It's Time To Change the Way We Fight The Long War
The time has come to think differently about Close Air Support and the way our nation presents forces for the Long War. For nearly a decade, America has depended heavily on 4th generation aircraft to provide support to ground forces under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan, but a new capability exists which has the potential to increase the utility of airpower in Afghanistan while ultimately saving significant amounts of resources over the long term. Planners and commanders engaged in today’s fight, focused solely on fielding and leading an effective fighting force, have not fully appreciated the long-term costs of continually using 4th generation aircraft in the Counterinsurgency (COIN) effort.
Unfortunately, this focus on short-term effectiveness is eroding the long-term endurance for our advanced aircraft, and over time will deplete our nation’s capability to deliver critical airpower during future regional conflicts. If fielded now, however, a manned Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) turboprop aircraft may offer a readily-available capability to provide responsive support for commanders engaged throughout Afghanistan, and at the same time help preserve precious USAF legacy airframes over the long haul.
LAAR aircraft offer the joint community an opportunity to balance the current force of advanced aircraft (heavily-weighted towards major theater operations) with an intermediate type which could complement them in Afghanistan, and then ultimately replace them to serve on their own as ISAF reduces its mission over time. Armed with a 500-pound class precision weapon, a gun, laser-guided missiles, and equipped with manpad-defeating countermeasures and a laser targeting pod with sensor downlink, these cockpit-armored two-person aircraft would operate from austere fields using minimum footprint.
Light on requirements for personnel, fuel, and infrastructure, 250+ knot LAAR aircraft would balance the force, bridging the gap between currently employed fast-air CAS platforms and attack helicopters with a responsive manned platform. Faster and higher than attack helicopters, more fuel efficient than fighter and bomber aircraft, and more versatile than remotely piloted vehicles, LAAR aircraft could strengthen a counterinsurgency effort by providing armed overwatch and lethal fires when needed for a maneuvering force on the ground.
Command and Control of these platforms would be maintained by the air component, facilitating theater support and rapid transfer of these assets across regional boundaries when needed for quickly-changing combat or weather conditions. At the same time, bed-down at dispersed locations may allow crews to coordinate closely with ground commanders nearby their airfields. Using unimproved runways, these aircraft could serve as a quick reaction force, responding rapidly to nearby combat emergencies, reducing response times to support troops in contact with the enemy. With ample fuel for missions exceeding four hours, sortie durations would approach those of current fast-air CAS platforms, yet not require repeated aerial refueling and the logistics chain associated with the provision of extensive fuel supplies. When used in a low-threat COIN environment, these aircraft have the potential to provide most of the capabilities our fourth generation aircraft now deliver at a fraction of the cost and logistics trail.
If fielded soon, LAAR platforms could immediately begin to improve COIN operations in Afghanistan, as ISAF increases its force number by well over 30,000 troops during summer 2010. Given the nature of COIN, it is likely that these US and ISAF forces will remain engaged in Afghanistan for some time, as F-15E, F-16, F-18, A-10, and B-1 CAS platforms continue the same full-bore 24-hour operations they have supported for years. Today, all CAS assets in theater are being tasked to their full extent, yet daily demand continues to exceed supply. Additional LAAR aircraft, if added to the mix, could supplement currently available CAS assets over Afghanistan and dramatically improve efficiencies in CAS/armed overwatch response due to the capability these airframes would bring to their specific regions of the fight. Equipped with the latest low-collateral-damage munitions, LAAR would bring precision and pin-point fires, allowing more troops to carry out effective patrols in and among the Afghan population.
If placed carefully, these new assets could save lives in north and west Afghanistan during urgent calls for fire. CAS platforms have consistently arrived overhead to support engaged troops within acceptable time periods over the most combat-intensive regions of Afghanistan. However, In North and West Afghanistan, the response times have sometimes been excessive. Since the preponderance of CAS assets are allocated to the more critical fights in the south and east, when troops in the west and north have required CAS, fighters with an accompanying tanker have been redirected immediately to transit towards the fight. Even at nearly supersonic speeds, travel time from their positions in the south and east to emergencies near the Iranian border has sometimes taken more than 30 minutes. LAAR aircraft, if based at Herat or Shindand airfields, could slash response times during urgent CAS situations in these regions.
Whether they are providing lethal fires during an emergency or video downlink, manned LAAR platforms would serve a crucial role in the COIN environment. Although Remotely Piloted Vehicles have demonstrated great effectiveness during operations over both Iraq and Afghanistan, a manned LAAR platform could offer several advantages over these unmanned aircraft. Lost links, saturated bandwidth, and weather (ceilings and crosswinds) are significant factors which significantly impede RPV performance, while manned aircraft are much less affected by these limitations. And as our new Liberty ISR aircraft pilots have found while operating in the terrain and weather challenges of northeast Afghanistan, LAAR pilots would have the capability to root their way around weather and mountains in a way remote operators can’t, providing direct downlink for the ground commander in most situations without RPV-constraining datalink limitations. When troops are under fire, there is no substitute for a man, overhead, in the loop, empowered to provide both informed overwatch and immediate close air support. A Light Attack/ISR aircraft could provide this capability with minimum development time.
Although some might stand against such an additional capability today, arguing that current COIN doctrine strives for fewer kinetics across the theater, the reality is that demonstrations of visible airpower in support of troop movements on the ground has been shown to reassure the people of Afghanistan and Iraq while reducing levels of insurgent activity against friendly forces. Low-altitude shows of force and shows of presence across the zone of conflict have consistently defused escalating hostilities. Additional LAAR assets could provide more of this airpower capability throughout Afghanistan, strengthening our current COIN strategy.
For the short term, operations in Afghanistan will continue to demand high-performance combat aircraft due to the need for heavyweight weapons. Over time, however, presence of LAAR airframes in Afghanistan might potentially facilitate an exit strategy as part of a phased withdrawal process. As the counterinsurgency matures, LAAR could join these legacy CAS platforms across the country in a complementary way, first working alongside US F-15E/F-16/F-18, A-10, and B-1s, then remaining in Afghanistan as the fourth generation assets rotate home. As the need for current levels of firepower decreases over time, presence of these light aircraft would continue to provide visible support to decreasing numbers of ISAF forces in Afghanistan during the drawdown. Concurrently, instructors in these aircraft could partner with Afghans as the Afghan National Army Air Corps (ANAAC) grows into its own. These aircraft could become a means of instruction and confidence as the Government of Afghanistan develops its self-sufficiency, which after all, serves the coalition’s ultimate goals.
So if LAAR can be so useful for the near and mid-term fight in Afghanistan, why hasn't a Joint Urgent Operational Need (JUON) for such an aircraft been issued from Afghanistan?
Many factors have combined to prevent OEF and ISAF commanders from sending a requirement for such a capable aircraft in theater, resulting in what is effectively causing a suppressed demand signal for this type of capability. The real answer comes down to a simple difference in focus between short term effectiveness and long term efficiency. Commanders involved in today’s fight are interested only in performance: How effective are the assets available to them in theater today? They have no compelling need to think of the long-term drain their current requirements put on the force, nor are they concerned with inefficiencies created by using our fuel-intensive, highest-performing airframes which get the job done well for them in most parts of the country.
Years of inertia using these national assets and attack helicopters have made it difficult for commanders to think of performing the mission any other way, and a paradigm shift isn’t likely to occur when it involves developing a new construct for aircraft not currently in the inventory. Leaders in Afghanistan don’t know what they’re missing, aren’t concerned about long-term efficiency, and therefore haven’t asked for this LAAR capability, despite that fact that these platforms could quite responsively balance the force and fill a gap between their organic close combat attack helicopters and the fast-air CAS on which they have become dependent. Furthermore, while combat ground commanders have focused on the counterinsurgency, analysts back home have faced a severely constrained budget with little room for new acquisition initiatives. While the LAAR concept could enable our nation to sustain the extended fight much more efficiently over the long term, no driver exists in theater to initiate the requirement because 4th generation aircraft and helicopters are filling most of the need today, although at great cost in national treasure.
Additionally, the force cap of 98,000 troops has driven combat planners to limit the number of airmen in theater to the absolute minimum required, in favor of increasing the number of infantry personnel available for interaction with Afghans throughout the country. Planners are actively looking to reduce the number of forces in some areas to enable increases elsewhere. In large part due to General McCrystal's emphasis of boots-on-the-ground throughout Afghanistan, any idea of strengthening the number of aircraft, aircrews, and maintainers within theater has been a non-starter in these discussions. Combined, all these conditions in Afghanistan have made it difficult to think differently about airpower in a way that deviates from the existing methods of employment. Therefore, in order to prepare for changes in the coming fight, airmen must anticipate effects which will be needed over the course of the Long War, and take action to generate a requirement to provide airpower capabilities which can respond to these forthcoming needs.
THE LONG WAR
Today, our nation is using 4th Generation aircraft quite heavily in the COIN fight, providing a perpetual umbrella of air support over Afghanistan as it accelerates their very retirement due to high usage rates. Fourth generation fighter and bomber airframes, providing 24/7 coverage over Afghanistan to cover ground troops during unexpected contact with the enemy, are flying combat missions which last more than four times their normal duration during peacetime. These aircraft have returned to theater in a cyclic way, serving over Iraq and Afghanistan since 1991. Accordingly, their constant use over many years of combat and COIN engagement is now threatening these airframes' ability to be present for duty alongside F-22 and the critical forthcoming F-35 for a future regional conflict. In our current fiscally-constrained environment, a logical imperative would be to find a way to preserve the combat airframes we have now for service over the next 20 years.
To be prudent, our nation should remove these national assets from the COIN fight as soon as possible during the transition to stability operations in Afghanistan, and by reducing their combat fatigue, save them for the roles in which they are best suited, and for which our nation will need them during unforeseen crises.
Ironically, the same fiscally-constrained environment which may prevent eventual replacement for these legacy combat airframes after years of long-duration missions is the same penny-pinching atmosphere which could make it difficult to fund their lower-cost replacements for the current COIN fight. As current programs appear on the chopping block due to severe budget constraints, leaders might understandably find it hard to justify the creation of a new platform like the LAAR. Regardless of its short-term costs, however, the resources it might save the joint community over the long term make it worthy of serious consideration.
LAAR aircraft have the potential to provide a substantial cost savings over current methods of providing CAS/ISR support in theater. One hour of fuel to support F-15E operations in Afghanistan could provide roughly 40 hours of operations for LAAR aircraft. F-15E aircraft currently fly well more than 1,440 hours per month (assuming two-ships flying 24-hour operations) in support of OEF/ISAF Close Air Support requirements, driving a need for over 18 million pounds of fuel monthly which is provided in part by a continuous overhead air refueling presence at several air refueling orbits employing tanker aircraft from three countries. Furthermore, trucks convoys ship in tons of fuel daily to support these flight operations, crossing four Afghan border checkpoints around the clock in a continuous stream of fuel into Afghanistan. Although it's not yet time to make such a transition, notionally substituting a squadron of LAAR aircraft for an equal number F-15Es for just one month could save over $16.7 million in fuel costs, or over $200 million per year. F-16s, F-18s, A-10s, and B-1s use fuel in a similar way, making the total amount and cost of providing 24/7 Close Air Support in Afghanistan a truly staggering figure.
Despite up-front acquisition costs, over time these airframes could at some near point begin to pay for themselves. Sometimes, efficiency has an effectiveness all its own, as long as our troops are covered when they are taking enemy fire. It’s time to field a method to deliver an appropriate level of close air support that doesn’t deplete our combat assets and national treasure over the extended duration of this fight.
Eventually, the Long War will transition away from Afghanistan, but it is likely to continue in intense, unforeseen developments throughout other regions of the globe - most of which are occupied by governments which have limited means, will have no infrastructure to support current US fighters - but who need American support in the form of combat capability an American LAAR aircraft could provide. It doesn't take a crystal ball to see that zones of future conflict could stretch across portions of the Middle East, Africa, South America and the rugged areas of the Pacific.
America would be foolish to plan its entire airpower future based on our current Long War construct of immense fuel supplies, long runways, and extensive infrastructure. Instead, planners should consider balancing our force of critical 4th and 5th generation aircraft by supplementing them with light attack aircraft which can concurrently serve national interests. LAAR can operate off dirt strips, park in the grass, and be maintained, refueled, and rearmed with precision weapons by a few specialists and a truck. With the smallest of footprints and the easiest of logistics requirements, the tooth to tail ratio of this kind of aircraft is perfectly suited to the realities of America's Long War which will be fought globally over the next 20 years.
THE WAY AHEAD
By summer 2010, ISAF and the United States will be fully immersed in the most important war of our time, which will continue with a global focus well beyond 2011. If prioritized now, these promising aircraft may offer an improved combat capability for commanders in Afghanistan, saving America's legacy airframe types while at the same time helping to build critical partnerships with global allies in support of our national interests.
Coordination should begin with ISAF planners to highlight this developing capability and the unique features it offers both for the long-term fight, and for our exit strategy. Fielding these as soon as possible in one or more airframe types at dispersed locations throughout Afghanistan, beginning in the west and north, could provide shorter response times for troops in enemy contact. Specifically, four aircraft each at Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Jalalabad could start the bed-down effort, with 2-3 others dedicated to float as required among those or other fields, augmenting as required for maintenance, aircraft carrier absence, etc. Tactics, techniques, and procedures should be developed by aircrew with recent CAS experience in Afghanistan while partnering mentors could begin the process of passing combat lessons to Afghan pilots as the first of many allies who might employ this capable platform.
LAAR aircraft could receive the same emphasis our nation has placed on mine-resistant vehicles, Liberty ISR aircraft, and remotely-piloted ISR vehicles. Their basing and cost advantages can support the current fight in ways existing CAS and armed overwatch platforms can’t, while their low-collateral, precision munitions capability gives them the potential to become immediately effective in Afghanistan. This type of platform immediately supports General McCrystal's COIN strategy, because it can prevent loss of American lives during armed overwatch missions, and protect ground forces under attack with immediately responsive fires. But most significantly, over the long term, these aircraft will contribute to a more financially sustainable presence, both in Afghanistan and across the world as America continues its engagement against our global enemy over the next two decades.
Col James Jinnette, 20 March 2010