Just before the New Year, the U.S. Air Force finally selected a new Light Air Support plane for ground attack in counterinsurgency, picking the Brazilian Super Tucano over the American AT-6– whose manufacturer, Wichita, Kan.-based Hawker Beechcraft, is filing suit over the decision [update: leading the Air Force to issue a stop-work order on the 4th]. But just as important as what the Pentagon is buying is how many and for whom: just 20 aircraft, with an option for another 15, which will go not to equip regular U.S. Air Force units but to train the embryonic air force of Afghanistan.
The Air Force Light Air Support program and a smaller Navy effort called “Combat Dragon” have been closely watched as a leading indicator of whether the U.S. military was willing to invest in the kind of low-cost, low-altitude, low-tech airplanes best suited for close air support in counterinsurgency. The answer is, not much.
At $355 million for 20 aircraft – just under $18 million apiece – the Super Tucano buy is peanuts by Pentagon standards. Combat Dragon is even smaller, a $20 million proof-of-concept with leased planes (though Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, has still denounced it as pork). By contrast, despite tightening budgets, the military has fought off attempts to cut Lockheed Martin’s $382 billion Joint Strike Fighter program to develop and build stealthy fighter-bombers for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps – a planned 2,457 aircraft at a cost per plane that has risen above $150 million. Four Joint Strike Fighters cost as much as the entire Light Air Support contract.
To be clear, the Air Force has real reasons for prioritizing the higher-tech plane. The JSF is a supersonic, radar-evading jet with advanced electronics; the LAS is a propeller plane that looks like something out of World War II. (One early contender for the LAS program was a modified crop-duster built by Air Tractor. They got knocked out of the competition when the Air Force required retractable landing gear). In an air-to-air duel, there’d be no competition. In airstrikes against ground targets, the JSF can take on a much wider range of missions because its stealth, speed, and avionics allow it to evade anti-aircraft defenses that would simply smack the LAS out of the sky.
Conversely, there are some things the LAS can do that a higher-performance airplane can’t. It can take off and land from dirt runways with minimal maintenance, for example, allowing more responsive and intimate cooperation with frontline ground troops. Once aloft, a propeller plane can fly slow circles in the sky for hours waiting for insurgents to show themselves, a waiting game that fuel-hungry jet fighters cannot play. But those LAS advantages apply primarily to places like Colombia – where the Super Tucano has been battle-tested – or to Afghanistan, where the enemy is short on firepower to threaten low-flying airplanes or the forward bases they fly from. You would need a higher-performance aircraft against a nation-state military or even a more sophisticated guerrilla force, like Lebanon’s Hezbollah – which used long-range rockets, anti-tank missiles, and an anti-ship cruise missile against Israel in 2006 – or for that matter the Afghan mujaheddin of the 1990s, with their CIA-provided Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
So no one’s suggesting replacing the JSF with LAS, or jets in general with propeller planes. Props are definitely a niche capability in modern warfare. But the Air Force refuses to even let them have that niche. Even assuming the Air Force exercises all its options, the Defense Department will spend less than $1 billion on just 35 Super Tucanos – some or all of which will be given to the Afghans – compared to $380 billion on 2,457 Joint Strike Fighters. The JSF is relevant to many more missions, but not to 380 times as many. The U.S. is finally out of Iraq and eying the exits in Afghanistan, but for good or ill the United States has a long history of involvement in ugly little wars around the world where it could use a plane like the LAS.