The COIN Comeback Debate

Johnny Bombmaker: You write about counter-insurgency aircraft as if you’re a fan of the concept?

The DEW Line
: Well, what’s not to like?

JB: There’s a reason why single-engine turboprops almost disappeared after World War II. They get shot out of the sky faster than a duck flying over a South Texas shooting range. Do you realize how many A-1 Skyraiders got blown out of the sky in Vietnam? The threat in Iraq is even worse. Much better to do it the modern way: just park an F-15 or an F-16 with a targeting pod, a strafing cannon and a guided bomb up above 15,000 feet.

TDL: But the question is not exclusively which aircraft is more survivable, but which is more effective? If survivability was the only criteria, you’d never see something as slow, loud and enticing as a cargo helicopter lumbering from Basra to Baghdad. A helicopter is still the best way to move from point A to point B if neither point happens to be a secure 6,000-foot runway.

A single-engine turboprop with guided weapons, air-to-ground communications and modern avionics may still be the most effective way to deal with a fleeting threat like insurgents.

You dig?

JB: I do. I’m also not the guy in the cockpit, trying to outrun bullets and missiles in an aircraft that would lose a dogfight to a P-51 Mustang.


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12 Responses to The COIN Comeback Debate

  1. Joe Katzman 8 May, 2007 at 4:09 pm #

    Sometimes being slow isn’t the worst thing in the world. The British got a Harrier shot out from under them in the Falklands because it was too fast, and had to keep coming back at low level to try and spot its target. If you keep throwing fastballs, folks eventually hit them.

    Even in current wars, the A-10 gets a lot of specific requests over other aircraft in theater because it has the low speed and protection to look around.

    See this DID article for more:

    A/OA-10 Pilots confirming targets with binoculars is not unheard of, but before that they have a human being’s full field of view. A second person in the plane would make it the perfect COIN aircraft, as well as a terrifying battlefield opponent at the other end of spectrum in a full state on state war.

    LITENING pods, Sniper ATP pods, et. al. are very valuable. The bad news is that their field of view is very restricted, and so they are really more of a supplement than a solution.

    Of course, if you really want to, that Super Tucano can also carry a LITENING AT pod and drop laser-guided bombs from 15,000 feet…

    There’s also the fact that the F/A-18 costs you $15,000 per hour to fly, replaces at $90 million, and has (as all aircraft do) a limited number of airframe-hours of flight in it. Which puts a dent in your high-end capabilities as well when it goes. Whereas a Super Tucano has per hour costs that are much lower, replaces at $6-8 million, and doesn’t jeopardize one’s higher end capabilities as much when it wears out (anything over 1/12th of one’s fighter flight hours in theaters like Iraq, ISR, or COIN tasks, or about 1,000 hours = positive financial payoff from COIN aircraft substitution).

    Plus, US COIN/FAC aircraft fleets mean it’s possible to deploy, start flying joint missions with allied pilots in places like Iraq pretty quickly, then let them buy similiar, affordable aircraft and take off quickly on their own. Not so easy to do if all you have is F-16s and F-15s – and that’s worth something, too.

  2. Stephen 9 May, 2007 at 10:10 am #

    Hey Joe,

    Thanks for dropping by. I have no dobut that a Super Tucano or an AT-6 is the ideal machine in a war against lightly-armed drug smugglers. But I’m still not absolutely convinced it’s the machine you want to be using in a place like Afghanistan or Iraq. The attrition rate would be huge, compared to a jet fighter. I’m not saying that means you should throw out the idea, but, given the strategic environment, it has to be a big factor.

  3. Robot Economist 9 May, 2007 at 9:19 pm #

    Joe K. definitely stepped on the crucial issue that people in the tech development and force planning worlds are coming to grips with: high-end gear often translates into low endurance and high operating cost.

    Not to get too radical here, but why not consider something even lower tech/lower cost like a blimp. They can be virtually stationary over the target and achieve a pretty good altitude at a low operating cost (heck, the bomb and the spotter on the ground do all the work).

    Maneuverability isn’t even much of an issue as long as the blimp stays up high and the Air Force and Navy tactical fighters prevent airspace incursions.

  4. Joe Katzman 10 May, 2007 at 12:28 am #

    These days, the drug smugglers aren’t always lightly armed (FARC, anyone?). I’d say the environment in Colombia (who uses Super Tucanos) isn’t that far away, and a few “contracted” planes have gone down in that territory. You don’t hear about ‘em as much, which is the idea, but it happens.

    But to the core issue… less survivable why, exactly? The threat in Iraq is mostly 12.7mm/14.5mm machine guns, and Iranian Sa-7 MANPADS missiles. Afghanistan? Same, mostly, though some missiles may come from Pakistan.

    There are 4 ways to provide the kind of long term surveillance and the close air support troops need. They are not mutually exclusive.

    One is dedicated, highly-armored jets like the A-10 and SU-25. Call this Category 1. They are cheaper than Category 2 fighters, and their equal usefulness in full scale war scenarios makes them an under-appreciated category by air forces with other priorities, though to their credit, the Russians have been smart enough to make a carrier-capable SU-25. I bet the Marines would find a couple squadrons of something like that extremely useful. These jets can fly slow, loiter long, and hit what they find. They are also highly survivable by design – much more so than other aircraft.

    Category 2 is using fast jets with targeting pods, or bombers: F-16, F-18, B-1. This is by far the most expensive approach from both a procurement and an operating point of view. It has useful applications, but also real limitations, as the lessons of Afghanistan illustrate on both fronts. Bombers have numbers/ availability issues, and are very expensive to operate. GPS-guided weapons are a bit dicey for close-in support, and laser targeting isn’t always practical from bomber altitudes depending on conditions. They have a front-lines strike role that’s legitimate, but they are NOT a replacement for close air support, let alone artillery (as some have foolishly claimed).

    Fighters can and have played useful ISR roles but are very expensive for the coverage delivered, and have CAS effectiveness issues even with modern equipment – see the “British Major’s” link above which includes a number of reports from the field. If they’re in the air already for another reason, the capability is useful. In cases like the Harrier, they may also have special abilities that make them iireplaceable. Otherwise, it’s a way of burning money for less than optimal results. You always need some fighters in theater to deter foreign states, however. They can’t be dealt out of the mix entirely, and may as well be useful in other ways during their flights.

    Category 3 is the turboprop or light jet COIN/FAC aircraft like the OV-1, OV-10, A-37, or some purpose-modified trainers. They cost a lot less to buy than Category 2 or even Category 1 options, and a lot less to operate. Modern members of Category 3 can also be equipped with top-tier targeting pods like LITENING et. al., giving them precision weapons use and top-tier optics, plus their pilot’s eyes and a speed that lets them see what’s below. Some few UAV platforms like the MQ-9 Reaper are also beginning to emerge in this category. The UCAVs offer unique flight time and persistence over target, in exchange for more crashes and sharply reduced recon capabilities, at the same or slightly higher cost as a Category 3 aircraft with comparable sensors.

    In practice, many militaries have also shifted helicopters into this Category 3 role, since SOMEONE must do it. Helicopters bring unique capabilities and should be part of the mix, but are extrremely vulnerable to fire. Q.V. the OH-58Ds’ loss rate in Iraq. Recent reports that AH-64 pilots are being taught “swoop and dive” tactics to keep themselves out of trouble… starting to sound like anything to you?

    Category 4 involves modified light prop planes in a bid dog or spotter role, with some armament as well as the ability to call in others. They were used very successfully by the Army in World War 2, Korea, and Vietnam. Not a safe ride, to be sure, but not a suicide ride either and their use paid real dividends at low cost. UAVs below the MQ-9′s level or armament capacity and above man-portable status (MQ-1 Predator, ER/MP Warrior, Heron, Shadow 200, Searcher II, et. al.) fill this role with persistence/flight time no manned aircraft can match, and zero human casualties; albeit at significantly higher financial cost of procurement, higher loss (crash) margins, less situational awareness, and loss of gun capabilities. These UAVs have an indisputable role, even a unique role – but there is also an indisputable trade-off. Beyond that note, I won’t deal with this issue here.

    The question of surviviability is clear cut in Category 1. The advantage between category 2 & 3 is hazy to me. Those fancy jet fighters (aside from the F-22) spend almost zero time above Mach 1 in reality due to fuel consumption. That means we’re talking about the difference, in practice, between 400-450 miles per hour and 600 miles per hour. To a missile flying at Mach 2.5, there’s a no-escape footprint difference but it actually isn’t that huge when one does the math. Transonic acceleration takes time, and is definitely a plus factor if you’re targeted by a MANPAD near the edges of its range. Otherwise, your defensive ECM systems had better protect you. Machine guns bother neither aircraft at 15,000 feet. Machine guns can end either aircraft’s day if it’s flying low enough to reach, but it’s a big sky and without full radar-guided AA systems deployed, even 400 mph equals low individual odds of a hit.

    I’m not seeing the huge inherent survivability difference here.

    The Skyraiders got shot down because they were flown in low level attacks with the guys on the ground foremost in mind – like an A-10. The Skyraider was durable, but not that durable. (On the other hand, Skyraiders also saved more than their share of patrols and downed airmen who probably would not have made it out with any other form of air support. You left that out of the equation.) An F-16 pilot in Iraq was decorated – posthumously – for doing this very thing at a time when troops on the ground needed this. Which brings us to tactics and doctrine.

    A Super Tucano can also drop precision bombs from 15,000 feet, and comes with the same targeting pods, plus radar warning and infared flare defensive systems. Which means it can do what the Skyraiders could not and emulate the F-16′s fly-high tactics if that’s what must be done. Or, it can do something the F-16s can’t – head into the weeds to provide greater levels of accurate, stable gunfire and other fire support, coupled with 2 crew for better vision, and the proper speed to find its targets reliably, all at a much lower procurement and operating cost. And an inherent survivability difference against COIN threats that I can’t really see.

    What can’t it do? Well, it has some residual air-air capability since many of these Cat-3 aircraft can carry SRAAMs like the AIM-9M/X, but it’s residual. I’d give an AT-6B with a Sidewinder M better-than-even odds against, say, an Iranian F-5… but it’s not really built for that. It also can’t go up against sophisticated air defense systems with modern radars and missiles – you need your high-end stuff to deal with those. Is either situation currently a huge factor in Iraq or Afghanistan? No. You want to have Cat-2 fighters available in theater in case foreign states get involved, and Category 3 aircraft also lose out on dash speed if you need to travel longer distances for on-call response. The Cat-2 fighters on call to deter foreign states can be handed that “emergency ASAP response” job and will perform better than before thanks to their targeting pods, if Cat-3 aircraft are an unsuitable/unavailable choice. That’s a military plus over past years – but the planned nature of most CAS missions in these theaters, and the effect of having more Cat-3 aircraft available for the buck, would make this a low-odds problem.

    Ultimately, the point about effectiveness is the key. Dollars are limited. Areas to cover are what they are, and so is the need for troop support. As the link above shows, fast moving jet fighters have real and important limitations when attempting to effectively provide that support. If someone told you they had a system that would save 13 pilots and aircraft, but kill 300 soldiers and result in $300 million in economic dislocation due to areas not covered fully and attacked successfully… would that seem like a good deal to you? All aspects of this equation matter. It’s not just about the aircraft.

    If the treasury is not inexhaustible, and the cost of next-generation fighter aircraft is always rising faster than inflation, there’s also a very strong financial argument. If using F-16s as ISR and semi-accurate CAS aircraft means you have to replace them with a $100+ million fighter when they wear out, and you fly enough hours as a force in those profiles to equal 20 aircraft worth of total flight time… that buys a LOT of COIN aircraft, pilots, targeting pods, “Bird Dog” supplements to UAVs, et. al. (Or A-10Cs, if that’s what you’d rather). That “lot of aircraft” may = better coverage and hence new tactical options for “take and hold”, which confers a military advantage.

    I’m seeing differences between using F-16s and using AT-6Bs or Super Tucanos in Iraq & Afghanistan, Stephen; but very few are breaking the F-16s’ way. In war, it’s best to have options. COIN aircraft, whether Category 1 or Category 3, create options that weren’t there before, and Cat-3 survivability vs. Cat-2 options appears to be mostly a function of how you choose/need to use them.

    At the end of the day, what did using the high-end Category-2 fighters really get the USA? Near as I can tell, over Iraq and Afghanistan, the only answer is much higher operating costs, wear and tear that will be very expensive and reduce the long-term TacAir force, reduced military/tactical options for support. Not to mention a longer spin-up time for the Iraqi Air Force that keeps more US pilots in harm’s way for longer, and creates a vast medium-term strategic danger to Iraq if the USAF is not there.

  5. HerkEng 10 May, 2007 at 10:01 am #

    For the COIN mission you need something SLOW and with the throttle response of a turboprop… I am not saying that a trainer aircraft is best for the mission but, it would be much better than an F-16 or even an A-10. There are many choices better suited for the mission…but hey, they want a single engined turbo-trainer with hardpoints. It looks like they have already made their decision.

  6. Joe Katzman 21 May, 2007 at 6:32 pm #

    Did some searching.

    Re: survivability. The Super Tucanos, AT-6Bs et. al. DO have an important issue, but it isn’t speed. Rather, it’s the turboprop engine up front that vents in the forward-center section of the fuselage. Wrong place to attract a missile – unlike, say, a Czech L-159 light attack jet, a missile that detonates behind target looks like a kill rather than a miss and some tail pipe damage.

    Sub-sonic AV-8B/ GR7/ GR9 Harriers have the same issue, of course… mind you, they’ve seen a lot of use in Iraq and Afghanistan without survivability problems.

    Designs could, of course, be created that minimize this issue. So could tactics that take advantage of companion aircraft like Schweizer’s acoustically-silenced RU-38 Twin Condor (in COIN/surveillance, that’s more important than radar stealth). US T-65 Ayres Vigilantes that fly drug-related missions already use twin-plane tactics as SOP (and are built to take a beating).

    For 2 more links and resources…

    One right here on the DEW line, re: the counter-insurgency bible. Note aircraft requirements.

    The other… “The Role of Tactical Air Power in Low-Intensity Conflict” by Capt. Vance C. Bateman, USAF in 1991. Via the Internet’s Wayback Machine:

  7. Dan G 22 May, 2007 at 11:18 am #

    Just how many JDAMs could a Tucano haul to 15,000′ I wonder? Not many I bet. And if they descend to lower levels for guns and rocket runs they’ll be cut to pieces with their low speeds.

    Don’t forget, aircraft are replaceable. Pilots are not.

  8. Stephen 22 May, 2007 at 10:53 pm #

    Nice stuff, guys. Keep it coming. I’m coming back to this issue in a few days.

    In the meantime, Dan G, I sympathize with your perspective, but I can’t get beyond this thought: as long as helicopter pilots are flying even slower and lower than a Super Tucano every day in Iraq, I think we can dispense with the reasoning that fixed-wing pilots must be immune from taking any similar risks, if it is the most effective way to do the mission.

    And, Joe, great insight on the IR signature of those single-engine turbos. Again, I think the comparison to the situation that helicopter pilots face every day must be reconciled, considering a helo’s IR bulls-eye located directly above the main cabin.

  9. HerkEng 23 May, 2007 at 7:44 am #

    Dan G,

    No one ever said that it needed to carry JDAMs… The angle of attack for these craft will be a shallow one…these will be attack aircraft…not bombers. Stephen, I agree that these will be in no more danger than the helicopters already flying low and slow over hostile areas… and with the recent change in tactics, there has been much fewer losses in helicopters the past few months. It is hard to kill a hot IR on an aircraft that is zooming low…It is much easier to kill something above 1500′ with a manpad…it is easier to keep them in the site.

    As far as the IR sig goes…who said that they can’t build a shroud around the exhaust like they do on the AC-130s? It is very effective for them and would not be that hard to make for the PT6A.

  10. Dan G 25 May, 2007 at 4:47 pm #

    Stephen: “as long as helicopter pilots are flying even slower and lower than a Super Tucano every day in Iraq, I think we can dispense with the reasoning that fixed-wing pilots must be immune from taking any similar risks” – don’t forget how the roles of helicopters and CAS aircraft differ. CAS aircraft are deliberately routed into harm’s way, while tranport helicopters fly around hot spots. The ones that do – gunships – carry heavy armour, just like the only other aircraft that operates at low level – the A-10. I don’t see a titanium bathtub in the Tucano.

    Herk: “No one ever said that it needed to carry JDAM” – commanders do. Bomb and rocket delivery from mid-levels is notoriously inaccurate – just look at the British commanders turning down offers of CAS from RAF Harriers, which mainly employ rockets and CBs from 15,000′. JDAMs and LGBs are much preferred as they’re much more accurate and, in the case of JDAMs, relatively cheap for their effect. That’s why there are so many orders for laser targetting pods at the moment.

  11. HerkEng 25 May, 2007 at 8:58 pm #

    Viper Strike

  12. HerkEng 26 May, 2007 at 11:13 am #

    Viper Strike or the SnakeEye Mk 82 SE would be the way to go if you intend to use bombs… the JADM requires way too much altitude and would endanger the crews that much more.

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