SOCOM and the USAF: the internal politics could get interesting, to put it mildly

I was intrigued to read that the US Special Operations Command is looking into fielding up to 75 light attack aircraft.

The US Special Operations Command plans on buying 75 fixed-wing aircraft for its just-announced Armed Overwatch program.

The aircraft are intended for close air support of special operations troops, according to a notice announcing an upcoming industry day posted online 3 February.

“Armed Overwatch will provide Special Operations Forces deployable and sustainable manned aircraft systems fulfilling close air support, precision strike, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in austere and permissive environments,” says the notice.

The program is similar to a faltering light attack experiment within the US Air Force (USAF), which aims to show light attack aircraft, specifically the Textron Aviation AT-6 and Sierra Nevada /Embraer A-29, could cheaply boost the air-to-ground attack capabilities of US allies and foreign partners … The Armed Overwatch program is closer to the USAF light attack experiment’s original goal of providing the US military with a cheaper alternative for air-to-ground attack missions, compared with expensive-to-fly fourth and fifth generation fighters such as the Boeing F-15E or Lockheed Martin F-35.

. . .

Initially, Armed Overwatch would be pursued as a prototype initiative to demonstrate the concept, says US Special Operations Command.

If the demonstration phase proves promising enough, US Special Operations Command plans to award a follow-on contract with a base 5-year ordering period, plus a 2-year option, for 75 aircraft and MRO support.

There’s more at the link.

The USAF had been fiddling around with its Light Attack Aircraft Program since 2009, making little progress (and looking very much as if it didn’t really want to make progress).  It finally killed it off this month, de-funding the program in its latest budget request.  Its slow progress and seeming lack of real interest in the project has caused concern (not to mention anger) in some quarters.  However, SOCOM has now stepped up to the plate with its own funding request.  This is intriguing, because the USAF has always lobbied hard against fixed-wing combat aircraft for any other service besides itself.  The Army can operate helicopters, but its attempts to provide its own fixed-wing light transport were strongly opposed (and eventually taken over, and then junked) by the USAF;  and as for brown-clad pilots in fixed-wing combat planes, that’s always been a non-starter as far as the boys in blue were concerned.

The latest developments beg the question:  has the USAF decided to focus its efforts on the big/high/fast/expensive air combat and transport arena, and shuffle off the small/low/slow/cheap planes and missions onto the other armed services?  Budgetary reality may dictate such a changed perspective.  What’s more, the light combat aircraft involved are already being flown by several Third World air forces (including Afghanistan, Nigeria, the Philippines and others) with great success.  Is that, perhaps, showing up the USAF’s dilatory approach to the same aircraft as yet another case of the “not-invented-here” syndrome?  By “allowing” other US armed services to fly such aircraft, is it reserving the “first-class” missions for itself, and handing off the “second-class” stuff to others as beneath its notice?

The Army would love to get its nose into the tent as far as fixed-wing combat air operations are concerned.  There’s no reason at all why Army warrant officer pilots couldn’t be just as successful in fixed-wing aircraft as they already are in helicopters.  On the other hand, the USAF will doubtless be determined to set rigid boundaries, beyond which they won’t allow competition for their services to develop.  I suspect SOCOM will be fighting lots of political battles, as well as budgetary and technical ones, to get a fleet of light attack aircraft into operation.  Nevertheless, it has budgetary reality on its side.  If the USAF can’t afford to divert its money or its attention from its “primary mission”, as it sees it, it’s going to have a hell of a job persuading Congress that others shouldn’t be allowed to tackle that mission in its stead.  If US lives are at stake on the battlefield, that commands attention.

My own limited military experience tends to suggest that light attack aircraft can be very successful, even if constrained by a restrictive air defense environment.  South Africa built the Aermacchi MB-326 training aircraft under license from the mid-1960’s, under the name “Impala”.  It went on to build 100 of the single-seat light attack version of the plane, known as the “Impala Mk. 2”, shown below (image courtesy of Wikipedia – click it for a larger view).

These were employed very successfully in the light strike and counter-terrorist role in northern Namibia and southern Angola during the 1970’s and 1980’s (in much the same way as the Cessna A-37 Dragonfly was developed from the T-37 Tweet trainer, and used in Vietnam during the 1960’s and 1970’s).  They couldn’t operate far into Angola, which possessed the most sophisticated Soviet-sourced air defense system (including radars, missiles, fighters, etc.) outside the Warsaw Pact;  but they could (and did) operate around and just inside the fringes of that system to good effect.  They suffered few losses, and scored some major successes, including shooting down six Angolan transport and attack helicopters in deliberate air-to-air ambushes.  They were a very useful adjunct to the South African Air Force’s primary striking force of more capable (and much more expensive) Mirage aircraft.  I saw the Impalas in action on several occasions, to our great appreciation from ground level.

That experience, and the USAF’s and allied countries’ experience with the A-37 Dragonfly, suggests that SOCOM’s plans are likely to be very useful in their type of operations.  I hope they succeed.

Peter

12 comments

  1. The Army has had its nose under the tent with the C-12 Huron (glorified King Air) surveillance aircraft, which has been in service for quite some time. I have some experience with these platforms. The move by SOCOM would allow USAF to take it (and come in for the big win with SOCOM) and use their pilots, or leave it and let the Army pick it up with theirs. I can see the day when the Army takes the Warthogs as well.

    USAF pilots are not thrilled with the light attack project because (1) Flying close support is dangerous; (2) Careers won’t be made at USAF commanding light support squadrons. It will inevitably become a dumping ground.

  2. Hey Peter

    LL is correct, my last duty station we used fixed air, they were OV/RV-1 Mohawks and the RC-12. The Airforce traditionally thumbed their nose at CAS, in Vietnam we had the “Spad” that provided excellent air support. But after Vietnam it got quickly phased out. We got the A-10 because there were a lot of Soviet Tanks eyeballing us down the Fulda Gap. I saw the A-10 in action in Desert Storm, we Army guys love the A-10, but it ain’t sexy and the Airforce is all about status, and Air to Air is what makes careers, not rooting in the mud. I honestly think that the CAS should be turned over to the Army, the Airforce has tried to kill the A-10 several times and they keep pushing the F-16 for the CAS role. Really? I guess they forgot about the “Golden BB” rule. The Key West accord codified the relationship of the Army and the Airforce and it has been that way since 1947.

  3. While I am not military, ex-military, or a serious scholar of things military it is my strong impression that somebody needs to tell the Air Force “The Key West Accord only holds for so long as you are ready to actually do all the jobs that need doing. That includes close air support and transport, and you need to do them to the satisfaction of the other services. If the Army says that an f-16 centered close air support role will not do, you have to listen. And if you don’t, then the budget for that role will be given to the Army, or the Navy, or the Post Office; whoever will perform the role when it’s needed”

  4. “…USAF has always lobbied hard against fixed-wing combat aircraft for any other service besides itself.”

    The feud over fixed-wing assets has mostly been an Air Force/Army thing. The other services – USN, USMC, and Coast Guard – all have their own fixed-wing assets controlled by themselves for their own combat missions.

    Personally, I think the Air Force needs to let the Army control their own fixed-wing ground support assets.

  5. A storm that has been brewing for a number of years that centers around frames like the A10 etc.

    How this will work out in the horse trading is a good question. However, given how long this argument has been going on I’m not holding my breath. Not that I need to, but I am interested in seeing the outcome.

  6. Would love to see the OV-10X, an updated Bronco, finally fly. Because experience in Afghanistan with refurbished OV-10s showed them to be very versatile, the twin engines being a great safety feature, and the ability to carry spec ops troops and insert them in places conventional fixed wing assets couldn’t was very much liked.

    Soooo….. the AF went looking at the Tucano and the T-6.

    Jerks…

    Hopefully someone in SOCOM will do the world a favor and get light attack back on the map.

  7. I think it’s time to fold the Air Force back into the Army. They don’t want to do the full job they agreed to, so lets end this experiment in independence, and restore them to their proper position.

    Should be a huge cost savings as a result. That’s a win-win!

  8. More horsepower turning 6 or 8-bladed props, maybe an improved wing, composites, etc., would allow more armor and make it more survivable. Maybe a pair of 30mm chain guns instead of the 4 .50 calibers. It would be an attractive option except that Boeing owns the design now. 🙁

  9. Agree with Will-
    The USAF doesn’t want to do the job we need, so put ’em back under ARMY command and let’s see if we can change minds.
    While we’re at it, let’s get rid of another “bone” and do away with the Warrant Officer branch.
    Take a look at the history of the C7 Caribou, which the ARMY originally procured to do the job the AF wasn’t doing for us.
    As mentioned above, when the AF took ’em away, Air Force pilots
    HAAAAAAAAAAAATTTTTTTTTTED doing the mission.
    We have one left in our inventory, and the Golden Knights jump from it.

  10. The Air Farce sees its intrinsic mission as strangling anything that doesn’t go Mach 2.

    They only keep transport aircraft in the inventory so they have someplace to send their naughty screw-ups, besides weather forecasting school.

    Some SecDef needs to nad up, and tell them they have 6 months to implement a light fixed-wing attack aircraft program that will produce world-beating fruit forthwith, and last for the next 30 years, or have the mission permanently transferred to the Army and Marines.

    Start by putting a passel of Air Farce generals in charge, and inform them that any failure to perform below “exceeds all expectations” will result in demotion for all of them to the permanent grade of O-6, and immediate retirement, for cause.

    Just to make it interesting, make the FAC mission co-contingent.

    Even odds within six months they will have come up with, overnight, the resurrection of the product-improved OV-10, secured a new production line for A-1 Skyraiders, and wrestled the A-10’s follow on mission from the clutches of the incompetents over at the F-35 Thunderjug debacle.

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