While most of its allies seek to refocus on conventional warfare, the US Air Force may soon spend hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire dozens of light fighters and airlifters uniquely dedicated to counter-insurgency roles.
Having spent much of the past decade supporting US-led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the major air powers of Europe are looking to recalibrate their fiscal resources and activities more towards conventional operations, say several analysts.
"We have invested far too much in [irregular warfare, or IW]. We now have to claw back," says 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 fleets, the USAF is likely to stand alone if it decides to create a dedicated IW force within its ranks.
Brazil uses its Super Tucanos for counter-insurgency tasks
The lesson learned in Europe has been "you cannot win in Afghanistan at the expense of losing your core major league skills", Brookes says.
As the USAF explores options for buying up to 100 light fighters and 60 light airlifters, its director of IW requirements Robert Day says he is not aware of any interest from other major air forces. "That's a decision I think they need to make," he says.
However, Day adds that the USAF may encourage partners to rethink their current investment strategy. "Most of the coalition partners 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."
A key difference between the USAF and allied air forces, however, is the level of fiscal resource available for both conventional and niche capabilities. Brookes points out that the US service 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," says Francis Tusa, editor of the UK's Defence Analysis newsletter.
The unique demands for an IW fleet - light aircraft that are 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," says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president for analysis at the Teal Group. He 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 says.
On the other hand, the USAF is likely to recoup some of its 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 a high-performance jet fighter, notes Michel Merluzeau, chief executive of the Seattle-based G2 Solutions consulting firm. "You could still fly a combat mission at a fraction of the cost," he adds.
But Merluzeau agrees 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]," he says. "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 USA is going to go."
The USAF plans to complete twin analyses of its options for light attack and light airlift by December, says Day. These range from buying either a clean-sheet or in-production design, or reviving a previously retired type, such as the OV-10 Bronco, he adds.
© US Air Force
Could USAF interest revive production of the OV-10 Bronco?
The USAF may also still decide that its current aircraft, such as the Fairchild A-10, can meet the requirement.
But the USAF seems committed to start up the new fleet in the near future. "I would be surprised," says Day, "if we aren't positioned to have programme initiations in about 2012."
After years of inaction on the IW concept, the USAF has suddenly leapt into action. In April, chief of staff Gen Norton Schwartz said that the service may need a new aircraft that can double as a trainer and a light attack asset.
In subsequent meetings, the USAF has also launched plans to consider a light airlifter, and, further along, a new light helicopter.
With each of the new aircraft types, the USAF plans to develop a new cadre of pilots and crews. The aim is to help train partner air forces, such as in Afghanistan, to perform the counter-insurgency mission on their own with the same aircraft used by the USAF. At the end of training, the USAF could transfer the aircraft to its partners as "leave behinds", or facilitate a deal under a foreign military sale, Day says.
The US Air National Guard, meanwhile, is conducting a separate light attack aircraft demonstration using a Beechcraft AT-6B turboprop.
Source: Flight International