Sunday, August 05, 2007

COIN Aircraft

Interesting (and not particularly good) news coming from CSAF Moseley:

US Air Force ( USAF) Chief of Staff General Michael Moseley has told Jane’s he is considering the creation of a new counterinsurgency (COIN) squadron of A-10A Thunderbolt II aircraft for the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).

Gen Moseley said he is mulling the possibility of putting a squadron of A-10A close-support aircraft inside AFSOC to serve the Special Operations Command, which has the lead engagement role in the US-declared global war on terrorism.

“There’s a variety of … counterinsurgency aircraft and other things out there that we’ve been looking at that would facilitate AFSOC’s partnership with the Special Operations Command,” Gen Moseley told Jane’s on 12 July.

“I’ve even asked: is it reasonable to put a squadron or so of A-10s into Special Operations Command?”

The A-10 is widely used to provide close air support to coalition and friendly forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it can be used against all ground targets including armoured platforms.

Gen Moseley’s interest in a new A-10 COIN squadron follows recent reports of a new AFSOC proposal for an “irregular warfare” wing. Possible aircraft being floated to fill a strike role in the wing have ranged from a modified air-to-ground Beechcraft AT-6B to an Embraer Tucano or Super Tucano.

However, Gen Moseley cautioned that he is not yet fully committed to the idea of a COIN air unit but is considering it because he believes the USAF needs to be able to meet the “full spectrum” of threats — from COIN to state-on-state conflict.

“I don’t know if I’m wedded to [the COIN unit] so much as I would like to know the pluses and minuses,” said Gen Moseley. (h/t: Captain's Journal via OPFOR)

Here's why the news isn't particularly good. While the A-10 isn't a bad choice for a COIN air unit for AFSOC, it's kind of missing the forest for the trees. Like the article says, the A-10 has some "key advantages." Highly maneuverable, designed for low altitude low speed flight, highly survivable, big-ass 30mm gun, etc. It was designed for CAS; the COIN aircraft for AFSOC will be primarily doing CAS and operational level ISR. However, the A-10 also has a lot of disadvantages. For one, as The Captain's Journal lays out, it's old. The fleet is just starting a $2 billion program to replace the wings. It's a tough airplane, but it was manufactured in the '70s. Airframes get fatigued. The A-10 also is in the middle of getting its avionics updated to give it sophisticated ISR capability and the ability to drop the gamut of PGMs in the U.S. inventory, including JDAMs. Good stuff, but also expensive.

However, this overlooks the primary reason why the A-10 is a bad choice. A COIN aircraft in this vein has a few important conditions. The most important is that it needs to be able to be operated by pretty much any air force in the world. The Iraqi Air Force should be able to buy some of whatever aircraft AFSOC chooses to fill this requirement to provide interoperability within the air forces. The A-10 has a price tag of roughly $10 million a piece. Of course, there's also the little issue that the A-10 production line is long closed. So I think we can safely assume that if the A-10 is chosen to fill this requirement there will be no one else buying A-10s. That's a very bad thing. We need to have that interoperability with the air forces we will be advising. It helps builds relationships, but more importantly, the sooner an indigenous air force can stand up their own CAS capability the better. Operating the same aircraft as what an advising U.S. squadron uses can help to decrease the time needed to develop this capability. Notice I didn't specifically single out one country. If we're going to do this right (and we should want to do it right, not easy or cheap) then we need to make sure this isn't something geared towards just Iraq and Afghanistan. This needs to be an all around COIN aircraft for all future COIN conflicts, ranging from a little brushfire like the Philippines or Somalia to full on war like Iraq.

However, all that said, what's most frustrating to me about the whole thing is that we're 6 years into this war and the USAF is just now finally starting to get the ball rolling on a COIN aircraft. I feel like the good CDR and his riverines. This is one of the USAF's big unique contributions to the fight and we're flubbing it. Just look at Gen. Moseley's commentary: he is "mulling the idea," "not yet fully committed," and "would like to know the pluses and minuses."

Let me lay the pluses and minuses out for you, sir.


-Will help kill terrorists more effectively and efficiently

-Will help build positive relationships with indigenous air forces

-Will help get indigenous air forces to stand up up quicker

-Will remove strain from conventional forces and allow them to refocus some of their energy on preparing for their side of the spectrum instead of having to deploy to perform non-traditional ISR and drop SDBs.


-Doesn't fly Mach 2

-Isn't a jet

-Not very sexy

-Not expensive enough to provide justification for huge increase in Air Force budget.

It really is that simple. This should have been done 3 years ago. There should be AT-6s/Super Tucanos in the CENTCOM AOR right now. We've done it before. We have the people. We need to make it happen.

As postscript, you'll notice in that first link above that the Air Commando units were composite; they flew many different types of aircraft. We need this. AT-6 (or whatever), JCA, some C-130s, some gunships, and some helos (maybe Mi-17s?). But that's a post for a different day.