As most allies refocus on conventional capabilities, the US Air Force is moving to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire dozens of new light fighters and airlifters uniquely dedicated to counter-insurgency roles.
Having spent much of the past decade supporting US-led military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the major air powers of Europe are looking to re-calibrate their fiscal resources and operations more towards conventional operations, say several analysts.
“We have invested far too much in [irregular warfare, or IW]. We now have to claw back,” said Andrew Brookes, a retired Royal Air Force pilot and now aerospace analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Foreign air powers have followed the USAF lead for past innovations such as stealth and precision bombing. But, excepting air forces such as Brazil that already own light attack fighter fleets, the USAF is likely to stand alone if it decides to create a dedicated IW force within its ranks.
The lesson learnt in Europe has been “you can not win in Afghanistan at the expense of losing your core major league skills,” Brookes added.
As the USAF explores options for buying up to 100 light fighters and 60 light airlifters, Robert Day, the USAF’s director of IW requirements, said he is not aware of any interest from other major air forces.
“That a decision I think they need to make,” Day said.
But Day added that the USAF may still encourage partners to rethink their current investment strategy.
“Most of the coalition partners I think participating in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen the same sorts of things that we have seen that made us think we need to examine this area as a possible capability gap that we need to fill,” he said.
A key difference between the USAF and allied air forces, however, is the amount of fiscal resources available to pursue both conventional and niche capabilities. Brookes pointed out that USAF operates on a dramatically different scale than its allies. For example, while the USAF has a shortage of 1,500 pilots, that number exceeds the RAF’s entire active roster of 1,300 pilots.
“As long as the USAF has the budget they will be able to do what they like, and everybody else will just look on,” said Francis Tusa, a London-based analyst and editor of the Defence Analysis newsletter.
The unique demands for an IW fleet – light aircraft capable of reaching remote areas – makes them usually unsuitable for more conventional warfare. Most air forces have chosen to buy aircraft that can perform in a variety of roles, depending on the mission required.
“It’s not really clear that the light turboprop [fighter or airlifter] has a strong place in the force mix,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group. Aboulafia also believes that budgetary pressure is driving the USAF to propose the IW fleet concept. “The air force is tired of being on the receiving end [of budget cuts] so they’re opening up some new fronts,” he said.
On the other hand, the USAF is likely to recoup some of their investment in an all-IW fleet because such aircraft have dramatically lower operating costs. In a typically low-threat IW operating environment, a light turboprop is often as survivable as an high-performance jet fighter, said Michel Merluzeau, CEO of the Seattle-based G2 Solutions consulting firm.
So “you could still fly a combat mission at a fraction of the cost,” Merluzeau said.
But Merluzeau agreed with other analysts that such a fleet would be limited to a narrow set of operations.
“My guess is that the air force has a fairly unique [concept of operations],” Merluzeau said. “Whether allies within NATO will follow is a matter of a combination of budget priorities and whether the allies will feel compelled to go wherever the US is going to go.”
The USAF plans to complete twin analyses of its options for light attack and light airlift by December, Day said. The options range from buying either a clean-sheet or in-production design or reviving a previously retired type, such as the famed OV-10 Bronco (shown above), Day said. The USAF may also still decide that its current aircraft, including A-10s, can meet the requirement, he said.
But the USAF seems committed to start-up the new fleet in the near-future.
“I would be surprised,” Day said, “if we aren’t positioned to have programme initiations in about Fiscal 2012.”