items the community needs to survive and advance.

The Air Force has no choice other than to produce a solution for the fighter manning situation. As this solution, OA-X represents the beginning of an opportunity that the close air support community may not see again in the fiscally austere times ahead. The mass, focus, and, most of all, institutional momentum that OA-X brings make it a unique opportunity. If the Air Force uses it as an addition to the close air support community, the A-10 can continue to play the major league role while the farm system matures OA-X’s potential. If the proposed RADICAL program comes to fruition, this is a step toward the long-term, long-lead items currently sweeping the legs of our attack community. True, the OA-X concept has some warts, but all the more reason to welcome it to a family that proudly embraces the motto, “go ugly early.”

Nay-sayers will continue to say this lowers the bar and niche capability for permissive environments. As a platform, OA-X is no more vulnerable to a near-peer scenario than the battlefield airman and soldiers it would reinforce. In the human dimension, the truth is that basic fighter training graduates are hardly a finished product. They themselves are still prospects within their own community and mature overtime in what we now consider the big leagues. A qualified but “less experienced” OA-X pilot will not only have an additional year developing in his combat platform by the time his peers graduate a formal fighter training course, but will have spent this time developing in a joint environment, supporting JTACs in direct support of their Army divisions, and solving Army problems across the spectrum of operations.

Conclusion

Go the distance. — The Voice, Field of Dreams (1989)

The only remaining question is whether or not the Air Force will fully commit to OA-X as an operational opportunity to solve the current pilot shortage. Executed properly, the OA-X program can be put to use solving several key joint interoperability challenges. It will undoubtedly run the risk of budget fratricide within the attack community, but it will do so regardless of whether the community sees it as an opportunity or a liability. Without JTACs and attack pilots supporting its establishment, it may never reach its full potential. Worse, the program could wind up a Band-Aid manning fix that promptly disenfranchises its personnel, duplicating the haphazard inception and resulting struggles of the remotely-piloted aircraft enterprise. For certain, the equipment is an important part of the calculus, but the asset’s placement, purpose, and integration will ultimately drive the job satisfaction and quality of life affecting long-term retention for JTACs and pilots, and a successful joint attack community.

 

Maj. Joel Bier is a former U.S. Air Force Weapons School Instructor Pilot with over 1,700 hours in the A-10. He served as the Weapons School’s Chief of Academics and currently serves as an instructor at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Air Force Weapons School, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Maj. Gabe Johnson

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