Marjah and the Air Tractor

Got a note from a friend of mine the other day who’s a big proponent of so-called “Counterinsurgency Aircraft.”

Truth be told, he nixed his cash-out career as a lobbyist to work for a COIN plane-making company, but the former Marine Hornet driver knows of what he speaks.

It’s a shame the Air Force seemingly deferred a decision on COIN planes and a COIN wing or squadron or whatever Mike Vickers said they were going to outline in the QDR.

And my friend noticed a connection on our posts about the COIN plane and Predator/Reaper losses.

I would like to get the “real” cost of doing business with a Predator, when you factor in additional Sat’s, people, ground stations, etc…

Compares pretty badly to the the Air Tractor - $5-$6 mil fully decked out, 10 hours time on station - from the austere strip at the FOB (or Camp Belleau Wood if it were there today) with no transit time. Imagine the difference if LtCol Christmas was able to brief face to face with the pilot and forward observer who would fly cover over his battlespace - for 10 hours at a time - one crew, feeding targets and imagery to each Cobra, Harrier and Hornet coming in for close air support.

We had that kind of long duration, manned capability in Vietnam in the O-1 Bird Dog, the O-2 Mohawk and the OV-10 Bronco. About time we had it again. 

Bottom line, is that no sensor today can give a pilot the same situational awareness when he is in a trailer north of Vegas looking at a few flat screen TV’s. For Airborne Forward Air Controller and Forward Observer duties a good man, with a lot of time on station, sensors and weapons can save dozens of lives.

I agree whole heartedly. I know those grunts waiting for the balloon to go up in Marjah would like nothing more than a couple Spads and Spectres to give the bad guys holed up there a what for.

— Christian

  • Patrick

    So why not just bring back updated OV-10s and A-37 Dragonflies? They both seemed capable of doing the job in Vietnam in an environment with high low level AA threats. They’re alot cheaper than the other systems out there, and probably cheaper than the air truck prototypes as well.

  • Paul

    Would that we could! Restarting those lines would be prohibitively expensive! But running up new AirTractors or AT-6Bs wouldn’t cost us too much… As I’ve commented before, we even have a fleet full of S-3 Vikings with 10-hour loiter and 3,000-pound bombloads sitting in the Boneyard, with 50% service life remaining.

  • Valcan

    “we even have a fleet full of S-3 Vikings ”

    That is still a dumba$$ thing to do sorry but wtf navy

  • Pete

    “For Airborne Forward Air Controller and Forward Observer duties a good man, with a lot of time on station, sensors and weapons can save dozens of lives”

    Can the writer show where in the entire Iraqi/Afghanistan fiascos where ‘dozens of lives were lost’ let alone could have been saved. Sounds like some lobby group is trying to hype the need for a COIN plane by making false statements. Of course the only solution is to buy THEIR planes.

  • Jay

    How many pilots were saved because they weren’t in the cockpit of the UAVs that have crashed? I guess their lives aren’t so important in comparison to the HUGE egos that are bruised because an aviator wasn’t actually in a cockpit of an aircraft. I agree with the need for fixed-wing COIN assets- but, there’s no reason it can’t be flown remotely from a trailer in Vegas. Have the cake and eat it too, sometimes…

  • Valcan

    See no reason why we cant have a both manned and unmanned planes.

    Use the manned in more sensative areas or areas where there is alot of activity.

    Use the drones in areas that are least active or where manned units are unneeded.

    Or have the COIN aircraft able to give guidance to loutering drones so the coin could have more time on target and a wide range of weapons.

  • Patrick

    From what I’ve heard, Air Trucks will cost in the range of $5 million to $7 million. Considering an A-37 adjusted for inflation still comes in around $1 million, I would imagine that with modern production techniques and the reduced cost of modern avionics, you could produce them for no more than the $5 million per aircraft once you figure in the costs of restarting a production line. Considering the last of the trainer T-37s (from which the A-37 was designed) were only retired last July, you’d still have a very large number of pilots who know how to handle one. Plus it has two engines instead of the one sported by the Air Truck. The A-37 was an easy aircraft to fly, so training requirements would be lower than for something like an A-10.

    I’m not advocating replacement of something like the A-10, of course. That’s an aircraft built for a different mission and a different threat environment. But in the current situation, a light jet like the A-37 would be equally as reliable, just as familiar to many pilots, as easy to fly, and have the added safety of two engines. What’s not to like there?

    And yes, I had heard about Boeing offering updated OV-10s and I think that’s a terrific idea. It’s a proven airframe, and it’s done great service in the past

  • Armchair Warlord

    Misleading argument. The kind of sensors that are actually going to find bad guys out there mounted on any COIN aircraft are going to be bottom-mounted IR cameras identical to those you find on a Predator drone. In a light COIN aircraft the pilot is not going to be controlling those and wouldn’t be able to do a good job if he was, so you’re not looking at a better ISR platform over a drone.

    The “big draw” of a light COIN aircraft is loitering with weapons more suitable to a counterinsurgency fight than the usual F-15E with 500-pound bombs. There’s something to be said for machine guns, rockets and hellfires with a pilot behind them, but let’s not be pretending that manned platforms hold a candle to drones as far as actually finding bad guys goes.

  • Gabriel

    Didn’t the State Department replace the OV-10 with Air Tractor 802’s in Columbia because the OV-10 couldn’t handle the weight of the armor, and they couldn’t keep up with the maintenance? I heard it took 12 broncos to keep 3-4 in the air.

  • Rollo

    It’s amazing, one would have never known that a crop duster could ever have any military applications, especially any COIN applications.
    I grew up in an area where I would see one of these airplanes at least once a week and they are definately not built for their looks.
    Think about it, the Air Tractor has a high short take off and lift (STOL) capability and can operate from unimproved airstrips, such as mountain valley basins, and like the L-19/O-1 Bird Dog, which my father flew in Korea as a US Army FAO, has an excellent loiter time endurance.
    The one thing they need to do with it, though, is to install a “bubble” canpoy for a far better 360 view.
    Having one of these in the air over a given target area can provide the pilot, and the ground commanders, with a highly tactile operational awareness of what is happening. And the military can still enstall their bells & whistles, such as IR cameras, etc., as long as it does not negate its flight capabilities.

  • Warrior Spirit

    Christian explain why you keep thinking that just because a slow plane is purchased, that suddenly every outpost is magically going to have one stationed there? The two just don’t equate. Its still an airplane, still has maintenance and fuel needs, and will still require a full fledged airfield with a huge log pipe.

    Broken Record Time -the ongoing issue in Afghanistan is not a missing platform issue, but lack of assets in general. There is no “magic” piece of gear

  • Warrior Spirit

    we need to buy, but rathers more of our existing good gear that needs to get into theater. There is nothing, NOTHING, a COIN plane can accomplish that existing helos can’t do, including being forward staged at outposts (easier in fact than any plane). The problem is quantity and logistics. Some of those patrol bases are hard pressed to keep essentials like ammo topped up - yet now you’re talking about having to support a fixed wing aircraft at the same place? Its just not possible.

  • Warrior Spirit

    RE: ” I know those grunts waiting for the balloon to go up in Marjah would like nothing more than a couple Spads and Spectres to give the bad guys holed up there a what for.”

    They would have been just as happy to have SuperCobra or Apache support, or a B1 loitering for hours dropping JDAMs one or two at a time for hours. The issue is air support, not a specific kind or platform-specific support.

  • @adamfoerster

    lets face it: considering just the looks, the super tucano kicks ass. just saying…

  • Ted

    Has anyone considered a Rutan ARES?

  • Jeff

    a manned craft would a step back and would impose too many rules of engagement. The future is expendeble, high loiter time unmanned craft. There is no reason to give the enemy propoganda wins with captured pilots.

  • Gabriel

    Lots of posts comment that the airframe doesn’t matter, or “a helicopter can do all of those missions”…. Exactly, if any aircraft can mount a million dollar sensor, and shoot and drop precision weapons, why not pick the one that does it the cheapest?

    An Apache costs around $40 million and costs somewhere around $6k to $10k per hour - not counting personnel costs. A Reaper is $18 million, and the CSAF says it takes 180 personnel to operate one. An F-15E is about $90 million and costs about $40k per flight hour.

    AT-802 $5 mil and a few hundred dollars per flight hour.

  • Warrior Spirit

    RE: “…why not pick the one that does it the cheapest?”

    Because we already aircraft that can do the job - they just aren’t in theater. We don’t need to add another type of aircraft to do a job that existing aircraft already do quite well…we just need more of those a/c available to support the troops. (Meaning moving existing platforms into theater - not buying more.)

  • Gabriel

    We already have an aircraft that costs a few hundred dollars an hour to operate, that can carry thousands of pounds and can hang out for half a day?

    Please do tell, what aircraft is that?

    The savings in fuel alone in one year could pay for an air wing of these aircraft.

  • Warrior Spirit

    Gabriel - You come back and talk numbers after you have a combat qualified aircraft with a baseline maintenance trackrecord which includes supporting the high end avionics and targeting gear than any CAS bird will require. Then we can compare apples.

    You also have to add in the costs of setting up a new pipeline for acquisition, training, manpower, and maintenance. Where are we going to get pilots to fly these airplanes - the air force can’ t meet UAV slot demands.

  • Warrior Spirit

    New pilots, new maintainers, new schools for the maintainers, new parts supply chain, new logistics pipeline to feed these consumables into Afghanistan, additional security supporting these additional convoys hauling POLs and parts to all these dispersed dirt airfields - oh yeah - we need to get engineering units out to all these dispersed bases to start grading dirt runways and taxi/maintenance/parking space…which also raises the security issue - we will now have fixed wing living at these bases along with all those consumables, so we have to add additional security forces dedicated to

  • Warrior Spirit

    protecting the field, aircraft, and consumables while the infantry are actually fighting and patrolling, yes, this is quite the deal isn’t it? A right humdinger of a cheap addon to give our troops limited point air support while drastically increasing the supply burden throughout an already stressed logistics system in a landlocked near-stone age country with zippo infrastructure.

    When you’re done in fantasy land let us know.

  • Warrior Spirit

    mike j - that's exaclty the next-war-itis crap that Gates has successfully been purging from USAF ranks. The gear exists for use in war - we are in war - if it can be used effectively you use it. Not sure what century you are living in, but a B52 can't penetrate any air defense more sophisticated than low alt manpads. This type of bomb truck usage is exactly what they are good for. Using B52s makes far more sense than adding flight hours to the tactical air frames that are already aged (to a more dangerous degree than the -52 frames) and have a very unreliable retirement plan in the works (JSF).

  • Bob McDonagh

    Anyone know how I can investigate the availability of A-4s (‘scooters’) and T-37’s (Tweety birds)? I’m in the process of creating a small ‘Children’s Aviation Center’. It will also serve as an Alternative Energy(s) Laboratory. (think green)
    Check out my website: It is in the process of having three or four pages changed. But, my website designer - still hasn’t changed out the pages on the LL partnership- or the Center’s design page - and one other page.

    I may have a T-34 lined up - that could be a static display. And I’d like to put Vice- Admiral Stockdale’s name on the side of the ‘Scooter’. (If I get the opportunity to developed a second ‘Center’ back home in Mid-Michigan; it will have the name of a neighbor and friend that was killed while flying one - over N. Viet Nam. And then we’ll try to duplicate all the things we learn from our experiences with this first ‘Center’ down here in SW Florida. Thanks for your help - suggestions. Bob McDonagh &

  • Bob McDonagh

    Anyone know where I can find informaion on the availability of A-4s (scooters) and T-37 Tweety- birds. Check out my websites: and - to see why this request. Bob McDonagh