war on the rocks

An Unconventional Proposal for Bringing the OA-X to Life

January 15, 2018

“A good plan executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.”

-Gen. George S. Patton Jr.

While Patton was fighting Hitler’s armies, light to medium attack aircraft suppressed German movement and activity on the Western front as the United States pushed the Nazis back into Germany. The 9th Air Force filled the skies with smaller aircraft, most of them oriented towards attack in some way. This lesser-known force exemplified airborne persistence, a characteristic that today’s Air Force still needs to conduct missions throughout the world. Excitingly, there is an idea on the horizon to follow what the 9th Air Force did in World War II: the Light Attack program.

The Light Attack program, or OA-X, has the potential to provide the Air Force with four major benefits: efficient, persistent airpower, fighter pilot production, the absorption of those pilots, and the ability to preserve and posture its more advanced aircraft for conflicts involving major powers. As such, this proposed weapon system will help solve the problems of fighter pilot production and absorption with the added benefit of giving strategic flexibility to the Air Force inventory at an affordable price. Therefore, it is imperative that OA-X start immediately. To facilitate a rapid standup, the Air Force needs to recapture the former MC-12 Liberty’s manpower investment.

The sooner the Air Force has enough combat aircraft with open training cockpits, and instructors to fill them, the sooner it can grow out of the fighter pilot shortage. The OA-X can help ameliorate the broader fighter pilot shortage problem, but to do this, the program itself will need manpower. Starting up the OA-X will be challenging amid the current aircrew crisis. The service is currently short 1,200 fighter pilots with the pressing need most for flight leads and instructors. Given the dearth of available fighter pilots, the Air Force must leverage other pilots who have comparable tactical experiences in line with what the OA-X will do. The MC-12 Liberty community is the key to standing up the OA-X immediately because the pilots have comparable experience, there is a surplus of them, and most are available. The Air Force needs to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles posed by the personnel coding system currently preventing the service from taking advantage of the MC-12 pilots’ talents for the OA-X.

The MC-12 Liberty was a light, tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance aircraft employed to provide real-time tactical information to ground forces. The Liberty was as close to the fight as one could get without actually shooting weapons, with the pilots integrally involved with all aspects of the mission. More than 80 new pilots, trained in the fighter/bomber track in pilot training, went to the Liberty between 2011 and 2013. The requirement to fill MC-12 cockpits was massive due to the growing and constant need for tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in combat operations. Almost all Liberty pilots attained 1,000 combat hours of small warfare airpower experience in Afghanistan and saw firsthand the kinds of missions to which OA-X is best suited. They spent countless hours in stacks of aircraft, often leading and coordinating the application of airpower, hunted down terrorists, and supported numerous “troops in contact” situations and convoy overwatches. These air-ground focused experiences overlap with the missions to which an OA-X design would be naturally suited. The mission set overlaps were so obvious, there was even a plan to integrate the two aircraft early in 2010.

The MC-12 was not a kinetic aircraft, but it was often involved in the entire “find, fix, finish” process, which was the method used in the elimination or capture of a multitude of high value targets. Integral knowledge of weapon systems and kinetic tactics was necessary to participate effectively. Looking forward, the light attack aircraft could be integral in information sharing on the battlefield, a role that is directly in line with the MC-12 community experience. Their knowledge of tactical intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in combination with strike tactics could also be beneficial in the planning and execution of integrating U.S. assets in the battlespace through the OA-X.

The largest obstacle standing in the way of using MC-12 pilots for the OA-X standup is Air Force personnel practice. In a critique of the OA-X concept in War on the Rocks, Major Adam Chitwood states the program would act not as a relief valve, but as an added requirement. Based on Major Chitwood’s analysis, the Air Force will need around 375 fighter pilots, or members with an “11F” personnel code, to launch the program. In the “11F” personnel code, “11” means pilot, and “F” means fighter. So, an “11F” is a pilot who flies a fighter type aircraft. Major Chitwood assumes only 11F pilots will be used to fill the OA-X cockpits, which is in line with current Air Force personnel practice because the service views the OA-X as a fighter. But sticking to that premise would severely limit the Air Force and make OA-X an impossibility.

Since the MC-12 pilots have a reconnaissance code of “11R” (reconnaissance pilot) the Air Force is not considering them for the OA-X. To the Air Force, “11R” means the pilot should be far away from the tactical fight, while “11F” means combat aircraft, and in the tactical fight. Because the MC-12 was described as a reconnaissance aircraft, the Air Force coded them “11R.” The MC-12 mission set was not the typical “11R” type, however, and it was a combat aircraft in low intensity conflict.

The system makes it extremely difficult for pilots throughout the Air Force to do anything other than what their code indicates. The coding scheme is insidiously self-limiting for the organization and if the aircrew crisis teaches us anything, it is that such practices have become unaffordable. To advance the OA-X with any semblance of vigor, the Air Force must better identify talent based on experience and training, and use its assets more appropriately.

Under current plans, the experience of the MC-12 pilots will be utilized for other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, making the startup of the OA-X harder. Since the divestment of the MC-12 in 2015, former Liberty drivers have filled the needs for pilot training instructors, remotely piloted aircraft, and missions of high national significance. The “11R” designation drives the system to think of MC-12 pilots as good matches for the E-3, E-8, RC-135, and EC-130, all of which are command and control intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C2ISR) aircraft. The problem is that none of them have any C2ISR experience associated with these heavy aircraft. C2ISR and tactical intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR) are two very different mission sets. Where C2ISR focuses on big-picture intelligence gathering for effects to an entire theater of operations, tactical reconnaissance is narrower in focus and has a much closer relationship with combat. Before the MC-12, the Air Force definition for ISR was primarily based on the C2ISR aircraft. In its rush to codify the mass of personnel it sent to the MC-12 program, the Air Force took a shortcut by branding the pilots with a code that did not reflect what they actually did.

MC-12 pilots have the experience necessary to act as the bulk of the initial (or early) flight leads and instructors for the OA-X schoolhouse. The Liberty drivers would offer the nation more value by using their combat experiences for the startup of the OA-X program. They come with similar combat time and instructor hours, and the rare experience of having started up a new airpower community. The Liberty pilots represent an unconventional opportunity to take the initiative in structuring the force in the best possible way considering constraints. The Air Force would be wise to act quickly, since many of the Liberty veterans will go to their mismatched command and control intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assignments in less than a year and serve there until the end of their commitments. What’s more, the chance to do something pioneering and more in line with the aviators they have become could make the difference in retaining them.

The sooner the OA-X expansion happens, the more quickly the Air Force can normalize an attack enterprise and establish the necessary fighter pilot production and absorption mechanisms. Timely action is essential because OA-X could be a turning point in the production of attack pilots. Some have floated “bar-napkin” concepts to use OA-X’s absorption capacity to eliminate the 11F shortage in 12 years, but even those notions do little to explain where the Air Force will get experienced tacticians without raiding its already threatened supply of fighter pilots. With the Liberty drivers, the Air Force can execute the standup with highly experienced pilots who could become flight leads and instructor pilots in a minimal amount of time. They could serve primarily in the replacement training unit and be the catalyst that allows the program to not only stand up rapidly, but also grow quickly into an integral part of the Air Force attack community. At that point, production and absorption will be added benefits of what will be a robust and increased attack enterprise.

The Air Force could easily miss this prime opportunity to speed development of a revitalized attack enterprise because the personnel system cannot seem to label its pilots accurately. If the service wants a true renaissance of attack community, it needs to move away from assigning people based on three-digit codes and instead track and leverage the actual skills they possess. The service is making bold moves and sensible changes in terms of pilot production and retention. If it acts similarly boldly with regard to the way it uses its assets, it has the opportunity to stop the bleeding now. MC-12 drivers are an unconventional solution, but with them lies the greatest opportunity to rapidly stand up an affordable replacement training unit that can fix fighter pilot production and absorption.

Patton crossed the Rhine before Montgomery “without benefit of aerial bombing, ground smoke, artillery preparation and airborne assistance.” Montgomery spent too much time planning and perfecting to no real added effect. Perhaps Air Force leaders can boldly build a robust attack force without the benefit of time, exorbitant amounts of money, a surplus of fighter pilots, or a long period of testing. To do this, they should make the OA-X happen now and start fixing the Air Force’s problems today instead of analyzing and planning into organizational paralysis.


Captain William “SWAT” Miller is a T-38C instructor pilot at Vance Air Force Base with over 1,700 total hours. He flew the MC-12W Liberty during two tours in Afghanistan with a total of 204 combat sorties with 945 corresponding hours. He is a 2010 graduate of the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in military history. His views are his own and not those of the Air Force or his leadership at Vance.  

This essay was not a lone project conducted in a vacuum. Several people smarter than I gave invaluable input as to the content and editing, such as Major Ryan “FIR” Eriksen, Captain Stephen C. Cruickshank, my wife Jessica, and many others.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Manuel J. Martinez