Did Libya Show the Need for Light Attack Planes?

This is interesting, the high-cost of using some of the world’s most advanced fighter jets in Libya against Gadhafi’s joke of a military has led some NATO allies to consider buying cheap light attack planes similar to the ones the United States wanted to buy to fight insurgencies.

NATO’s chief targeteer for the Libyan campaign recently said that it simply cost too much money to deploy cutting edge jets like the Eurofighter Typhoon and France’s Rafale for long periods of time against an enemy that had almost no hope shooting them down.  In other words, the fancy jets can be overkill, even in campaigns against other nations.

Per Aviation Week:

“We need to think about the need for the future for a low-cost platform to be able to do our job, if required, in a permissive environment,” argues Brig. Gen. Silvano Frigerio, deputy chief of air and space plans in the Italian air force and chief of the targeting directorate for NATO’s Libya operations.

“If we don’t have a composite fleet with very high technology and maybe lesser technology aircraft, how can we manage to fly thousands and thousands of flying hours on a joint operation area looking for one armored vehicle with the sophisticated aircraft we will have in the future? Maybe we can’t afford to stay there for such a long time,” he says. During the Libya operations, allies were worried about the cost of the duration of the conflict, he tells the International Quality and Productivity Center’s annual International Fighter Conference here.

This is pretty much the same argument the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Special Operations Command have all made when asking Congress for cash to buy light turboprop attack and ISR planes that can be used to provide air support to ground troops fighting insurgents in places were the U.S. owns the skies.

However, the Pentagon’s quest to field turboprop attack planes seems almost dead. This month, the Air Force was supposed to settle on about 20 light attack planes — either the Hawker Beechcraft AT-6 (shown above) or Embraer’s Super Tucano — that it could use to help train the Afghan air force, but that effort may well fall victim to the Pentagon’s budget cuts.

Could NATO’s experience in Libya open the door to a new set of customers for light attack planes — NATO countries that want to be involved in peacekeeping and stability operations around the world but who can’t afford to send their precious few frontline fighters on expensive combat deployments?

  • Certainly a role that needs filling, but better filled with drones. Better ISR, better automation, similar unit and operating costs. Plus, you can have a smaller pool of operators capable of linking to any squadron on a by-need basis.

  • blight

    We may opt for a High/low mix, where “High” encompasses what we traditionally think of as the High/Low jet fighters and low being either small drones or larger manned turboprops or light jets (like the T-38), along with subsonic slower craft like the A-10.

    Is an A-10 cheaper in overhead to operate than a fighter bomber like the Typhoon? Would it have been cheaper to use A-10s instead of the former; if Europe had them?

    • Nick

      I would think so, the A-10 is 70’s tech, and it isnt a pig like the KC-135. It likes to fly. But, it takes a similar crew to work it as an F-16, minus the Hydrazine aspect but offset by the second engine, so yeah. Typhoon is like a bastard child of an F-15 and an F-16. The A-10 probly has less parts, so there is less to fix ( using F-16 to compare).

      I would think you could buy a squadron of 10’s for the price of a few euro-ninjas.

    • tiger

      The A-10 is not a light attack platform, not cheap, old & few targets require a 30mm DU shell that are not tanks.

  • seeker6079

    I find it ludicrous that you’re using the word “need” with a question mark. The need has been well-established for years. The problem isn’t the need for these, it has been the systematic, vigorous and effective hostility towards them by the jet communities, especially doubly especially within the USAF.

    It’s a bit disingenuous to describe the Pentagon’s efforts to get these aircraft and not mention (a) the far greater institutional efforts to block them, and (b) the fact that even a modest allocation of resources amongst the services or even within the USAF alone could have had COIN planes years ago.

    • Space Cadet

      Amen… each of the militaries of the Allies should be required to have at least 10% of their forces geared toward MOOTW, COIN, DSCA, etc…

    • Retired Col

      Amen. If it doesn’t have a pointy nose and do mach 3, the guys with the wings on their chests are not interested. Too bad pilots, known for their eye-hand coordination, run the AF and that the support forces are largely excluded.

      • TGR

        It’s also too bad that the support forces continue to try and prevent operations….

  • seeker6079

    The A-10 is interesting. It’s the hated boyfriend of aircraft.

    Oh, c’mon, we know the situation: there’s a decent guy who’s great for a girl who adores him, but for some reason her friends or family have decided that he Just Won’t Do, and spend a phenomenal deal of time trying to get her to dump him. The A-10 is beloved by its pilots, beloved by the groundpounders, and objectively a fantastic aircraft, and has been an indispensable part of the American inventory … and has never, ever been forgiven for that by large segments of the American military who greet its every success not with a change of mind, but with deeper hatred.

  • FormerDirtDart

    I think linking turbo-prop strike planes to the NATO chief targeteer’s comments might be a bit of a reach. I get the impression, based on the actual combat usage he’s referring too, that he is stating the need for a light strike aircraft along the lines of the jet trainer/light strike fighter concept and the A-10/SU-25 attack aircraft category.

    Lets face it, turbo-prop light strike/COIN/ISR platforms have a certain operational capability in very limited operational environments. And, Libya wasn’t one of them. They simply lack the “legs” for that kind of operation.

    • mike j

      “Limited operational environments” – you mean like the ones we’ve been operating in for the past 10 years now? And picking on the range issue is pretty weak sauce for a counter argument. They can refuel helos from tankers, it’s a relatively minor engineering problem to get a prop plane to do that, too (more difficult for a nose-mounted single, but a twin or pusher-type could have a probe fitted). The simpler aircraft and lower fuel reqt. makes forward basing a legitimate possibility as well.

      VAL-4 Black Ponies (OV-10s) in Vietnam often arrived overhead for CAS before the jets could. Dated material, but something to think about.

  • Mastro

    Well- the EU guys certainly made a mistake with the Eurofighter when what they really need now is something like the Jaguar/ A-7.

    I don’t know if Libya is a perfect showcase for a turbo trainer based plane. They would have been shot down by the Libyan airforce if the US hadn’t cruise missiled/stealth bombed them to oblivian the first week.

    For Afghanistan/Philipine insurgency battles- sure.

  • jamesb


    For the US Army to drive….

    The Air Force will NEVER do this!

    The a/c wouldn’t be a jet!

    • JE McKellar

      Isn’t it time to fold the USAF back into the US Army Air Corps?

  • jamesb

    Amen on the US not losing a soul in Libya!

  • Exan

    2012 will see the start of a major recession, possibly another Great Depression. UAV’s will be the only affordable option left.

    Maybe China wants to buy F-35’s?

  • Lance

    No prop driven aircraft wouldn’t have survived the air defenses Qaddafi had for long part of the war. A-10s and older A-4s would have don’t the job fine.

  • Curtis

    I agree that large turboprops at low alt would have been man-pad and SPAAAG bait. you need the speed and altitude that a good jet engine gets you, plus the payload and on board power for some jamming/counter measure capability.

    A new jet aircraft roughly analogous to the A-4 or F-5 is what is called for.

  • Josh

    What I’d give to see a true successor to the A-10,it’s getting old and it’s capabilities are still above and beyond what any others can do.

  • Danny

    Honestly some incredible arguements here, but in the end, I’m a firm believer that we would benefit from these puppies. Look at the conflicts we’ve recently been in. Libya, Afghan, they have basically nothing in the realm of real airpower, but yet we’re bringing Mach 2 jets to the fight. Its not about decreasing the muscle of the USAF, its about being well-rounded. We’re bringing grenade launchers to a slingshot fight. Congress doesn’t want to pass these because they’re trying to cut spending. Well I can’t think of a better way to cut spending than to stop spending millions on jet fuel, flight hours, and maintenance on these pretty-boy, billion dollar jets just to take out some RPG’s and AA.

  • Jazzism

    With Jefferson County declaring bankruptcy, a number of others will follow suit and this is bad for the people and the country. Time to cut big spending now before it snowballs.

    The props will get pwned if thrown in before clearing the air defenses. That’s where the expensive fast F/A jets are needed. Clear the road then park them and follow with the A-10/props that can really bring the pain to the ground fighters. Cheaper to run and can linger around a hell of a lot longer.

  • AAK

    They actually already have cheaper aircraft. The Hawk in the brits case, no need for a whole new procurement.

  • Borat

    This is what should have been supporting the Land Warrior for the last 10 years, a concept turbo-prop A-1…

  • B-26K, T-28D, A-1H, OV-10, A-37, A-10. All planes the airforce brass hate and anyone who needs CAS loves. Guns, napalm, cluster bombs.

    Same problem with the brown water navy. Disbanded after vietnam…reinvented in iraq.

    Already talking about downsizing the MC-12W program…most useful and efficient COIN effort since the Phoenix Program and the PRU.

  • Black Owl

    The ideal jet to have in that mission would have been the Su-25 Frogfoot. It’s cheap, reliable, has a big gun and lots of ammo. The A-10 does the same job at a slightly higher price.

    Why the heck did we close down the A-10 production line! That was stupid of us!

  • Michael

    I really like the AT-6, but I must admit the A-1 Skyraider had more pylons.

  • Nick
  • Sanem

    1) on the A-10: they’re actually working on making these unmanned, even controllable by troops on the ground

    2) on manned vs unmanned props

    – training pilots, and keeping them trained costs millions and you can lose them during operations. training a UAV operator, especially when the computer does most of the flying, is dirt cheap in comparison

    – any manned aircraft can only stay over a target for a number of hours. UAVs can loiter for tens of hours, even days in the case of future refuelable ones. a huge financial and tactical advantage, as you save transit costs but you also need much less aircraft to perform the same mission

    – UAVs need satellite links, but today all aircraft have and use these extensively

    3) on manned vs unmanned jets

    – the Navy is looking at both the X-47b and the F-35. the X-47b is expected to cost about $50 million, against $120+ million for an F-35, yet it’ll have a much greater range at a comparable weapons load

    – what is needed is an air defence fighter UCAV: with a cheap engine, a delta wing, passive sensors and about 4 semi-recessed missiles, it’ll have a good range, speed, natural stealth, and it’ll cost as little as $15 million each

    • Belesari

      The X-47 has about 1/5 the payload of a F-35B and can’t survive in a war with enemy air assets or where its stealth could be negated (which i guarrante every nation on earth is looking for a way to do). And sense a F-18SH can carry 4x the payload it can for around 55-65M and is amatch for many if not most 3rd and 4th gen fighters…

      X-47 is a addition not a replacment for manned aircraft.


      By the time you design, build and train pilots to use as well as mechanics to maintaine that Simple jet fighter your gonna be around 55 or more million.


      • Sanem

        at least part of an F-35’s payload is used exclusively for air-to-air missiles. UCAV’s at this time are not designed for such weapons, but seeing as 99.99% of modern wars don’t see enemy fighter aircraft, that’s a waste of fuel. UCAV’s being unmanned, they can also take the risk of not carrying them, and rely on their stealth to survive

        as for the ground-attack payload, a UCAV will still be able to carry plenty of SDB’s, or two 1-ton bombs, making them capable of destroying most targets. and where the F-35 can carry more weapons, it does so with less fuel, meaning it’ll have less targets of opportunity. in modern warfare timing is more important than how many bombs you have, the mass bombings of WW2 and Vietnam are a long time ago, and any civilians will be all the more happy for it

        as for negating stealth or enemy air assets, that would pretty much defeat the whole point of the F-35 too. already its stealth and air power is outclassed by the T-50 at an equal price tag. if the F-35 needs to last until 2050, that’s a serious problem

        at least UCAV’s have excellent natural stealth shapings, a lower cost and expendability, meaning they can use their numbers/losses to win, a strategy modern Western manned air forces cannot employ

        “X-47 is a addition not a replacment for manned aircraft.”
        Lol, that’s what they said about Predator UAVs, they where just ment for recon. Now they’re replacing F-16’s and doing most of the fighting in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa.

        a Predator UAV fired a Stinger missile at an Iraqi Mig-23 back in 2003. it missed because of the poor missile quality, but if it had used a Sidewinder or an AMRAAM it would have easily killed its target. so I don’t know about UCAV’s, but UAV’s are certainly capable of it

    • Skeletor

      All the supposed benefits of UAV’s are really just a lot of over hyped BS to sell the US military a lot of systems for what we are mainly doing now… low intensity operations in uncontested airspace…

      In reality UAV’s need:
      -more personnel to operate as you have launch / mission elements (two different cockpits), far higher hours of flight for not necessarily any gain and lots of very expensive contractors to run it all
      -very expensive BLOS data links and architecture to maintain
      -specialized and low density aircraft fleets that really can’t operate in non-permissive environments (youtube MiG29 vs Georgian UAV)

      I have flown manned and unmanned aircraft, the UAV’s are means to some ends, not an end unto themselves…

  • byzo

    Lets not forget the AT-802U! The A-10’s prop-driven little brother. A mini flying tank. Might not be as fast as the others proposed, but its lower speed is offset by its longer loiter time, durability, and heavy weapons payload. Send a few of these in along with the A-10s and I’m sure the guys on the ground would thank us.

    • Belesari

      YEP far more durable. AND cheaper to operate.

  • afret91

    Everyone thinks we can do everything with freaking drone. Thats idiotic. A determined enemy or thier allie can wipe out satellites and then your drone fleet is expensive junk unless you can do it from mobile vans in the area. Thats danger close and not to bright.
    A CAS airframe really a necessary, one with eyeballs in the cockpit to make decisions. It doesnt have to cost millions but it does need lots of hardpoints and GUNS and loiter time. Also helpful would be dual power plants for reduncancy to keep from sacrificing a plane when it could come home on just one engine.
    A lot of electronics and other assorted apparat could be housed in a small escort like a Hawkeye type plane that orbits and does the heavy number crunching/ radar, etc. What we need really, is guns in the sky on a relatively cheap airframe to kill the enemy.

  • Ghaddafi was over-rated, but at the end it was discovered he had nothing and his troops are high joke.

  • john

    From my experience, cas can’t really be done by a drone. The last time I was in country the best cas came from cobras and the one time I got lucky enough to have a ac-130 covering my mitt team. A few times we got A-10s they gave us great results, but it wasnt their guns that did it, it was the bombs. Don’t get me wrong, i love having the 30 but in todays age where I have to watch for civilians and structure damage gun runs just don’t work.as well save those.from helicopter gunships that could.hover over and have solid gun shots.

    The A10 is Awsome and I would love to see a modern version I just don’t see it happening.

  • I think the need is there, but I’m not convinced by the single front engine configuration that you see on the Super Tucano or many of the other proposals.

    Much better for visibility is the short, dropped nose and forward seated crew arrangement that you see on aircraft such as Apache, Cobra, Bronco, Pucara, Harrier, Warthog, etc. Also frees up the nose area for mounting optics and sensors.

  • citanon

    I think mainly Gen. Frigerio’s comments show that European NATO allies are feeling poor.

  • mrcjis

    All this comment on a new aircraft is old news. This discussion has been going on for 20 plus years and the Mil still hasn’t gotten it act together. Oh, yea, and going back to wind mill aircraft just doesn’t make good sense. Have a look at a solution offered up 20 years back;

    Small, cheap, effective and you don’t have to reinvent the damn wheel!

  • Danny

    is the USAF flying Hawks? Thought it was only RAF

  • guest

    Couldn’t we get by if we made a couple planes like the P-51 Mustang and use them instead of a jet?

  • rebelCSA

    Here’s an idea: buy these for the Air National Guard instead of Reapers. At least an A-29 has some semblance of situational awareness. NY, TX, ND, IN could all use COIN aircraft. It’s time to start phasing out the UAVs. Looking through a soda straw just isn’t going to cut it, and the control systems are already proving to be vulnerable. IF we MUST have unmanned aircraft, they should be in the neighborhood of the X-47- medium-capability VLO bomb trucks.

  • Jeff

    I think the logical progression of warfare is one in which smaller and smaller ground force formation are more and more directly supported by aircraft. Alot of great aircraft have been built but this mission is one that has been largely ignored in favor of high cost advanced aircraft that are valued more for their strategic impact on the theater, than their tactical advantage in contributing to the ground war. Simply drones won’t be so capable and as cost effective as these type of manned aircraft any time soon, the Air Force is content with that and the Army in its marginalized dependence is forced to use alternatives such as the Apache, for missions better supported by these more cost effective air planes.

  • farniente

    Do not forget: The Czech Aero L-59 attack aircrafts are new, powerfull, reliable, cheap and immediately available from the surplus of CAF.

  • blight

    Using the wars of the past to predict how the future works out isn’t 100%.

    WW1 tanks got stuck in mud all the time. It defined post-war thinking on tanks to be “infantry tanks”, rather than cavalry.

  • Lem

    UAV’s are fine except the USAF insisted that only qualifed “real” pilots fly them when the could have save millions of dollars by letting the playstatation generation fly them. Zoomies run the USAF. And USAF demands thall transport Aircraft blong to them. USArmy should do the job of resupy and CAs for their troops. Let the USAF do air superority amd international support only.. Save billions ..Hahaha

  • Musket104

    What is new is old. We’ve tried to do the trainer to fighter thing in the past. T-28’s to AT-28. Even tried a turboprop version of it.
    The OV-10 was the original COIN-LARA answer.
    Skyraider bomb truck . Even tried a turboprop verion of the Skyraider backin the day. Now we have the Warthog bomb truck – with a big gun
    C-7 Caribou bought by the Army for sort range transport. Now the C-27 for guess what? The same thing the Caribou was developed for.

    The USAF only cares if it can shoot something out of the sky.
    Thank heaven the Marines have the idea of how things can and should work in a joint air-ground battle.

  • Elijah

    Looks like Ike knew more then than we do now.

  • Brian

    Why has no body mentioned the L-159 ALCA. Perfect cheap and cheerfull little multiroll jet and lots available…

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