May 6, 2017: The U.S. Air Force, faced with tight budgets and overwhelming evidence that smart bombs and UAVs get the job done more effectively and cheaper than manned aircraft are looking at obtaining new version of Vietnam War era ground attack aircraft like the OV-10 and the A-1 Skyraider (nicknamed “Spad”, after a famous World War I fighter). The A-1 was one of the inspirations for the 1970s A-10 but was a lot cheaper to build and operate and quite effective before cheap smart bombs became widely available. The A-1 was the most popular ground support aircraft during the 1960s. Developed at the end of World War II, the A-1 was an 11 ton, single seat, propeller driven aircraft that carried 3.5 tons of bombs and four 20mm autocannon. The four 20mm cannon could, altogether, fire 40 rounds a second. Cruising speed was 320 kilometers an hour (versus 560 for the A-10), and the average sortie was about four hours (a little longer than the A-10). The A-10 could go as slow as 220 kilometers an hour, which was nearly as slow as the A-1 could manage but the A-10 had a max speed of 700 kilometers an hour, more than a third faster than the A-1.
The OV-10 is a 6.5 ton, twin prop aircraft that could carry over two tons of weapons and stay in the air for three hours per sortie. Wingspan is 40 feet (12.2 meters), and length is 41.6 feet (12.7 meters). The first one was delivered to the U.S. Air Force, for use in Vietnam, in 1968. The last one was produced (for export to Indonesia) in 1976. The U.S. Air Force and Marines were the primary users of OV-10s, and the last of these was retired, by the marines, in 1994. Over a hundred were exported to Germany, Thailand, Colombia, Venezuela and Indonesia. Several dozen of these are still in use out of over 300 manufactured. In Vietnam, the OV-10 was used more for reconnaissance and directing air and artillery strikes, than in using its own firepower. But that’s what irregular warfare was all about, finding an elusive enemy, and killing him. That’s what the OV-10 was designed to do, and did it well.
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Resurrecting the OV-10 or a new A-1 is a side effect of the success the air force has had with large UAVs, especially the Predator. Prop driven aircraft are much cheaper to operate than jets. A Predator costs less than a tenth, per hour in the air than the F-16. The OV-10 provide similar economies, especially since it could also carry lightweight (128-227 kg) GPS guided JDAM bombs and 50 kg (205 pound) Hellfire missiles or similar smaller (25 kg) missiles. Smart bombs and guided make aircraft like the OV-10 and A-1 a lot more useful, and economical. The OV-10 could also carry a targeting pod, like the Sniper XR, which weighs about 205 kg (450 pounds). This gives the aircraft superb reconnaissance capability, backed by smart bombs and guided missiles to immediately attack targets found. The trouble is these manned aircraft are facing competition from more capable UAVs. Then there is the problem of replacing the popular A-10 ground attack aircraft, which is a Cold War era design that turned out to be the most popular ground support aircraft, at least for the ground troops. The air force has been trying to get rid of the A-10 and eventually was resigned to maintaining the trusty old “hog” for as long as they can (another decade or two at least). But the experience with the A-10, especially after it was upgraded to handle JDAM and laser guided missile, got people thinking.
Cost was not the only problem. Since the 1990s the kinds of wars the United States has been involved with involve more surveillance than actual use of weapons. In fact, since 2001 only about seven percent of sorties resulted in a weapon being used. When you make that adjustment the ability of a heavy bomber (B-1B or B-52) to carry a lot of smart bombs backfires, because most, if not all, of those bombs will return unused. While an F-16 carries fewer bombs or missiles, it is still more expensive per flight hour to operate (about $23,000 versus $58,000 for the B-1B). Even the A-10 costs about $18,000 per flight hour. A UAV like Predator or Reaper costs one to three thousand dollars an hour. The smaller aircraft or UAVs become more than 90 percent cheaper to use. This was a major embarrassment for the fans of big bombers and fast jets.
It got worse in Iraq and Afghanistan where the U.S. successfully adapted civilian aircraft like the Cessna Caravan 208B and Air Tractor AT-802 to use laser guided missiles. This arrangement was cheap and easy to use, which suited allies like the Afghans and Arabs (not just the Iraqis). The 208B is a large, single engine, aircraft that is mainly used to carry up to 14 passengers or 1.3 tons of cargo. The four ton 208B has a cruising speed of 317 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for about six hours per sortie. The 208 has been in service since the mid-1980s and over 2,000 have been built. New ones cost about $2 million each but there are lots of much cheaper used 208Bs out there. It was found that equipping 208Bs with laser targeting equipment and two Hellfires it was very effective at providing ground support.
Even more effective was a militarized crop duster, the Air Tractor AT-802. Cruising speed of the AT-802 is 356 kilometers an hour and endurance is about three hours. The militarized version has lightweight armor around the cockpit and key components. There was also a bulletproof windscreen. The frame was strengthened to give the aircraft a useful life of 12,000 hours in the air. It can carry military sensors (like the Sniper XR targeting pod) as well as a variety of weapons. These include the GAU-19 three-barrel 12.7mm machine-gun, the M260 launcher (for seven 70mm unguided or laser guided rockets), Hellfire laser guided missiles and the Mk 82 227 kg (500 pound) bomb. Militarized commercial aircraft like the 208B or Air Tractor are more like a UAV when it comes to flight hour cost.
Now the air force is conducting a search for what they call OA-X. This is to be an inexpensive dual use (training/attack) aircraft. The air force would prefer a jet, and many new jet trainers are designed with this alternate attack duty in mind. Some new aircraft, like Scorpion, have been designed for the competition but there are existing aircraft like the AT-6C that can do the job. Non-jets like the A-29 Super Tucano are also proposed. While the 208B and AT-802 are OK for impoverished allies, the American aviation leaders want something more, well, presentable.
Aircraft the U.S. is looking for are usually armed trainers, either powered by jets or turbo-props. The Brazilian A29 Super Tucano already has most of the market for such warplanes. This five ton, single engine, single seat aircraft was built for pilot training, but also performs quite well for counter-insurgency work. The Super Tucano is basically a prop driven trainer that is equipped for combat missions. The aircraft can carry up to 1.5 tons of weapons, including 12.7mm machine-guns, bombs and missiles. The aircraft cruises at about 500 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for about 6.5 hours per sortie. One of the options is a FLIR (infrared radar that produces a photo realistic video image in any weather) and a fire control system for bombing. Several nations are using the Super Tucanos for counter-insurgency work. The aircraft is also used for border patrol. The Super Tucano costs $9 million each, and come in one or two seat versions. The bubble canopy provides excellent visibility. This, coupled with its slow speed (versus jets), makes it an excellent ground attack aircraft.
The South Korean FA-50 is the combat version of the locally designed and manufactured T-50 jet trainer. This aircraft was developed since 2000, at a cost of over two billion dollars. The first test flight of the T-50 took place in 2002. The 13 ton aircraft is actually a light fighter and can fly at supersonic speeds. With some added equipment (radars and fire control) the T-50 becomes the FA-50, a combat aircraft. This version carries a 20mm auto-cannon and up to 4.5 tons of smart bombs and missiles. The T-50 can stay in the air about four hours per sortie and has a service life of 8,000 hours in the air. American manufacturers quickly developed jet trainers like the Scorpion but cheaper alternatives like FA-50 and A-29 may have more operational experience but there is a strong aversion to buying foreign aircraft.
Another reason the U.S. military are seriously investigating aircraft like this because money has become a big issue these days. If you currently have jet fighters and bombers spending over 10,000 hours a year over Afghanistan and Iraq, at a cost of over $40,000 an hour, when you could have OV-10s do it for a few thousand dollars an hour, what would you do? We’re talking some serious money here, and the air force, and even the navy (which used dozens of OV-10s off carriers during the Vietnam War) is definitely interested. But the air force would rather put more money into UAVs, which they believe can do everything a manned, prop driven aircraft can, and more (no crew risk, higher endurance). Better sensors and greater reliability have eliminated one of the major advantages of manned COIN aircraft.
It’s become popular to depict American UAVs as some kind of super weapon and a danger to world peace. Anyone who understands how modern warplanes operate knows this is not true, but the mass media and many politicians who find it useful to follow whatever idea the mass media is behind have created a fictional reality in which UAVs do unspeakable things that are unique in human history.
The facts are more mundane. UAVs (and inexpensive trainers and commercial aircraft) can use the same sensors (high-res video cameras and night vision all with zoom) as fighter aircraft and the same guided weapons as well. By 2007 the U.S. Air Force recognized this and began sending its new MQ-9 Reaper UAVs to Afghanistan and Iraq, not as reconnaissance aircraft, but as replacements for F-16 and F-15 fighter-bombers. While the manned aircraft can carry five or six times as many bombs as a Reaper, this does not matter when you are using guided weapons. The Reaper can carry up to four 228 kg (500 pound) JDAM smart bombs. While over 300 JDAMs were dropped per day during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, by 2007 the average number per day was, at most, 3-4 bombs. More JDAMs were dropped in Afghanistan, but even there, half a dozen a day, over the entire country, was a lot. Thus a half a dozen Reapers can easily replace half a dozen F-16s or F-15s. This saves a lot of money, as the two man crews for the Reaper (pilot and sensor operator) are back in the United States, and operate the UAVs via a satellite link. The UAVs have a major advantage over manned fighter-bombers, in that they can stay over the target area longer, and do so with relief crews, so that there are always alert eyes using the powerful sensors (similar to the targeting pods on fighters) carried by the Reaper. The major disadvantage of the Reaper is its slow speed (about 500 kilometers an hour). Speed is a factor if you have a situation develop on the ground somewhere, and warplanes have to be rushed in. For that reason, some “fast movers” (jet fighters and heavy bombers) remained in Iraq and Afghanistan, ready to rush to an emergency at twice the speed of a UAV.
While the earlier Predator was a reconnaissance aircraft that could carry weapons (two Hellfire missiles, each weighing a 38 kg/106 pounds), the Reaper was designed as a combat aircraft that also does reconnaissance. The Reaper can carry over a ton of GBU-54 GPS/laser guided 228 kg bombs, as well as the 114 kg (250 pound) SDB, or the even lighter missiles. There is even a version of the Hellfire missile (Brimstone) developed in Britain and now selling to many other air forces.
The Predators cost, fully equipped, about a fifth of what an F-16 does while the Reaper goes for about a third of what the F-16 costs. The Reaper can only stay in the air for up to 24 hours, versus 40 hours for the Predator. But experience has shown that few missions require even 24 hours endurance. For that reason, the air force decided not to give the Reaper an inflight refueling capability. The Reaper carries sensors equal to those found in targeting pods like the Sniper XL or Litening, and flies at the same altitude of most fighters using those pods. This makes the Reaper immune to most ground fire, and capable of seeing, and attacking, anything down there. All at a third of the price of a manned fighter aircraft and even lower cost per flight hour (about a tenth of what it costs to keep an F-16 up there).
The targeting pods, packed with electronics and sensors, are very popular with fighter pilots, mainly because they contain FLIR (video quality night vision infrared radar) and TV cameras that enable pilots flying at 6,200 meters (20,000 feet) to clearly make out what is going on down on the ground. The pods also contain laser designators for laser guided bombs and laser range finders that enable pilots to get coordinates for JDAM (GPS guided) bombs. Safely outside the range of most anti-aircraft fire (six kilometers up and up to fifty kilometers away) pilots can literally see the progress of ground fighting and have even been acting as aerial observers for ground forces. These capabilities also enable pilots to more easily find targets themselves and hit them with laser guided or JDAM bombs.
In effect, a fighter pilot in an F-16 has the same capabilities as a UAV. Both have someone flying the aircraft who can see clearly what is on the ground and launch a smart bomb or missile to hit what they see. The only difference is that the UAVs all have a two person crew (pilot and senor operator watching what the camera trained on the ground sees). While the F-16 pilot has to fly his aircraft as well as look at the video display of what the targeting pod sees, larger fighters like the F-15E have a crew of two, with the same crew arrangement as UAVs. The U.S. also installed targeting pods on heavy bombers (B-1 and B-52) where the crew arrangement is similar to UAVs.
While the UAV stays in the air longer than fighters or bombers that is mainly because of pilot fatigue. An F-16 can (with aerial refueling) stay in the air as long as a UAV but the pilot would wear out after six or so hours of flying and using the targeting pod. The UAVs change “crews” every six hours, something fighter pilots can’t do unless they land. But the UAV crew and the fighter or bomber crew see the same images of what is on the ground and often launch the same weapons to attack the target.
The targeting pod grade sensors are also used in smaller aircraft and UAVs and are the result of smaller and more capable electronics being made available in the 1990s and later. But the military does not like to buy a lot of inexpensive aircraft, which was one reason why the armed Predator was first used in combat by the CIA and that forced the military to pay attention. If there is another major war the cost and speed (of manufacture and delivery) advantage of unconventional bombers like crop dusters (Air Tractor), trainers or light commercial aircraft of all sorts will force the issue. Until then the military and the politicians who vote to provide the money prefer the high-end stuff.