Analysts: Among allies, USAF walks ‘irregular warfare’ path alone

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.”


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5 Responses to Analysts: Among allies, USAF walks ‘irregular warfare’ path alone

  1. Johnny 5 August, 2009 at 7:50 pm #

    Despite Nato membership participation, Afghanistan is a predominantly U.S. exercise, therefore Nato partners are not going to turn their dwindling military budgets upside down to accomodate us.

  2. James 6 August, 2009 at 3:16 am #

    Air boys short of pilots, not short, they decided to go robotic after discharging too many pilots. look at all the land the AF sold off, places for the crews to train and rehab. They aren’t short of manpower, but short of brains.

  3. John Aislabie 7 August, 2009 at 5:11 am #

    The prolonged previous search for a COIN aircraft, as a result of Vietnam experience, showed that it was quite possible to design an aircraft (OV-10, Convair Charger and even the Piper Enforcer), but it was much harder to commit highly trained pilots and provide them with acceptable survivability in a combat scenario.
    The RAF had the same sums with the Folland Gnat, basically, once you have an expensive pilot and expensive electronics and weapons to ensure a successful attack with minimal pilot risk you end up with a larger more powerful aircraft. The only way out seems to be UAVs and a stern understanding that they are built cheap enough to be economically expendable (unlike pilots).
    The current UAV path is already far too expensive to be expendable and so the tacticians are losing the critical flexible advantage of expendability

  4. Puppethead 8 August, 2009 at 3:07 am #

    So do the air forces go back to non-commissioned pilots? The armies seem happy for them to fly about the battlefield within rifleshot range.

  5. Ribby 9 August, 2009 at 3:07 am #

    It’s all mr. Gates idea ( Mr. CIA covert op.s) he is the driving force behind all this nonsense. He is trying to set the Air Force back to the stone age. Hey Mr. Gates what good is an air force with out airplanes. The Air Force will spend 20 years fixing the screwed up sh** that he is doing just because he does not like high tech weapons. His actions are reckless and put our security at risk , which is the last thing you should be doing as Sec. of Defense. The sooner we get rid of Mr Gates the better off our troops will be!

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