The Little Airplane that Couldn’t? The Air Force’s Light Attack Message
Much ink has been spilled over what insiders and outsiders alike have perceived to be the Air Force’s conflicted relationship with a variety of close air support and attack platforms, including A-10s and the much-vaunted light attack aircraft experiment. The service engaged in a fixed-wing experiment in 2017 and then began a second round in the summer of 2018 to test maintenance, logistics, and network interfacing. Subsequently, it appeared to have determined it had the necessary information to go forward. Recently, though, after something akin to 50 first dates, the Air Force announced that it cannot pursue any of the options proposed for the two light attack aircraft finalists — the Textron Aviation AT-6 Wolverine and the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano — in their current form.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently suggested that the light attack aviation debate might entail more than the AT-6 versus the Super Tucano. In other words, the debate became too platform-centric by emphasizing fixed wing aircraft as offering the best blend of capabilities in terms of low operating cost, ease of maintenance, and more affordability than jet aircraft. Now, perhaps, it seeks to alter course to pursue a different paradigm for light attack.
But recent statements by other Air Force officials about light attack aviation over the last several months reveal a confusing trail of conflicting pronouncements. Even as the Air Force put the pursuit of a light attack program on hold in January 2019, it also suggested it might “expand” the experiment. Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson then announced in February 2019 that the Air Force planned to spend $2.4 billion to purchase light attack aircraft over the next five years. The erratic dithering is confusing.
What is most unfortunate for the Air Force is the way that this announcement casts further doubt on if it is allergic to close air support and similar missions. After all, the Air Force “picked” the Super Tucano over the AT-6 back in 2012 to equip the Afghan Air Force. Even then, however, commentators described an Air Force determined to avoid purchasing such a “niche” capability for the low-end fight. Then it delivered more Super Tucanos to the Lebanese Air Force in 2017. Similar cynicism has been proffered regarding the Air Force’s on-again, off-again relationship with the A-10. Both the A-10 and light attack aircraft are multi-role aircraft. However, it is the close air support mission with which these types of platforms are generally associated.
These decisions amplify the Air Force’s trust problem when it comes to its willingness to meet its responsibilities across the range of military operations. Recently, for example, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Owen West expressed his “disappointment” in the Air Force’s decision to pause the light attack experiment. The service’s failure to articulate an official, coherent response to the experiment only raises more doubts about the institution’s warfighting preferences.
It is equally confusing to determine, based on Air Force rhetoric, how well light attack meets national defense strategy. An Air Force official paraphrased in a recent article, for example, calls the light attack program into question with the assertion that such capabilities do not align with the National Defense Strategy’s strident emphasis on great-power conflict. On the surface, this response makes sense because the United States cannot afford to lose a peer-on-peer conflict. In this light, the Air Force must focus on acquisition for the high-end fight, especially as the last 17 years of irregular conflict have delayed modernization. In the summer of 2018, news broke that the Air Force might also buy F-15Xs, which only reinforces this trend. Cynics will note, of course, that the Air Force appears quite efficient at making decisions about fast jets, unlike light attack aircraft.
If the return to great-power conflict requires putting light attack on hold, then the Air Force should say this forthrightly while insuring it has examined fully the assumptions of what great-power conflict entails. Goldfein did that in February 2018 when explaining that the light attack experiment aligned with the National Defense Strategy by “provid[ing] relief to our 4th and 5th generation aircraft” as well as complimenting coalition efforts. Similarly, in May 2018, Wilson argued that “[w]e need different aircraft to fight in a global environment that’s very competitive than what we need to fight violent extremism.” In doing so, she characterized the use of a F-22 striking a narcotics factory in Afghanistan as “overkill.”
Now, however, Goldfein suggests the Air Force’s motive for pursing light attack aircraft has changed. Apparently, the Air Force appears to be seeking light attack solely to support allies rather than to free up costly high-end assets. Such a change leaves a number of key considerations unresolved. First, it is a rare “regular” conflict that does not have an unconventional component. Second, it is likely that great-power conflict will play out in the form of proxy wars, much like the Cold War. Third, operators of high-end assets continue to struggle to balance their responsibilities to train for both the high-end fight and the low-end one.
In 2015, the U.S. Air Force Strategic Master Plan stressed the importance of maintaining the right balance between both responsibilities. It stated that the service must “[e]nsure a Full-Spectrum Capable, High-End Focused Force: The Air Force must focus on the skills and capabilities that deliver freedom of maneuver and allow decisive action in highly-contested spaces. However, we must retain the ability to succeed in low-intensity conflict.” Statements suggesting the current offerings are still just not right or that allies may have lost interest make the Air Force look like it is playing hard to get or, worse, is still allergic to the low-end fight. It also registers internal tension and uncertainty about how to proceed. If allies have lost interest, it might be because — as the Air Force itself recognizes — “if it’s good enough for us to buy, it tends to be good enough for our allies and partners.” The inverse is also true.
Upon assuming the position of chief of staff, Goldfein set forth three big rocks: revitalized squadrons, multi-domain command and control, and joint leaders and teams, most of which focus on the operational and tactical levels of war. It is time to consider another one: providing a strategy that guides how the Air Force seeks to balance its responsibilities across the range of operations since the best mix of high-end and low-end assets historically has bedeviled the Air Force.
It is unclear what current strategic vision is driving the Air Force since it has not released any documents offering such insights since 2015. The origins of similar documents, however, go back to 1989. In that year, an internal Air Force document pointed out that it — unlike the Army and the Navy — lacked a service strategy. Between 1990 and 2015, the Air Force responded by producing 18 strategic documents, ending with the 2015 Air Force Future Operating Concept.
Until it releases something similar, we will have to rely on the Air Force 2019 Posture Statement, which the service presented to Congress in March 2018 to justify its budget request. In it, it ranked light attack fourth in a list of five major changes it hoped to make to prepare for great-power conflict. It further explained that it needed to begin “preparation for fielding a force of U.S. light attack aircraft” in order to keep “irregular warfare as a core competency at a lower cost” while “strengthening our alliances.” Stay tuned for the upcoming placement of the little airplane that could or could not on the 2020 wish list.
Dr. Heather Venable is an assistant professor of military and security studies in the Department of Airpower at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College. She has a forthcoming book from the Naval Institute Press entitled How the Few Became the Proud: The Crafting of the Marine Corps’ Mystique. Opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied within are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Air University, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other U.S. government agency.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Ethan D. Wagner