Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Modest Proposal: The RCAF should adopt a light attack aircraft.

"PEW-PEW-PEW!"

Sometimes, once in a blue moon or so, news coming out of The Pentagon actually makes sense.

The folks at Defense News recently reported that the USAF is in the preliminary stages of evaluating a light attack aircraft to supplement its A-10 fleet.  These new aircraft would then partially replace the aging Warthog over low-threat environments.  Aircraft like the F-15E and F-35 would take over duties in higher-threat situations.

The reasoning is simple.  Aircraft like the F-35 and F-15E are complete overkill when it comes to dealing with violent extremists that use pickup trucks armed with machine guns ("technicals").  While there is no debating the tactical need, one has to question the financial argument of using a multi-million dollar aircraft that costs $30k per flight hour dropping a bomb that costs more than its target.

As much praise as the A-10 receives for its mastery in the CAS role, even it has been complete overkill for most of its missions in the "War on Terror" (Afghanistan, Iraq, ISIS, etc).

"BBBRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRTTTTT!!!"
In order to keep costs down, the USAF would most likely adopt an off-the-shelf option for its "OA-X".  The two most likely choices would be the AT-6B Wolverine and the A-29 Super Tucano.  Both of these aircraft are in widespread use as both trainers and light-attack aircraft.

Other possibilities include the Textron Scorpion or a variant of the T-X.  These are unlikely however, due to the desire to keep timelines and costs as small as possible.

AT-6 Wolverine
Both the Wolverine and Super Tucano seem like wild departures for a USAF that has focused more on uber-expensive stealth fighters and bombers.  Even more mundane aircraft like the KC-46 tanker have been plagued with cost overruns.  By comparison, an aircraft that costs less than $15 million and costs a few hundred dollars per flight hour seem downright quaint.

While piloting a prop-driven aircraft derived from a basic trainer may not be as prestigious has flying a state-of-the art supersonic stealth fighter, it makes little difference to the 500lb Paveway guided bomb.  Either way, the end result (one destroyed target) is the same.

A-29 Super Tucano
The concept certainly is not new.

In the past, aircraft like the OV-10 Bronco, A-36 Apache, and the A-1 Skyraider have been used for the CAS role.  While certainly not as "sexy" as their jet-powered contemporaries, these aircraft nailed the CAS concept of flying low, slow, and close to the ground action.

Unfortunately, the USAF's love affair with fast jets have seen this capability taken up by larger and costlier aircraft like the B-1B Lancer and the AC-130 Specter.  Great aircraft, to be sure, but also INCREDIBLY EXPENSIVE.  Like...  One-quarter-of-a-billion-dollars expensive.

"KA-BOOM!  KA-BOOM!  KA-BOOM!"
The laws of common sense would seem to dictate that air forces around the world would be better served in adopting lower-cost options for the use in the CAS role.  This includes Canada.

With 77 CF-18s (138 at one point) being replaced with as few as 65 new fighters, it would behoove the RCAF to supplement that capability.  Unfortunately, that conversation is usually a non-starter due the extra costs in adopting a mixed fleet.

The good news is, there really would not be a mixed fleet.

CT-156 Harvard II
Canada utilizes the CT-156 Harvard II as its current trainer aircraft.  Despite the nomenclature, the Harvard II simply a variant of the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II.  This is the same airframe from which the AT-6 Wolverine is derived.

Incorporating a small number of AT-6 Wolverines into the RCAF would be an incredibly low-risk and low-cost endeavor.  The aircraft would already be familiar to aircrews and maintenance procedures and supply chains are already in place.  (Currently through a contractor.)

A small fleet of AT-6s (or similar) would be of great use during Canada's upcoming peacekeeping commitments.  Hotspots like Mali and Columbia certainly do not warrant top-tier multirole fighter aircraft.  That does not mean CAS would be of little use, however.  A few light attack aircraft, possibly delivered by C-17, could provide both close-air-support and aerial reconnaissance.  This would make the mission much safer and easier for Canadian ground troops.

Not only could these light attack aircraft be used in instances when sending in multirole fighter is unfeasible, but they would reduce wear-and-tear on the more expensive fighters.  This would be accomplished by doing the "lighter duties".

Airbus' C-295 based gunship concept.
Canada's FWSAR replacement program may offer another option.

Both Airbus and Alenia are studying gunship versions of their FWSAR candidates, the C-295 and C27J.  While not quite up to the same lethality as the famous AC-130, both versions would offer a substantial CAS capability while utilizing a platform already in use by the RCAF.

Alenia's MC-27J Praetorian gunship.

The biggest obstacle may be inertia.

For decades, military planners have built forces meant to combat an enemy with similar resources and technology (i.e.: Total War).  That has not synched with reality, however.  Since WWII, conflicts have been restricted to smaller "police actions" combating a more primitive foe.  Despite seeming lopsided, victory seems illusive and often short-lived.  Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria have seen poorly equipped insurgents able to fight off the largest militaries in the world.

Despite this, allied military commanders still insist on more of the same.  What good is a stealth fighter against an enemy that does not even use radar?  What good is an aircraft carrier against an enemy that does not even use a navy?  Modern conflicts seem to use the same strategy as using a sledgehammer to swat a mosquito.  Not only is it harder to kill the pesky insect, but a lot more collateral damage will result.

Moving forward, Canada will need to drop this mentality.  While conflict with a superpower is always a possibility, it should not be sole focus of our long-term strategy.  We should devote a decent portion of our military capability towards helping put out "brush fires".  This means smaller, cheaper assets that can be deployed quickly and easily.  This would help Canada live up to its commitments while it continues to only spend a modest amount on defence.

If Canada wants to up its contributions to NATO while keeping defence spending low, it is going to have to get creative.









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