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With aging jets and a shortage of pilots, the Air Force weighs buying throwback ‘light-attack’ planes

The Air Force is considering this propeller-driven fighter in its battle against the Islamic State (Video: Dan Lamothe, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
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The U.S. Air Force, faced with a potentially protracted war against the Islamic State, aging fighter jets and a shrinking force of pilots, is examining the adoption of a new fleet of “light-attack” planes that are both a throwback to earlier U.S. operations and a current staple of militaries in South America and the Middle East.

The aircraft would be able to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State and other militants for less money than the F-16 Fighting Falcon or the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Options available could include Embraer’s A-29 Super Tucano propeller plane, which the United States has delivered to Afghanistan and other allies, and Beechcraft’s AT-6, a version of which the U.S. military already uses in pilot training.

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Air Force generals have discussed the proposal several times in recent weeks, saying that the planes could supplement existing aircraft, including drones, in regions where there is no enemy capable of shooting down U.S. planes. Gen. David L. Goldfein, the service’s top officer, said the proposal is part of an ongoing dialogue that dates back years and could soon include an experiment in which private companies demonstrate what the planes can do.

“I’m not interested in something that requires a lot of research and development here,” Goldfein said during a recent appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I’m looking for something that I can get at right now, commercial, off the shelf, low-cost, that can operate in an uncontested environment, that can deliver the capabilities that we need, that can also be something that perhaps our allies and partners that are in this fight with us” use.

Goldfein added: “If you assume this fight will be going on for a little bit of time, there is room and time for us to get after this.”

The experiment will follow related efforts in Iraq and the United States. In the most recent, U.S. Central Command deployed two Vietnam-era, twin-engine OV-10G Broncos on loan from NASA to Iraq in 2015, flying them in missions against the Islamic State to assess how light-attack planes might help in the air war.

The experiment was described by Navy Capt. Andy Walton in an article last year in Proceedings Magazine, a publication of the U.S. Naval Institute. He detailed one mission over Iraq in an OV-10G in which he and a colleague observed militants for hours as they traveled down the Tigris River in canoes, and then fired on them with laser-guided rockets.

The use of the planes was the latest step in a program called Combat Dragon II, which dates back nearly a decade and involves Special Operations Command. Goldfein cited it recently, noting that some testing was carried out when he was the commander of Air Forces Central Command from August 2011 to July 2013. One of his bosses at the time was Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, now defense secretary, who supported the program as chief of U.S. Central Command.

The Air Force published a paper in 2008 that identified the need for a plane that could carry out both attacks and aerial observation. It called the plane “OA-X” and said continued reliance on other aircraft, ranging from the B-1 bomber to the F-16, at “rates that are much higher than planned and programmed” would wear them out.

The Air Force, the paper said, “faces a critical gap in its ability to conduct air support for extended periods in the Long War,” a reference to counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations worldwide. It recommended that the aircraft should have an armored protection for the crew and engine, missile warnings and countermeasures, among other features.

Air Force officials estimate that the cost of flying a propeller plane like the A-29 or AT-6 would be a few thousand dollars per hour. In comparison, it costs about $18,000 per hour to fly the A-10 attack jet. Other hourly costs are: $19,000 for the F-16; $24,000 for the F-15E; $42,000 for the F-35A; $44,000 for the AC-130J; $62,000 for the F-22A; $63,000 for the B-52; $77,000 for the B-1B; and $120,000 for the B-2, according to service statistics.

The light-attack effort has new momentum in part because one of its chief critics in Congress, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has shifted his opinion on the U.S. military experimenting with the aircraft. In 2011, he criticized research the Navy wanted to do for Combat Dragon as unnecessary because of the existence of the A-10, the slow-moving jet that has long carried out close-air support for U.S. troops in combat. At the time, light-attack planes were seen as a potential replacement for at least some A-10s, which McCain has long championed.

However, the service, which once said it would retire all 283 snub-nose “Warthogs” to save an estimated $4.2 billion, now plans to keep them because of their utility in the fight against the Islamic State. McCain said in a recent report titled “Restoring American Power” that the Air Force should not only keep its A-10s but also buy 300 “low-cost, light-attack fighters that would require minimal work to develop.” The planes could carry out counterterrorism operations, perform close-air support and help to season pilots as the Air Force addresses its pilot shortfall, the report said.

The shortfall has become an increasing problem as pilots leave the military at a rate that Goldfein and then-Air Force Secretary Deborah James declared a crisis last summer. Data released to The Washington Post showed there were about 723 fighter pilot vacancies in the service among 3,495 jobs, leaving 21 percent unfilled.

The Air Force has attributed the shortage to recruiting by the commercial airline industry; frequent deployments keeping pilots away from their families; and a reduction in stateside training amid budget constraints. It says it sees the new light-attack plane as an inexpensive way to get entry-level military pilots into planes as quickly as possible.

“When they end their commitment at the end of 10 years, we’re losing a lot of them to the airlines,” said an Air Force official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive personnel matter. “Just to keep up … you have to match that exit every year in the production and seasoning of pilots. You’ve got to have cockpits for those pilots to go to to get that experience and seasoning after you do initial training.”

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