JFCOM’s Mattis Pushes Light IW Aircraft

The quest for a low-cost, low-tech, irregular warfare aircraft to provide ground pounders with long loitering, on-call recon and strike got a big boost recently when Joint Forces Command’s Gen. James Mattis threw his support behind the Navy and Air Force “Imminent Fury” effort.

Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that he was taking a personal interest in the classified project, being run chiefly out of the Navy’s Irregular Warfare Office, that is looking at small turboprop aircraft for ground support. The sought after design falls somewhere between the Vietnam era OV-10 Bronco and A-1 Skyraider. It must stay aloft for a long time for surveillance needs but also have the punch to provide precise fire support when needed; a true “over the shoulder” aircraft for small ground units doing distributed operations in remote locations.

Mattis thinks using top-line fighter jets for close air support to troops patrolling rural villages in Afghanistan is overkill. As he diplomatically puts it: “Today’s approach of loitering multi-million dollar aircraft and using a system of systems procedure for the approval and employment of airpower is not the most effective use of aviation fires in this irregular fight,” he told the SASC. A light irregular warfare aircraft could also help build partnerships with foreign air fleets that operate large numbers of such aircraft.

Last summer, the Air Force requested aircraft manufacturers provide designs for a Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) aircraft, a low-tech and low-cost design that must be currently flying as they want it fielded within the next couple of years. Two early entrants are Brazilian manufacturer Embraer’s Super Tucano (pictured) and Hawker Beechcraft’s AT-6. Air Force chief Gen. Norton Schwartz has talked about possibly creating an irregular warfare wing that would operate the aircraft.

“A LAAR aircraft capability has the potential to shift air support from a reactive threat response, to a more proactive approach that reduces sensor to shooter timelines, with immediate and accurate fires, providing surveillance and reconnaissance throughout a mission, while providing communication and navigation support to troops on the ground,” said Mattis.

Here again is another example of Mattis pushing the services to work together on low cost, vitally needed programs that support troops in the field fighting today’s wars.

— Greg

  • ed!

    I think the approach would be a two-fold benefit for our forces with getting a COIN aircraft. For one it could free up our fast movers to be used elsewhere and also lower their sortie rates. This would reduce stress to an already overworked airframe and allow the ground crews more time to conduct maintenance. The other benefit would be that going at a lower velocity would improve targeting. This would reduce collateral damage.

    We need to bring in these birds, and rapidly. Their benefits outweigh their disadvantages dramatically. They might also be a potential game changer. The Taliban would now have to worry about a long loiter platform. If we keep the bird over their heads longer, they will be forced to either wait longer for attacks which may risk them being detected, or they will try to boldly attack with air cover around. This will ultimately lead to higher casualties. That could lead to lwoer level insurgents choosing not to fight.

  • Mike E

    Wait, but aren’t the Predator and Reaper turboprops designed for ground support? How do the capabilities actually differ from this LAAR? (No guns on the drones, obviously…)

    I sometimes think the AF, for cultural reasons, has gotten this exactly backwards; that ground support should be manned, and air-superiority fighters should be unmanned.

    • FormerDirtDart

      No, the Predator/Reaper’s are not designed for ground support. They are highly modified surveillance platforms more apt to used for high value target strikes

  • Scott

    Why not just use A-10’s for this role?

    • Project Thor

      The A-10 can’t hang around for extended periods of time… and it’s a tank killer. It’s guns are accurate if it’s shooting at something the size of a BMP or T-72, in an open field but not for shooting at 2 guys, with AK’s, standing next to a school house. Besides, the A-10 is suffering from all it usage, even with the repair kit that they came up with. Now let’s talk about the cost of flying one… and how much that 30mm ammo costs… and…

      • Why

        That's a misleading response - the issue with the A-10 is the platform survivability, not the single organic weapon system - the bulk of its ordnance is modular on the hardpoints, and with the latest upgrades, it finally has the same eyes and connectivity as the other fast movers. Aside from the AC gunships, the A-10 is the premier tactical fixed-wing CAS provider.

        • Project Thor

          excuse me… were you reading what i said? I know what an A-10 is and what it can carry. It main weapon is a 30mm rotary cannon… have you ever seen the dispersal rate of one of those things? I have, up close & personal. They don’t have a long loiter time because those Fairchild engines suck fuel like an Irishman can down whiskey. Manericks & Hellfires shouldn’t be used around civies… they need a scalpel, not a freaking battleaxe. Yes, it can take a hit… a lot of hits but it is still overkill in this type of fight. You never touched on how the wings have ripped off a few because of metal fatigue.

          Don’t get me wrong… i love that ugly thing. Saved my ass, in the Gulf, in ’91 but this isn’t it’s type of fight.

          BTW… the A-10 has always been considered a “fast mover”

          • Project Thor

            my bad… i misread your second to last sentence.

            *the only reason it’s the top CAS is that there is really nothing else in theater that will do… they need something between the Spooky and the Warthog*

          • GI Joe

            The PA 48 Enforcer modernized version of the Mustang would meet the spec perfectly… Unfortunately there is an entrenched culture that rejects reuse of old platforms or designs.

          • Marc in Santa Cruz

            It’s amazing how much the Super Tucano looks like the PA-48 - park ’em next to one another and if it weren’t for the tandem canopy on the Super Tucano, you’d swear it’s the same plane. (At least to my non-expert eyes.) I suppose the Super Tucano has a leg up in the competition as the Navy’s allegedly been evaluating ’em for COIN ops since 2008.

          • Why

            You’re still confused. You’re arguing against the aircraft but your complaint is still about the weapons ON the aircraft - the weapons can change, its a hell of a lot harder to get a whole new aircraft designed, tested, fielded, and FUNDED, than it is to get a new weapon created to mount on an existing aircraft.

            RE: They need something between… - They need lots of things, but the gunships and the A-10 exist now and do the job well - smaller blast ordnance continues to come down the pipeline to mount on existing airframes - that is the avenue to pursue for all your stated gripes about ‘overkill’.

    • help7219

      that is the best thing anyone has said they already fill the bill the only thing they could do is buld a 2 seat

  • Why

    The reality behind the smoke here is about finally getting the USAF out of the tac air arena - note the jab at the JFACC/sys-of-sys procedural nightmare, this has little to nothing to do with actually wanting a prop plane for anything.

    Its a smart move to drive the USAF out piece by piece, starting with a baby “COIN-only” air unit which will quickly become not COIN-only, but expert CAS providers in low threat environments. It it gets sustained funding, watch the aircraft quickly mature from super tucanos to A-10s and AC-x gunships.

    Its market forces in action - the USAF does not provide the service the “customers” need, so now the customers are making their own provider on the fly.

  • STemplar

    There are good off the shelf platforms, the really important part l think is matching capabilities more appropriately to the reality of ops. It is ok for some of the Tom Clancy scenario spending, we still need deterrence to counter folks like China. However, we need to spend more time on reality, like Stan, Somalia, our border with Mexico, and any other number of potential low intensity spots that will undoubtedly pop up in the short term. This sort of aircraft would be useful right now, and would have work to do for quite some time to come we know for certain.

  • gmanaz

    The Air Force has got it backwards again. Here it is trying again to put manned systems in the air when unmanned systems would be ideal. I understand that the Predator/Reaper platform is primarily for aerial surveillance, and is on back-order for a long time, but it doesn’t make sense to go backwards like this. Make do with what we have for now, and continue to improve upon and build UAV systems for this task. Once the air force realizes that you don’t need to train a full-fledged pilots to fly UAVs and trains NCOs fly them, they will realize a significant cost savings just on training alone…

  • Marshall Tall Eagle

    Hey if it works for the troops on the ground then lets go for it. However, I believe the British already ahve a plane like this, so why start from the ground up. Lets buy a few from them and we can start using them next month.

    God Bless Our Troops

    • wstr

      Unfortunately its only a Tucano trainer :-(
      Our CGS (Hd of Army) wants a similar capability to what Mattis is suggesting but the RAF chief has publicly dismissed the suggestion citing better survivability and rapid redeployment of fast air. Both points are open to argument depending on conflicting views on logistics (e.g. of time on station) and tactics (e.g. weapons employed) issues. Certainly in an air assault op a turboprop will be more survivable than the utility helos its supporting and no one is suggesting those pilots shouldn’t deploy.

  • Max

    Just when we thought prop aircraft were gone forever… I think it’s a good idea; just not for conventional war against another nation who could easily blow them out of the sky.

  • smsgtmac

    RE: “A LAAR aircraft capability has the potential to shift air support from a reactive threat response, to a more proactive approach that reduces sensor to shooter timelines, with immediate and accurate fires, providing surveillance and reconnaissance throughout a mission, while providing communication and navigation support to troops on the ground,” said Mattis.

    In a word, that is bulls***!
    Until now, I’ve generally (no pun) been impressed with Gen Mattis, but he demonstrates he has all the understanding of Airpower – the acquisition, logistics, allocation, and theories thereof – that one would generally expect of a Rifleman.
    What he describes is the ‘Persistent’ ground attack facet of airpower. Further, he waxes on what could only be described as ‘magical’ persistence (i.e. ALWAYS present and persistent). Persistence is provided via a combination of systems in sufficient numbers using methods of employment determined by the capabilities and numbers of systems and the operational environment such that maximum ‘instant’ (define intstant ‘enough’! ) availability is provided.

    • Why

      And the attitude that gets the USAF continually smacked around at the troop level rears it ugly head - “we’re smarter than everyone else and know better than you what you really need, want, desire, and should really have”.

      So pathetic.

    • David

      Do you know General Mattis?

      • SMSgt Mac

        What is important is knowing what the General said, and knowing enough about air warfare and aerospace theory to see where the flaws are in his assumptions/assertions.

    • TacoRocco

      @smsgtmac - Who better to understand the use of airpower than a ground pounder?

  • SMSgt Mac

    With unlimited resources, the US could buy an unlimited number of specialized aircraft in all the various types optimized for each mission, and (more-expensively) a large enough military to support them all. But when an Air Force needs systems to perform missions X, Y, and Z, then insisting on a specialized ‘mission Z’ aircraft will short missions X and Y now or in the unknowable future. The attitude that mission Z is ‘too important’ to have to rely on less-specialized systems demonstrates a serious case of WIDIMITWEED (What I Do Is More Important Than What Everyone Else Does).
    The General would do better to state his needs and let the Air Force meet them as they best see fit. If the AF can’t meet his needs with assets in hand, then the General should support the AF in getting enough of the assets they think they need to do the job.

    • TMB

      Mac, has the Air Force ever asked the Army what it wants in an aircraft and provided for it? (The A-10 was practically shoved down the Air Force's throat)

      As far as not being able to afford aircraft for missions X, Y, and Z - the Air Force gets smaller every year and their aircraft continuously get more expensive. Could longer development times and trying to get one aircraft to perform missions X, Y, and Z be driving that train? The F-22 should have been just an air superiority fighter, but the air force spent more time and money stuffing ISR equipment into it. They even tried to give it a ground attack role. How much time did that add to the pricetag and IOC date? Specialized aircraft do their missions very well, whereas “multi role” aircraft do everything “just enough” and at increased cost.

      If the Air Force gives the customer what they want in record time and for a decent price, what's wrong with that?

      • SMSgt Mac

        RE: Mac, has the Air Force ever asked the Army what it wants in an aircraft and provided for it?

        The ‘Army’ (as euphemism for ‘ground forces’) wants fire support. They don’t care how they get it. They’d like it to be ‘instantaneous’ . If it is less than magic, there will be somebody that will grouse about the timliness of it.

        RE: The A-10 was practically shoved down the Air Force’s throat.
        This is a strawman argument and demonstrably false. There were those (AF ‘factions’ if you will) that believed the role was better filled by a different type of weapon system, there were other factions that thought an A-10 would be the best type of approach. the AF was arguing amongst themselves over this long before the Army made it’s first whimper. Once again, I would refer readers to RAND’S “Learning Large Lessons” and Campbell’s ‘The Warthog and the Close Air Support Debate’ as starting points to understanding the issue.

        • TMB

          I will concede timeliness will never be satisfied; however, fire support is more than just getting something blown up. Contrary to your assertion, the manner in which I get it is an issue. My peers and I have been in situations where we got a 500 or a 2000 pounder when a few rockets would have sufficed or when a pilot at 15,000-20,000 feet looking through his scopes thought he knew better than we did and killed whole families.

          CAS is more than dropping ordnance on a grid coordinate. When you ask for CAS and you get a fast moving bomber with nothing to drop but large bombs who can barely see the battlefield you end up getting orders from 4-stars who say “no more bombing” because the bombs are falling on the wrong people. If a specialized slow-moving, low flying ground support plane is what is needed to supply my tactical needs and McChrystal’s strategic worries, then that’s it.

          • SMSgt Mac

            This has been thoroughly covered in DefenseTech: http://live-defensetech.sites.thewpvalet.com/2009/06/29/farah-hit-shows…
            Between the article and the thread that followed. Flying lower only gets you shot at needlessly.

          • TMB

            Actually every time one of these articles goes up on DT you and I usually go a few rounds. Agree to disagree Mac :)

          • SMSgt Mac

            Deal [;-)

          • Buongi

            Interesting, though, from my experience, many ground commanders explicitly request employment from “fast movers” like the B-1, or demand specific ordnance when, in fact, artillery rockets will suffice (as you said). Remember, there are blue suiters right there with the ground commander (TACPs) that transmit the strike requests, immediate and/or pre-planned from the ground folks to the folks that fly the planes, watch the area, gather the intel, drop the bombs, and assess the strike. Having worked for a few years in the CAS C2 arena, I tend to agree with Mac on this one…

            And just to touch on the 4-stars ordering “no more bombing…,” where do you think the coordinates come from that we drop bombs on during CAS missions? The bombs fall on the wrong people because the “wrong people” are designated as targets — bythe ground commander. Remember the golden rule of CAS… the ground commander buys the bomb… so please don’t allude to these situations being inherently the fault of the Airmen.

  • Jim

    why don’t we go to the boneyards and museums and gather some of the old mustangs , lightnings, and what ever else is available put new comm and radar equipment in and put them back to work they’re already paid for a few upgrades to them would be cheaper than developing new aircraft training the pilots to fly them shouldn’t be that hard.

  • roland

    Have’nt we built thousands of this in WWI and WWII?

    • fly4val

      yes excepting the few that are left are privately owned or in museums whereas of the thousands built in ww 2, most were cut up and melted for scrap…sadly, many people cried over that….

  • Tim

    Blah, Blah, Blah They’ve been talking about this for years, while the T-6 is in service with simple mods it can go to Afghanistan next month. Goggle OV-6B

  • czech_6

    “The ‘Army’ (as euphemism for ‘ground forces’) wants fire support. They don’t care how they get it. They’d like it to be ‘instantaneous’ .”

    They should just give the groundpounders bigger and better guns and rockets than the Taliban has. Calling for fire support that’s never instantaneous is a waste of time.

    • SMSgt Mac

      I agree. More organic precision fire, like the 120mm GPS mortar, now please.

  • czech_6

    …or the Army and Marines could just develop their own long-loiter close air support UAV.

    • Buongi

      um… they already have them. Hunters and Warriors.

      • czech_6

        they don’t seem to carry a large enough warload. I was thinking of something along the lines of an unmanned drone with the payload of an Apache (16 Hellfire missiles) or a Warthog (a dozen 500lb bombs).

  • lcdr_kent

    The AF could put T-6s in service for A-stan in a month if they were requested. I think they like getting 'new' aircraft to support new missions. What is to keep the Tillyban from getting stinger type weapons from their friends and shooting slow movers down?

  • Mrcjis

    First, what’s wrong with have a variety of chooses? Yes we have a number of good platforms to do the job but none that can go along with the troops. A good “DIRT FIGHTER” that can land and take off on roads and fields with minimum support . The A6 was almost that bird but it was a tad big. What seems to be needed is a bird that can land at the base of a mountain reload and head backup to support the snake eaters up where the air is thin.

  • Why

    A lot of these comments are missing the mark - you have a USMC General that made fantastic use of the 3rd MAW during the march up to Bagdad now sitting at JFC and looking at how he provides his current charges with air support - and instead of Marine Air, he’s getting the usual USAF rigamorole…so he’s doing the best thing possible - creating Marine AIr “light” for the JFC - a group of aviators that specialize in CAS, are focused on CAS, and have the gear and training to do it right - in other words, Marine Air light for JFC. The “its all about prop planes” stuff is a red herring - that’s the way to start this ball rolling and stsay under the guns as it were.

  • Sgt Ken

    As an old ex-USAF cop, I am way out of my league compared to the credentials of previous poster’s, but the idea of picking through Davis-Montham and retro-fitting some really excellent frames seems like a great idea . Even putting Sky Raiders back in the sky does sound like a good idea…in this case, the wheel has already been invented.

    • fly4val

      Spads/Sandy’s are excellent birds….ya wont find any at D-M….gone a long long time ago, just like the ‘-51’s and others….when’s the last time you tried to find 115-145 purple avgas??? good luck!

    • fly4val

      PS last A-1 went out of production in 1957!

  • nraddin

    I have always loved this idea. More survivable, fly higher, fly faster, fly longer, and carry more than a Rotor craft. Personally I think they should give them to the Army and Marines. Marines could even fly them off small decks carriers. Army can use them like they use there attack helicopters now, just without hover, longer legs and higher ceilings.

  • shark60

    My personal experience being on the ground in less than friendly territory I found the venerable Skyraider to be extremely comforting. Lots of loiter time carrying a superhuman load of ordinance. A pilot that was flying low and slow that could be talked to directly. Not depending on a bunch of computerized BS. Good old fashioned piloting skills and nerves of steel flying an airframe that could sustain a lot of battle damage and still function. The A10 was designed for the close air support and has, by all, reports done a fantastic job of replacing the Skyraider. Fast movers have no place in eyeball to eyeball action requiring pinpoint fires. Fast movers are for space cadets. I want my support down and dirty. At night the AC130s are my choice of support. There is something comforting about having a ring of fire around my position. Each airframe has it’s uses and are not always interchangeable. I trust the Skyraiders and Spookeys because they were there when I needed them. The A10 I could learn to trust. Let the fast movers establish air superiority and drop their guided munitions on hard structures but give me a low and slow long loiter time when I need support.

    • fly4val

      as a former F-4 driver, excellent statement!

  • mr5t3v3n

    This is a great, fiscally sound, idea and it is about time there has been a push for it. I personally think (simply based on specs) that the tucano is the best choice, but using a inexpensive (total cost and operating cost) in an unconventional fight just seems to make sense. It won’t replace the warthogs conventional abilities (anti-tank and enemies with higher aa capabilites). We need more fast acting (sometimes off the shelf) decision making when it comes to acquisitions for our armed forces.

  • bjackson

    Re: LAAR-just expand the UAV programs

  • Dale

    Just give Burt Rutaan a Million bucks and he will build one in like 90 days. Oh wait he already did that something like 20 years ago. A jet powered Long EZ with a 20 MM vulcan gun.

    • Mastro

      There is a video on Youtube- great. They designed it to have a lot of space for fuel/extra avionics.

      I doubt it will go anywhere- makes too much sense. Or- it will end up costing $100 million or so a plane.

  • mike rose

    Why not bring in dirgibles( the original airship). Very long loiter time(days over head) put in some miniguns and 105’s. night time ops would be no problem. electric engines. quiet death from above.

    • defensor fortissimo

      *coughs* hindenburg!

      • Riceball

        The only reason why the Hindenburg went up in flames like it did was it because it used hydrogren for lift instead of helium; helium is not flamable and won’t catch on fire.

    • Mastro

      You can fly on that huge target first (and last) time in battle.

      It was also take too long to get to the fight.


    Guys this platform is about CAS but not in the performance but rather the planning and execution. Think back to the FAC-A days of Vietnam. This is exactly what the USAF/ USA need to support the guys on the ground. A UAS couldn’t perform this mission, they’ve tried and failed already. That being said bring the OV-10 back with some upgrades here and there and you have the ideal COIN/ FAC-A/ Light Attack platform.

  • LtCol Ben

    Marine Air Light? Wait…don’t they have Harriers and slow-moving F/A-18s for that? I like what I read, but the enemy does have Stingers which makes OV-10s and the like nothing but target practice.

  • Bill

    The real issue is not what type of plane but trying to get the Air Force to not kill any aircraft that does not take off from a Carrier. The air Force is very protective of their turf. They want to be the only service with fixed wing CAS capabilities that are ground based. They like to base their assets in secure settings a long distance away from the fight. This constraint limits loiter time and drives one to jet aircraft. Their protection of their sand box is the real issue. There are many capable aircraft available to support our troops in the COIN fight. The first battle is with Air Force brass. They want their sand box to themselves. They dont play well with others.

  • Alex`

    How does this get us closer to giant humanoid battle robots?

  • Paul

    Bring back and modernize the Super Tweet.

  • Robert Moore

    Here’s an idea out of left field. Let’s use ultralights and gyrocopters. Put some mini-guns on them and inbed them in the units they are assigned to. They are light-weight and would be hard for ground to air systems to hit because of low heat admissions(lawnmower engines)and small metal contents as compared to larger aircraft.

  • TacoRocco

    I don’t think Gen. Mattis is putting weight behind this project just to aquire a sexy capability just for the USAF or Marine air. The wider implications of having a capability like this is that you can train host nation forces while having reasonable cost IW and CAS capability.

    This is a great chance to aquire the Tucano or AT-6 for a IW/CAS role but also get young Afghan pilots into the seats and some much needed airtime!

    The same is being done with the Iraqi AF that has aquired similar aircraft for their service and can be done in the future (Africa?).

  • B.Miller

    Whenever we look into cheap it only brings one thought to mind; have we put the pilots life in jeopardy? What I’m seeing in this article are very light aircraft with no armor protection and a slow flyer at that; anybody holding a rifle has a chance of bringing these down. Why would we put a multimillion dollar pilot in jeopardy. whats more who would fly this outside the US?

  • STemplar

    Everyone points out airframes of by gone times. There were many that will fill the role, but “bringing something back” in many cases isn’t possible, or is vastly more expensive than just buying something off the shelf now. The A10s are already going through a SLEP and we intend to keep them, but they are still a bit of a gold hammer driving a nail. They were meant to be tank killers, not donkey killers. We are spending about 20 million per A10 to just upgrade them, building more, if we even had an assembly line, which we don’t, would be very pricey. The Super Tucanos and AT-6s are in production, they cost like 8 or 9 millionish each. We also don’t need hundreds of them. I would say go with the AT-6s for several reasons.

    1. American made, what the heck.
    2. Existing production line.
    3. It is what we are training our pilots to fly in anyway.
    4. We have the existing logistics in place as it is an existing trainer aircraft.
    5. Its cheaper than a Super Tucano.

  • warner mobley

    Mattis - Isn’t that the guy who is trying to hang Wuterich?