Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Everything old is new again...

So, two land wars in Asia ago, our Air Force decided that supersonic missile-armed fighter aircraft with the ability to deliver nuclear weapons but without a single gun on board, not even a Daisy Red Ryder, were maybe not the ideal aircraft for shooting up guys in pajamas and sandals.

There was a sudden interest in "counter insurgency" aircraft, ranging from WWII medium bombers rescued from the boneyard to jet trainers fitted with rocket pods and miniguns. These were cool for about fifteen minutes, but when we got bored and left Vietnam, they were pretty quickly neglected in favor of sexy supersonic jet fighters.

Since we're engaged in another land war in Asia against guys in pajamas and sandals, interest has cropped up again in another "counter insurgency" aircraft. Our national arteriosclerosis having greatly worsened in the intervening years, it's taken the better part of a decade to get around to announcing the competition, and we'll have been long-since bored with the war before any examples get bought.

The competitors this time around are a variant of the Hawker Beechcraft T-6 Texan II and the Brazilian Embraer Super Tucano. I wonder if the Brazilians, if they win, will be required to produce the aircraft in the US?

40 comments:

docjim505 said...

I like retro technology as much as the next guy, but this is absurd. If the Air Force has some bizarre hatred of the A-10 (they do, actually) combined with a yen to return to the thrilling days of props and leather flying helmets, why not just call McDonnell-Douglas and ask them if they've still got the blueprints for the Skyraider laying around in a file cabinet somewhere?

What's next? Modern-day versions of the Goony Bird? The B-17? The frickin' Spad (if it was good enough for Eddie Rickenbacker, it's good enough for our boys today?)?

Robert said...

What's the matter with the AC-130?

Tam said...

It's a lot cheaper to buy off-the-shelf than to reactivate any 30-year-old airframe and powerplant production lines. And a single-turboprop is a lot cheaper to operate than the A-10.

And seeing as how the support infrastructure for the T-6 already exists, that would seem to make it a winner right there.

genedunn said...

+1 to Doc (the A-10) and Robert (AC-130)

I would add the Apache, Cobra, Kiowa, and Cayuse. All highly capable air-to-ground platforms. Hell, they even have a UAV version of they Cayuse now... helping to satisfy everyone's dream of zero-defect warfare.

Ed Foster said...

Greetings from Central Connecticut, the heart of the world's aircraft engine production.

Do you want a Pratt and Whitney, GE, Rolls-Royce, SNECMA, or Volvo Flygmotor jet engine? Damn near every part of them is manufactured here (Yup, all those parts assembled in Indianapolis come in a box marked "Made In CT"), and increasingly the sub-assembly work is done here too.

The nominal gun company I work for does a third of it's gross on Sikorsky helicopter control systems and the compressor stages of P&W engines. I think every second plumber's supply house and Mom n' Pop bodega in Hartford has a sideline in aircraft parts.

The reason I mention all this is there is a HUGE new plant going up near Bradley International Airport, and they're looking really hard for experienced aerospace people who speak Portuguese or Spanish.

The name on the sign is EMBRAER S.A. Betchs I know which way the contracts are headed.

Comrade Misfit said...

The AC-130 is large (crew served weapons) and expensive (four large turbine engines) to fly.

The Air Force has an institutional hatred of the air-to-mud mission. The best thing that the Marines did was to keep their fixed-wing aircraft. Armed helicopters were developed by the Army more because the Army needed some ability to support its own troops than because helicopters were a good idea.

The best thing to do is give the Army back the CAS mission, fixed-wing aircraft and all.

Anonymous said...

What gets me is that EVEN IF you had a non insurgency war you'd need close support.

The problem is that taking CAS away from the Airforce would immediately cause three+ bad things to happen.

A. The Army would get into airplane business
B. The Airforce would now have ZERO interest in the ground other than to bomb the daylights out of acre sized plots
C.They'd view each other as the prime enemy.

I think a more elegant solution is some sort of CAS-Command in the Airforce so there is promotion path and internal voting block all the way to the top.

ParatrooperJJ said...

The Air Force isn't going to be buying any counterinsurgency aircraft any time soon. If it's something the Army wants or needs, the Air Force isn't interested.

Tam said...

As much as everybody pines for the A-10, those airframes are getting long in the tooth and the production line's been closed since before some of the guys flying it were born.

There's refurb and service extension programs, but in the time it would take to set up the line for entirely new production, you may as well just design an entirely new plane. I mean, materials technology alone has advanced just a teeny bit since the A-10 was designed in the early '70s...

Eck! said...

The biggest issues with the newer birds is they will not take the damage that is more common with in the mud attacks.

If you look at the A10 and the Skyraider they were both tough birds of the old Grumman ironworks style. They were designed to take a beating while dishing out big punishment. This is one area where the various armed choppers fail. One golden BB and you in the mud. Neither of the birds proposed have that level of pilot protection nor ability to take the damage and get the pilot out of there.

However the A10 has been out of production for a long time and there were only 715 made. That and the 30mm Gatling gun may not be as high need thing now.

Eck!

Shepherd K said...

Okay, despite the fact that I am a fan of the A-10 (mainly because Dallas Cowboy linebacker Chad Hennings DID fit in it which means I CAN fit in it), I see Tam's point about the lead time and cost of restarting production versus a new design. The thing is, though, without someone in the Air Force bureaucracy at the Pentagon a la John Boyd walking an RFP through the Congressional approval and ultimate design process (thus yielding us both the F16 and F18), it's not going to happen. Hell, even Burt Rutan threw his hat into that ring with the ARES Mudfighter over 10 years ago and STILL nothing. The sad truth is that we are going to be fighting the counter insurgency fight with 50, 60 and 70 year old tech for another 50, 60 or 70 years assuming we don't implode as a nation first.

Tam said...

Eck!

Yeah, but COIN aircraft are not designed for the same environment that the A-10 was.

CAS in a hostile sky full of SA-9's and ZSU fire is different from guys with AKs and the occasional DShK or SA-7.

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

Take the A-10, update the design for modern materials and avionics, and leave the rest of the design alone. Seriously. There's nothing wrong and everything right with the basic design, and the only real reason to update for materials is because we'd probably have to completely rebuild the production lines anyway.

If the 30mm is too much for ground support, set it up (if it's not already) to work with pod mounted .50 (or whatever caliber is appropriate) machine guns. It should already be set up to be able to use rocket pods, but if not, that can be done too.

Every time they try to retire the A-10, they find out they need something for that role and that it's perfect for it. Every time they try to come up with a replacement they fall short of the A-10 in some major category.

The A-10 design is perfect for a low, slow, durable, fixed-wing ground-attack aircraft - which is exactly what you want for good CAS.

wv: disizit - If you want the best possible ground attack aircraft, disizit.

Ed Rasimus said...

I'm not sure how many of the comments are from actual Air Force tactical aviators, but as one myself, this is a subject I've got to jump in on. First, the ONLY excursion into a missile-only/no-gun fighter for the USAF was the F-4. That was corrected with the F-4E, which eventually was the largest buy in the F-4 series.

The characterization of the AF as hating the CAS mission is common but outrageously wrong. One place that you will never get the slightest hesitation from a fighter pilot is when there is a need for CAS. Snake-n-nape at "whites of their eyes" range is fun and challenging.

But airplanes are expensive and you can't afford to buy specialized systems for each possible mission. A COIN anti-guerilla platform is great but when a mission shifts to air dominance or interdiction or defense suppression, you have to have that capability as well.

The good news is that technology has taken up the slack. We no longer need to strafe (a bad idea economically since WW II--a $50M weapon getting in rifle range to kill a $5K Toyota truck is stupid!)

We have stand-off weapons that offer incredible precision, on-demand tasking and low collateral damage.

The result is that when we lost 1 F-105 every 65 missions over NVN, we lost 1 fixed wing aircraft in more than 116,000 sorties in Iraqi Freedom.

Proposals for slow-moving traditional CAS airplanes come and go (and Super Tucano has been proposed a dozen time since the '70s!). Today F-35 will be a magnificent and effective CAS/COIN/Interdiction/SEAD platform and valuable for the next 25 years.

Tam said...

Ed,

I think the key phrase here is "In turn, these American pilots will train their partners and developing nation counterparts to fly these same planes and defend themselves, with a goal of reducing the need for U.S. military presence in the region."

We're not going to be giving the Afghans any F-35s. (Or A-10s.)

Ed Foster said...

I have to stand in line behind Ed Rasimus. The man understands.

But I'm still betting Embraer gets the S-Tucano in production up here, even if we don't need it for 80% of our COIN work. They'll probably end up doing border interdiction work or getting handed off to Columbia to squash trafficantes, but I smell Brazillian cooking a few tobacco fields over.

perlhaqr said...

I'm not AF, or even a pilot, but damn, I love the A-10. It's got a big gun.

Anonymous said...

I bet there maybe some B-52 crew who are fly the same plane their grandpa did. Those airframes have seen quite a few more cycles then the A-10 or Sandys.

AC-130 is really a night time only aircraft. Big and slow, it screams shoot me in the daylight.

They are downsizing the Air Guard A-10 squadrons. My friend in the 111th were suppose to loose their aircraft ths year. Why? $$$$

A-10 was designed by the Boyds friends outside of the powers to be at the time. Nobody wanted it to be a success.

Gerry

Bubblehead Les. said...

Hold the Phones: No one may be buying anything, or it may be twice as much as planned. Big Shake Up coming for the Anointed One's National Security Team. Looks like the CIA has defeated the DOD. FoxNews is reporting that Leon Panetta is heading to Sec. Defense, and Gen. Petraus MIGHT become Head Spook at the Agency. IMHO, I'm guessing that Hillary has had her Booger Finger yanked from the Trigger Switch, after her Brilliant Military Strategy of "Let's Shoot Up Khaddaffy Duck's Compound and He'll surrender" has Blown up in her face. But what should the Anointed One have expected from the Head Mistress of the Waco War College and Barbeque Cooking School? Stay Tuned for Further Developments.

Anonymous said...

So I have minimal cred as I fly small fast airplanes.

I would give my left... no both nuts to fly the Texan II.

Put guns on it and a Titanium shell around the pilot and call it done for shooting rockets and rounds for troop support.

Keep the F-16s and 35s over head for CAP.

Better yet, bring everybody home, drill for oil here and use the Texan II for enviro-whacko suppression.

Brad K. said...

I like the looks of the A-7 Corsair II. Really.

But I like Ed Rasimus' survival figures of the Iraqi effort even better.

If the Brazilians get a contract - will the planes require us to import Brazilian ethanol (like the Indy race cars use) to fuel, service, and maintain the planes and support services? Will employees at the assembly plant be required to drive Brazilian-ethanol cars?

GuardDuck said...

Hey, the Georgians (Black Sea ones, not the Peach Tree ones) have a Su-25 Frogfoot factory. Fresh off the line Sukhoi's at $11 million a pop.

Tam said...

Outside the box, but probably too much plane for the job and it'd bork the supply chain too much unless it was massively redesigned.

Steve Skubinna said...

My vote goes to the classic Benson gyrocopter. Come on, everyone here's seen the Road Warrior.

Bad guys HATE having snakes dropped in their laps.

MattCFII said...

Just point of order from a lowly CFI to a real USAF aviator, IIRC the F-102 had no cannon and there were a few rocket only fighters that lead up to the decision to not put a gun in the F-4, namely the F-94C and F-89D. Granted besides for the F-4, the other gunless "fighters" (can't really call them that in my book due to lack of guns) were tasked to be interceptors. The British toyed with no gun Eurofighters, then decided it would be easier to put them in and not use them, then said finally that they would use them.

Overall, I thought one of the main goals of the COIN plane was to increase loiter time without the support of tankers and such. At the same time I really see this as an overlap of the MQ-9 Reaper except with the ability to strafe with a pilot on board. Don't get me wrong though I generally like the idea of piloted aircraft over UAVs, but I'm biased.

If the COIN plane goes it will be interesting to see who wins. It would seem that the AT-6 II has the inside track being U.S. Built and already used as a trainer. Since foreign designs was discussed, I'll throw out that the T-6 II is based on the Swiss PC-9, so if they really want them that doesn't mean Embraer couldn't possibly make some EMB 314s here too. FWIW EMB314 the Navy did lease one to test as a light support for the SEALS like the Black Ponies' OV-10s in Vietnam. Hell, Xe/Blackwater has one.

I do see somewhat of an role for these but at the same time, the long loiter light strike/CAS (pretty much COIN) mission seems to be going towards UAVs. I still think we should keep big picture here and have aircraft that are survivable in a war with a more compairable power that would require air superiority battles that the F-22 and others could in a pinch. The COIN is a one trick pony that we may not need again until we find ourselves in another low intensity conflict but by that time the COIN job (and a lot of other air combat) might be an all drone show.

Lergnom said...

Maybe now's the time to reconsider Charley Zimmerman's Flying Flapjacks. They were initially rejected as 'too modern'.
Unrelated - I live between Dover AFB and FT. Dix-McGuire, so whenever the .mil gets ready to do big things, the transit between bases goes over my neighborhood. I saw a squadron of A-10s going over, just before Gulf War 1. Impressive as all get out.

Stay safe

Jayson said...

I'm a huge fan of the A-10, and if society collapses, i'm-a try and get one ;)

I also think the Dragonfly looked badass.

As far as this goes, don't we have an assload UAVs that can provide support? There's no rule that we can only fly them one at a time.

Tirno said...

I'm kinda wondering when they're going to put a side-firing GAU-22/U in a drone, along with the synthetic aperture radar and other electro-optical goodies.

It's the 40mm Bofors and the M102 howitzer in the AC-130 that are crew served, and for that kind of fire you could do something with a rocket pod, SDB or Hellfire.

I know the Army would love to have more orbiting on-site available fire, and the Air Force would like those thirteen guys with mothers who love them to commute to Creech AFB for work each day.

roland said...

I was expecting much riffing on the "Never get involved in a land war in Asia" thing. Nada.
Inconceivable!

Anonymous said...

I think Tam pointed out the key point above: The COIN mission is NOT one that the U.S. needs to fill. Between A-10’s, Predators, Apache’s, AC-130’s and various fast movers carrying small smart weapons we have that mission very well covered. These are not seriously intended for use by US forces in the long term. Whatever planes we buy will be used by enough US pilots in operational units or situations so that the client states/partner states and their Air Force personnel will be able to say, “It’s a brand new plane, same that the US uses!” We will be training their pilots, then lend/leasing or granting them the aircraft.

As Ed pointed out, USAF pilots love CAS missions (and if anyone should know, I will absolutely bow to his authority), but the USAF as an institution hates supporting it. A relative of mine who was one of the Undersecretary’s of the Air Force told me repeatedly that they were going to phase out those pigs (what he called A-10’s). He was frustrated because they kept not being replaceable with other aircraft. At the senior level, the USAF hate, Hate, HATE them. When informed that his son had decided to fly the Warthog, three-star USAF General Chuck Horner reportedly said "Oh, I don't think I have a son anymore; I think he died from brain damage." A-10’s provide the long loiter time and heavy air-to-mud support, and they are survivable. The Pilatus and the Embraer are both vulnerable to ground fire.

We will NOT be using these in conflict long term. But we will not be selling F-35’s, old A-10’s, or predators to middle-eastern countries if there’s any possible way around it. Thus the COIN aircraft.

FormerFlyer

Tam said...

FormerFlyer,

While I think that the intent is to buy these things for Afghanistan and Iraq, I believe that if we buy them, we will wind up using them more than we originally intended.

Still, in a pure COIN environment, I don't think it'll necessarily be a bad thing. Besides, as things are going, all 100 of these things will probably cost less than a flight of F-35s...

Stretch said...

USAF was (after Desert Storm) trying to get rid of the A-10.
Chief of Staff (Gen. Pace, USMC) told USAF "The Marines will take them all ... and their support and manpower budgets."
USAF changed its mind.

Count me as a Skyraider fan.

Larry said...

Once you factor in operational and maintenance costs, I wouldn't be surprised if 100 of these things would cost what one F-35 is going to end up costing, if or when it actually makes it into service.

I'm surprised no one's brought up the proposed OV-10X Bronco. For low-level COIN, I think you'd really want that two-engine goodness.

AC-130 Guy said...

Why not the AC-130? Because they're expensive. You can get a few Super Tocanos for the price of a single AC-130.

The U & H model AC-130s are great CAS platforms, and much more diverse and multi-missioned than most people think. Accuracy is high, collateral damage is low, and they're self FAC-ing. They're also rather slow to produce, and take a large crew complement.

That said, there's an appreciable niche for a lot of small, inexpensive COIN aircraft. In addition to us using them, there's the capability to sell them to friendly countries, with all the training and cooperation accords that go with that.

Many of the older model aircraft (Skyraiders, A-26s, etc) use AVgas, which is getting harder to find, and isn't in the majority of the USA's logistical chain. They'll not go backwards in their thinking.

Lastly, a competition like this gets the big aviation companies working on the concept. They may not have an entry now, but 10 years down the road, we'll have a variety of choices for a better, more modern COIN platform.

Of course, that's all assuming the government has any money left to buy them with.

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

"Besides, as things are going, all 100 of these things will probably cost less than a flight of F-35s..."

The way things are going, all 100 of these things will probably cost less than one F-35. They're apparently up to $304 million at this point, once you count development costs (and they're not actually done with development, yet).

Anonymous said...

The Swiss Pilatus PC-9 is indeed the basis for the Raytheon/Beech Texan II. However, When Beech finished the "redesign" for U.S. manufacture, the CEO of Beech proudly let it be known that there were no interchangeable parts between the two aircraft. Aside from the license to manufacture it, and the identical dimensions and shape, they are two entirely different aircraft.

I suspect that Boeing/MDAC will propose a new version of the USN T-45 Goshawk, which is the U.S. Navy version of the BAE Hawk, currently used by third world countries all over the world for ground support, pilot training, and aerobatic teams.

BoxStockRacer

Kristopher said...

Stretch: The Army made the same offer.

The Airforce still maints them because they know the Army will adopt them if no one else does.

Add me as another vote for an A-11 Warthog II.

Highdiver_2000 said...

A turboprop CAS is very good at loitering where you want it to be.

If it is not, you may be in for a wait. Hence the advantage of jet powered CAS.

Dan F. said...

You know, Air Tractor has supplied a number of their 802U model to Columbia for just this kind of thing.

An oversize crop-duster with 2 seats, IR and hardpoints for dumb bombs and gunpods... North by Northwest would have been a lot shorter with one of these.

MattCFII said...

Yeah the Air Tractor COIN plane can hold a lot more but it doesn't seem to have any Pentagon interest.

Just saw this article, it seems Afghanistan is definitely getting 20 of the AT6B or EMB314 which either one is probably a better combat aircraft than us giving Iraq Cessna Caravans that can carry Hellfires. The contract also has an option for us to buy up to 15 "to train other countries." So right now, no USAF COIN fighters in combat...
http://web02.aviationweek.com/aw/mstory.do?id=news/asd/2011/04/29/02.xml&channel=defense&headline=Light%20Attack%20Gathers%20Steam