The U.S. Air Force is conducting a flight demonstration this summer to see how low-cost, mainly propeller-driven planes might contribute to its warfighting capabilities. The basic idea is that the service can save money by not flying jets, or at least high-end ones, against enemies like ISIS who lack air forces or air defenses. The program is designated OA-X, which in Air Force nomenclature means it is an experimental concept aimed at developing new approaches to ground attack and reconnaissance.
OA-X is a dumb idea that is going nowhere. It is 16 years late to need, and by the time it enters the force sometime in the next decade, there may not be a single place the Air Force is operating where a low, slow propeller plane can survive. Even terrorists will have shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, courtesy of our friends the Russians. So OA-X is a fantasy that speaks more to current fiscal stresses than future operational needs.
Nobody doubts that planes resembling World War II-vintage Thunderbolts are cheaper to operate than modern jet fighters. The reason armed forces around the world turned to jets two generations ago was because every aspect of their operational performance is superior to that of turboprops. If the Air Force had come up with the idea of using warmed-over Thunderbolts to fight rag-tag jihadists before 9-11, it might have looked smart. Now it just looks out of touch with reality. Here are five reasons why.
Undefended air space is disappearing. The places where U.S. combat air power will be most in demand during coming years are Eastern Europe, the Persian Gulf and the Western Pacific. Likely adversaries in all three places have advanced radars, smart surface-to-air missiles, and fighter jets that would make mincemeat of propeller-driven light attack planes. The so-called "permissive" air space where a prop plane could survive is giving way to heavily contested skies in which even jet fighters will have difficulty surviving if they are not stealthy.
We already have lots of ways to support troops on the ground. OA-X is usually mentioned in connection with providing close air support to troops on the ground, a mission that requires careful coordination because enemies are operating so near friendly forces. But the Air Force already has half a dozen different types of aircraft equipped for that mission, from the A-10 Thunderbolt II to the F-16 fighter to the AC-130 gunship to the B-1 bomber carrying smart bombs. All those planes are more survivable than the candidates for the OA-X role.
OA-X will drain money away from higher priorities. When Air Force officials say a light attack plane will save money, they mean after it is fielded. But that will take the better part of a decade, and in the meantime it will put added stress on the service budget. Several hundred airframes will need to be bought and modified. Pilots and maintainers will have to be trained. A spare parts inventory will need to be purchased. All of the money to cover these costs will likely come out of other programs the service has identified as urgent priorities.
Jets work better even in uncontested air space. Just because an enemy might lack air defenses doesn't mean a low, slow turboprop is the best way to provide close air support or tactical recon. The jets currently used for those missions get to the fight much faster, operate in any kind of weather, loiter longer over the battle area, carry bigger, more diverse bomb-loads, and can respond to a broader array of unanticipated developments. Sure the turboprops are cheaper, but you get what you pay for, and saving U.S. lives matters more than saving money.
The global war on terror is winding down. The joint force has spent 16 years wearing down militants in places like Iraq. ISIS is on the run and Al Qaeda is a fading memory. The only place where extremists still are operating successfully is Afghanistan, due to that country's unique disabilities. But America won't be in Afghanistan forever -- Trump is just as impatient as Obama about getting out -- and we have trained the Afghans to use light attack planes on their own. So OA-X is a backward-looking program both in terms of technology and threats.
There's a reason why the Air Force still doesn't have a program of record for developing a light attack plane after over a decade of studying the concept. The reason is that the case for moving forward is too shaky. Although it is possible to imagine circumstances in which a low, slow turboprop might be useful, it is also easy to imagine a world in which it is utterly useless.
Perhaps the solution here is to help overseas partners buy such a plane if they feel they need it, while the U.S. Air Force concentrates on the more challenging threats that lie ahead -- like assuring that U.S. ground forces in Europe have overhead air cover despite Russia's best efforts to deny it. That's the kind of mission where modern air power can make a real difference for warfighters and taxpayers alike.
Several companies with a stake in the outcome of the OA-X experiment contribute to my think tank. Some are consulting clients.