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Too Little for Too Much? Or A Lot for A Little? The Air Force OA-X Light-Attack Program

By Nigel Mease

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Since July 31, 2017, the United States Air Force (USAF) has been testing the abilities of a “light attack” aircraft to more effectively manage its operating costs by better tailoring the force for low-in- tensity operations.1 While the air force recently announced that the start of the competition for the OA-X contract has been postponed indefinitely, the two aircraft that had been under consideration were the Sierra Nevada/Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and the Textron/Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine.2,3,4 The ad- dition of one of these aircraft is intended to reduce wear on the fleet of fifth-generation fighters (air- craft such as the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, which possess stealth qualities as well as advanced flight and weapons systems).5 This program, designated OA-X, has generated significant debate surrounding the feasibility of safely using small propeller driven aircraft in combat zones. This discussion will provide and examination of the advantages and disadvan- tages of the OA-X program in comparison to the current USAF force structure.

Critics’ arguments against the OA-X program can be synthesized into three main points. First, some postulate that the aircraft under consideration are too vulnerable in a world of increasing air defenses as the United States is supposed to be transition- ing away from low-intensity conflict to great power competition per the 2018 Na- tional Defense Strategy.6 The OA-X is designed for situations of low-intensity conflict where the opposition engages in combat below the level of conventional war, such as the conflicts the United States has been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In these situations, air-to-air threats are non-existent and ground-based air defenses are min- imal as well.7 Some individuals have questioned whether such largely uncontested airspace, even in low-intensity conflict areas, would exist in the future or indeed if it exists today, citing as evidence the downing of a Russian Su-25 jet over Syria (consid- ered a low-intensity conflict zone by the United States) on February 3, 2018 and the downing of a Jordanian F-16, also over Syria, in December 2015.8,9

These examples, however, neither prove that uncontested airspace is vanishing nor diminish the potential usefulness or survivability of the OA-X aircraft in situations of low-intensity conflict. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) contested the notion that the F-16 crash resulted from ground action by ISIS. And while the case of the Su-25 was indeed connected to a Man Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS), it should be noted that U.S. Marines with Stinger MANPADS were unable to get locks onto A-29s (one of the two planes being considered for OA-X) participating in the 2016 Green Flag exercise in Nevada.11,12 This demonstration, coupled with the successful operations carried out by Afghan A-29 Super Tucanos without the loss of an aircraft since February 2018, illustrates that the OA-X is survivable even in a somewhat contested aerial environment within a low-intensity conflict.13,14 The heavily defended airspace that could be expected in a more high-intensity con- flict is not the environment for which the OA-X aircraft are intended. The United States has not engaged in a conventional war since 1991, and it’s unlikely that the United States will completely abandon military assistance missions supporting governments against insurgent opposition in low-intensity scenarios. Within the realm of high-intensity warfare, the advanced fourth- and fifth-generation fighters will be reoriented towards more competitive aerial combat zones, the very conditions the planes were designed to operate and dominate in.15 In a high-intensity conventional war, a small fleet of OA-X aircraft can assist in possible counter-in- surgency operations behind the forward lines, allowing aircraft like the A-10 and F-35 to conduct operations in the higher threat environments.

The second argument against the OA-X program is that the USAF already has close-air-support (CAS) and ground attack capable aircraft.16 The USAF can use its fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, such as the multi-role F-16, F-15, and F-35, to conduct CAS missions.17 It also has a fleet of the CAS and ground attack purpose-built A-10s which carry a well-deserved reputation as a formidable and strong ground-attack aircraft.18 All of these jets have the ability to carry more or- dinance that the OA-X aircraft and have a much higher speed.19 The MQ-9 Reaper drone is yet another possible contender for use in low-intensity conflict, carrying more ordinance than the OA-X competitors, but is slower than both.20 The MQ-9 has the added bonus of being unmanned and not risking the life of the pilot in conflict. While both the AT-6 and A-29 can loiter over a combat area for prolonged periods of time compared to the jet counterparts, even the A-10, the MQ-9 has the longest loiter time of any of the aircraft.21 It is worth noting, however, that the MQ-9 is also the most susceptible to cyber-attacks and electronic warfare.22,23

The third and final argument against the OA-X program is that its cost would be too high at a time when the air force should be putting funds towards moderniza- tion of the force.24 The OA-X program, however, has its greatest strength in giving the air force a low-cost per flying hour alternative to the other aircraft in the fleet while maintaining a CAS capability. In a highly publicized incident in November 2017, an F-22 Raptor, though not a designated CAS platform, was used to strike a Taliban drug lab in Afghanistan.25 The cost per flying hour of the F-22 hovers at around $70,000, meaning at bare minimum with only one hour of flight time the United States spent $70,000 to destroy a drug lab.26 This incident is not represent- ative of all the CAS options the USAF possesses but demonstrates a strength of the OA-X program. For comparison, the F-15 is $40,000, the F-16 is $23,000, and the A-10 is $20,000 per flying hour.27 Notably, the cost per flying hour of the A-29 is $1,000, and the trainer version of the AT-6 comes in at $2,500.28 These are even lower than the MQ-9’s per hour cost of $3,624.29, 30 In addition, the Senate Armed Services Committee under Senator John McCain in 2017 requested $1.2 billion over five years to purchase up to 300 OA-X aircraft.31 This same amount of appropriations funding would cover about 10 F-35s using the unit cost of a single F-35 aircraft or 52 MQ-9s accord- ing to the USAF FY2019 budget.32,33
The OA-X program offers a versatile means of providing a low-intensity capability to compliment the current high-intensity structure of the USAF.
The OA-X program offers a versatile means of providing a low-intensity capability to compliment the current high-intensity structure of the USAF. While the air force does possess CAS capable aircraft which have many superior characteristics compared to the OA-X aircraft, these characteristics come at a massive cost. The OA-X offers a low-cost alternative, in both up-front and operating costs, as compared to other aircraft in the USAF fleet, especially for operations in situations where the use of the more expensive aircraft is not necessary. OA-X aircraft can also keep the usage of high-intensity aircraft down while simultaneously giving the USAF a platform from which it can still conduct CAS missions within short notice and a platform which is survivable in low-intensity conflict situations. The OA-X program gives the United States the ability to better combat its adversaries at a time of fiscal constraints and continuing conflict.

Nigel Mease is a former research intern for Defense Budget Analysis in the International Security Program at CSIS.

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