The Air Force Needs More Than 300 Light Attack Aircraft—Now.
Lowering flight-hour costs later in the long war isn’t the main issue.
Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein agrees that Sen. John McCain’s recommendation for “300 low-cost, light-attack fighters” is a “great idea.” Analysts have noted several merits including stemming the decline in platform numbers, improving dwell times over target areas, lower flight hour costs, and more stick time for USAF pilots. These are good things. But the real issue is the substantial ongoing attrition of 4th-generation airframes that will only partially be mitigated by the light-attack fighters after they’ve arrived in inventory. That’s why we need them now.
The light-attack-fighter idea is indeed great, but it is still just a suggestion. It is also just a possible Air Force plan, which will thus not fully unburden Navy and Marine Corps tactical avaiation. Each service has its specialties, particularly in the missions and phasing for the early days of a new operation. However, history shows that once a war (usually a “small war”) matures to stasis over a number of years, each service is both expected and wants to participate, regardless of its “big war” roles, specialties, and tacit raison d’être. So, if the USAF of the future brings its low-cost, light attack fighters to the long war, we can expect that 4th-generation and probably 5th-generation Navy and Marine strike aircraft will be there too.
Following from the conventional wisdom that we are in a long war—as General Goldfein estimated, “we're 15 years into a long campaign in the Middle East”—we can plausibly estimate that tomorrow, next year, and perhaps ten years from now will be similar to today. What has been our recent level of effort?
The Department of Defense (DoD) has shown a relatively open kimono regarding its activities, at least at a high-level, in Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the campaign against ISIS. The DoD has been a little less transparent regarding ongoing operations in Afghanistan, and apparently only episodic operations in Libya. US fighters, bombers, and armed drones have operated in each of these theaters. Recently, Defense One estimated the number of U.S. airstrikes conducted in 2016 at over 26,000. Back in 2015, Senator John McCain asserted that only about 25 percent of our sorties resulted in airstrikes, a claim which at least one fact-checking source corroborated. By the military’s working definition, “a strike” means at least one aircraft employing one munition, but possible several aircraft employing several munitions, “in roughly the same geographic location to produce a single, sometimes cumulative effect for that location.” To get to OIR targets in Syria and Iraq, we know that American aircraft often have fairly lengthy enroute flights to get from operating airbases in, for example, the Persian Gulf States or from aircraft carriers when the US Navy has one stationed in the Gulf. US combat aircraft also fly from Turkey. Without knowing the proportion of operations out of the various operating airfield, we can estimate that the round trip flight times to target areas in northern Iraq and Syria are about five to seven hours from the Gulf and two to four hours from Turkey.
Though this is all ambiguous, we can make some sense from the information above, and make a few reasonable assumptions:
- Our tomorrow in the long war, through the year 2022 for example, will be much like today.
- Most of the aircraft performing strikes are 4th-generation tactical aircraft: A-10s, AV-8Bs, F-15s, F-16s, and F-18s. Let’s assume that 75 percent of the strikes are from tactical aviation and the rest are from armed drones, gunships, F-22s, and bombers.
- 25 percent of the US strikes are sourced from Turkish airfields and 75 percent from the Gulf, for a very approximate average sortie duration of 4 hours.
- Only about 25 percent of overall sorties result in an airstrike. Many of the military’s 4th-generation fighters and attack aircraft have or are undergoing service life extensions to enable them to serve through 10,000 or more flight hours.
We can then undertake some rough calculations to provide a ball-park figure for 4th-generation fighter hours:
26,000 total sorties x 75% in tactical aviation x 4 flight hours/sortie x 4 sorties/strike = 312,000 annual flight hours of tactical aviation.
That number represents the service lives of about 31 fighters. Unless all these campaigns wrap up soon, expect that the US will have about 150 fewer 4th-generation fighters in inventory by end of 2022. These are very rough calculations, so if you don’t like them, please run your own. The services certainly have, and they will continue to focus on aircraft service lives and numbers.
McCain's plan brings 200 light-attack-fighters into the Air Force's inventory by 2022 to supplement the 228 F-35As it will receive by then. But as we’ve just estimated, the services could lose about 150 4th-generation fighters by then. The majority of these will be USAF jets, simply given the proportion in service with each service. McCain's report notes that “the Air Force has divested over 400 combat fighters in the last five years” and can currently muster fewer “combat-coded fighters” than called for in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance. Further, the McCain report calls the USAF’s intention to buy 1,763 F-35As “unrealistic,” an issue that I’ve commented on previously.
McCain recommendation for the not-new, low-end, light-attack-fighter idea is welcome, and Air Force chief's endorsement is encouraging. Addressing the long war with lower operating-cost solutions and keeping precision guided munitions inventories up (given our substantial expenditures) are sound measures. But it has been a good while since we went “to war with the Army we have.” Though this is water under the bridge, we have since used up a significant amount of tactical aviation flight hours in the past fifteen years. McCain’s recommendation and their endorsement by the Air Force and defense analysts are probably too little too late. If buying 1,763 aircraft is indeed “unrealistic,” the USAF may want more than 300 low-end, light-attack-fighters for the long war, and it should want to get them sooner and at a greater rate than 40 annually thru 2022. Similar problems remain unaddressed for the Navy and the Marine Corps.
Congress and the services should be more aggressive sooner to stanch their attrition of tactical aircraft by shifting the comparatively low-threat, long war air campaigns from the wasting jet fighter fleets to more appropriate airframes. Otherwise, what will our tactical air arms look like in 2030 at the going rate?
Dave Foster is an engineer for Naval Air Systems Command at China Lake, California. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.