war on the rocks

The False Promise of the OA-X

November 24, 2017

Military aviation circles are awash in the glow of the competition for the coveted Air Force contract for the OA-X, a cheap to acquire and cheap to operate counter insurgency aircraft. Some see the OA-X as a cost effective and more attenuated alternative to provide close air support (CAS) to ground troops. However, the success of OA-X will inherently be limited as it was conceived to support the U.S. military as it was operating nine years ago in Afghanistan. The world has since moved on, and warfare with it. The first limitation to the OA-X is due to the fact that the uncontested airspace which defined our air war over Afghanistan and Iraq is quickly disappearing, increasing the risk to its pilots. Secondly, its tactical abilities cannot overcome the political limitations which will reduce its use on the battlefield. Lastly, the manning shortfall in the Air Force will be exacerbated by a massive OA-X buy and not relieve pressure on its pilot shortage as advertised.

Opposed CAS

Around 2008, when the original OA-X tender was proffered, large numbers of American troops were on the ground fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the Air Force didn’t face a shortage of air support assets at that time, it faced a war that couldn’t be won with more strafing runs and precision guided weapons. Instead, the Air Force opted to increase its ability to provide surveillance capability through the MC-12 and U-28 programs and expanding use of its MQ-1 and MQ-9. By then, the military realized intelligence gathering aircraft provided greater utility in fighting an insurgency than more precision guided munitions orbiting overhead. This partially explains why the OA-X was not pursued much earlier.

Since then, the nature and technology of foreign intervention has changed, thereby changing the environment in which the OA-X will operate. Russia and Iran view their support to the Taliban, Assad regime, and Houthis as vital to pursuing their interests and, in doing so, countering American interests. That support turns uncontested battlefields into complex operating environments for America’s military. In Syria, pilots must deal with modern surface-to-air missile systems, advanced fighters, and drones of all varieties. Prior to the entrance of Russian forces in Syria, American pilots dealt with the complex terrain of Syria’s surface-to-air missiles, a large portion of which are quite modern, while targeting ISIL. The coalition’s ability and responsiveness to develop and prosecute ISIL targets was reduced when targets fell under the Syrian surface-to-air missile umbrella. This was further complicated when surface-to-air missile systems were moved closer to areas of American air operations.

Since late 2015, when the Russians joined the war in Syria, American pilots have had to fight a shooting war on the ground while avoiding a shooting war in the air. Russian attempts to visually identify unknown aircraft were never something to take lightly as both American and Russian fighter aircraft were armed for air-to-air combat. Even radar contact cannot identify intent. When Russian aircraft or cruise missiles fly through coalition operating areas, the last thing anyone cares about is cost efficiency. Unsafe intercepts, close calls, and errant air strikes require constant vigilance for everyone involved in the air war. A pilot does not need to constantly ingress into a hornet’s nest of surface to air missiles to be in a contested environment; but the changing nature of America’s irregular adversaries does raise the uncertainty associated with coalition operations. The shootdowns of a Russian Su-24, Syrian Su-22, and Iranian drones over Syria highlight the fact that the air war over Syria is anything but unopposed and is a place ill-suited for a low-cost bombing and strafing platform.

The war in Yemen has seen the use of Patriot missiles and advanced aerial and maritime drones creating risk in areas previously considered unopposed. The recent shootdown of an MQ-9 over Yemen and the Turkish helicopter downing in 2014 proves that the airspace we operate in is no longer uncontested even when the Russian military is absent. The recently reported threat of drones weighing less than 20 pounds to F-22’s presents a non-traditional threat, which could rapidly see deployment in the form of kamikaze drones that can intercept aircraft such as the OA-X but be difficult to counter. While the OA-X is supposed to target technologically inferior enemies, the growth of small drones to perform reconnaissance and strike missions demonstrates that America’s adversaries are not satisfied with their technological inferiority and are evolving to counter America and its partners and allies. Purchasing combat aircraft under the hope they won’t be countered is a dangerous gamble.

Political Limitations to OA-X Employment

America’s reliance on airpower for lethal operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and around the globe, in support of counter-terrorism operations since the end of the Afghanistan surge, is a function of both its effectiveness and its perceived ability to reduce risk to U.S. forces. This risk ultimately originates from U.S. political leadership. If America’s political leadership does not want to assume risk to OA-X aircrew and their logistics trail, then the Air Force risks procuring an aircraft that it won’t employ in combat. One need not look further than Marawi in the Philippines to accept that insurgencies and terrorist attacks do not automatically beget direct lethal support from America. Once political will grows for intervention, the OA-X can’t deploy to Jordan to support operations in Iraq and Syria or Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to support operations in Kandahar province. These bases require logging over 500 nautical miles to and from the battlefield before it begins to support troops on the ground. Aircraft with similar performance such as the U-28 and MC-12 are forward deployed in the current fight due to this range restriction since they don’t have an equal counterpart that can operate from longer ranges. The OA-X will not have a set of unique capabilities worth the increased risk to staging operations closer to the front lines. To effectively employ the winner of the OA-X program, the military must carry a footprint in the country it is supporting, and most likely from more than one location; increasing the size and proximity of American forces to danger from the front lines.

A closer examination of political environments brings into question the utility of acquiring 300 single-mission aircraft (the approximate size of the A-10 fleet). When President Barack Obama directed intervention into Iraq and Syria he promoted risk minimization through a ‘no boots on the ground’ policy. The President secured domestic political support which combated terrorism without risking the lives of American service members even though aircrew lives are at risk in every sortie over hostile territory. Cementing the support of the American populace was a requirement in light of failing to secure support in 2013 to punish the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons use. Even as troop counts steadily increase, the American populace’s angst over military deaths remains visible every time a single service member dies; creating headlines for days or weeks after the fact. In 2017, political benefits can outweigh monetary costs.

Deployed Force Size

Staging the deployed OA-X fleet closer to the fight decreases the cost to air refueling assets which is a major benefit for Air Force operations, while increasing ground or airlift based logistics requirements at varying costs and risk for each theater and base. The logistical cost to staging near the front lines for an OA-X will be much smaller than if an F-16 unit staged close to the front lines due to reduced fuel usage, but it will still be present. Ground based logistics in Iraq and Afghanistan presented insurgents with a soft target to attack, costing the United States lives as well as money. If the Air Force prioritized diminishing fuel requirements over risk to its forces then it would conduct fighter operations from places like Balad Air Base in Iraq similar to its footprint in Operation Iraqi Freedom. While the OA-X may have a smaller logistics fuel footprint than other fighters, the fact that no fighters are forward deployed in Iraq and Syria leads to the understanding that any footprint greater than zero can be too high if it can be avoided. The AH-64 provides an interesting parallel to examine in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria as well. The AH-64 can be located close to the fight, flies low and slow, and carries a similar loadout to OA-X competitors. Since the military did not lean on the AH-64 to reduce the burden on the Air Force, one can conclude the political risk of moving a large contingent to perform CAS operations close to the fight figures significantly in the force posture calculus. If the OA-X is constrained to being employed at higher altitudes to avoid risks inherent to helicopter operations, then it merely becomes a manned MQ-9 with a higher acquisition and operating cost.

A large contingent of the OA-X would need to be deployed to appreciably reduce the presence of high-performance aircraft on the battlefield. Troops for maintenance, munitions, communications, airfield operations, and other supporting services are required to run a fully functioning combat operation. Security for the airfield may be small or significant as well. The size of the contingent will vary but could range from a few hundred to a few thousand individuals for each location. Before troop numbers were masked in 2017, only 5,000 troops were allowed in Iraq and 11,000 troops were in Afghanistan!

An Added Requirement, not a Pressure Reliever

The Air Force acknowledges it needs to find pilots to fill the large number of cockpits planned for a potential OA-X purchase. Assuming the Air Force places 1.25 flyers per aircraft in a squadron (based on the composition of an F-16 squadron), per position (three of the four OA-X contenders are two-seat aircraft), the Air Force will need to find an additional 750 flyers. This will probably consist of 375 fighter pilots and 375 combat systems officers in addition to appropriate maintenance, staff, acquisition, and testing personnel to support the new aircraft. The Air Force is currently short over 1,200 fighter pilots and doesn’t need any additional requirements which don’t relieve pressure elsewhere. Assuming the Air Force proceeds with its OA-X purchase, it will still depend upon traditional strike assets in the Middle East to fill a deterrence roll towards Iran, further limiting its stress reduction capability on traditional Air Force strike assets.

One proposal is to reduce training requirements in the fighter pilot pipeline by fast-tracking pilots into the OA-X. This rapid flow construct creates fighter pilots of unequal capability which appears capable on paper but has a portion of fighter pilots unable to perform more than a single mission in a single environment. This pipeline resembles that of a First Assignment Instructor Pilot in which a pilot spends his or her first three years after pilot training, teaching pilot training, before moving onto his or her primary aircraft. The pilots gain valuable flying experience but still need seasoning time in their fighter. They also create unique requirements for career advancement while limiting their ability to attend training opportunities such as the USAF Weapons School. Retraining an OA-X pilot for another more capable airframe such as the F-35 will require the appropriate training at some point; delaying the training that is needed and kicking the backlog can down the road. An OA-X pipeline such as this actually extends the inexperience of the pilot force against Chinese and Russian competitors; a greater existential threat to American military operations.

A Better Way Forward

Purchasing large numbers of any OA-X competitor will be akin to fighting the last war while ignoring changing airpower requirements. Due to the problems listed above, the OA-X isn’t scalable to the envisioned 300 aircraft. If anything, the Air Force should only buy a wing’s worth of jets (48-72) with an option to buy more in the next 20 years at a specified price, should a large U.S. force in an uncontested air environment need a cheap and reliable CAS asset. The small number of aircraft could be assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command in an Air Advisor role.

The Air Force’s strategy to combat an insurgency or civil war is limited to oversaturated 24/7 coverage of the battlefield of any aircraft with any capability. While a two-ship of A-10s and a single B-52 have significantly different capabilities and limitations, they are treated as interchangeable pieces in a game of CAS checkers vice the high-stakes game of chess the Air Force should be presenting on the battlefield. It is regrettable that the only measure of CAS effectiveness for a sortie or entire deployment is limited to how often an individual or squadron fulfilled his or her portion of around-the-clock coverage; essentially amounting to a punched time card. As one Air Force general lamented at a conference I attended in 2015, “if we dropped a few more thousand JDAM [Joint Direct Attack Munition] the war wouldn’t be any further along,” unintentionally inferring that if we dropped a few thousand less JDAM the war wouldn’t be any further behind. The Air Force should invest its time and money in improving CAS effectiveness, CAS efficiency, and develop new ways of effectively fighting an insurgency or civil war that reduces mass destruction of infrastructure and supports a sustainable political end state.

Gen. David Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, asserts the Air Force’s commitment to the Middle East is as great as its commitment during the surge in Iraq. To reduce the strain on aircraft, personnel, and funding we should instead accept that we do not need to maintain a surge force posture in the Middle East indefinitely. The Air Force has had five strike squadrons deployed (F-15E, F-16, F-22, B-1 or B-52, and A-10) to support Iraq and Syria, in addition to Marine squadrons and over 40 strike fighters on each aircraft carrier. This posture is augmented by a large coalition contingent and numerous types of surveillance aircraft which can make the air space resemble a modern-day Battle of Britain which actually slows response time and underutilizes assets. The Air Force could have pulled one or two of these squadrons from the counter-ISIL fight as early as 2015 without reducing battlefield effectiveness while significantly reducing the cost to the tanker fleet and support personnel. The over-crowded airspace and subsequent over-use of precision guided munitions hasn’t changed since then.

The rapid advancement and proliferation of small drones, remotely piloted aircraft, artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous navigation, image recognition, and lasers may make the OA-X outdated before the first aircraft rolls off the assembly line. Forward looking technology which is monetarily cheap may resemble an airman embedded with the Army that can operate a fleet of small drones, each with different capabilities that can reconnoiter, attack, decoy, deter, and communicate, instead of just staring at piece of territory and launching hellfire missiles. As small drone capabilities evolve, they may even be able to provide the same capabilities of an OA-X at an exponentially smaller cost.

The Air Force should spend its time and money developing the disruptive hardware, software, and processes to fight insurgencies and civil wars instead of trying to resurrect the A-1 Skyraider to refight a previous war. The threat environment has changed, domestic politics have changed, and the Air Force has changed. The OA-X answers a simple question of how to reduce the cost of CAS against an enemy which fights at a lower price point than the United States. However, the question the Air Force should ask itself is how to employ CAS to bring about victory on the battlefield in a time when technology, and even the battlefield itself, are changing much quicker than our acquisition timelines and weapons system life cycle.


Maj. Adam “Trader” Chitwood is a B-1B Instructor Pilot and Weapons Officer with over 3,300 hours. He led the crew that earned the Air Force’s 2016 General Curtis E. LeMay Bomber Aircrew Award while in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. He is a former Political Advisor Fellow at the U.S. Department of State. 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, the U.S. Department of State, or the U.S. Government.

Image: Air Force/Ethan Wagner