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.

    • JE McKellar

      But poor situational awareness. Sometimes you need someone in the air to see everything with their own eyes, especially in a fluid and chaotic situation like Libya was.

      • No guns on drones.

        • I would think that could be rectified with a pod quite easily.

          • TMB

            Speed and maneuverability factor in as well. Maybe some day, but not yet.

          • Actually not. The time lag between controller – UAV makes the use of guns in close proximity to troops an unacceptable risk.

          • blight

            We might be able to compensate for that if we start implement pattern recognition: for instance, Javelin missiles use image sensors to acquire a “picture” of the target, and can adjust on-the-fly as it moves. Of course, this is all pie in the sky…

      • Charley A

        Two people are more effective.

      • Musson1

        I guess that means BLACKWATER or their current equivalent will have to fill this need.

    • Shyon66

      I agree with you entirely. Drones are the wave of the future for low tech close air support. Why develop a light attack aircraft that will inevitably be made far more expensive with pilot protection systems when you can just build more Reaper and Predator drones armed with Hellfire missiles to saturate an enemy’s airspace?

      • TMB

        Like major rod alluded to, there’s a hell of a lot more to CAS than launching Hellfires. You also need to be able to drop bombs, perform gun runs, and talk to the pilot. Predators pilots fly from the States most of the time, and the grunt on the ground, his higher, and the pilot need to be a radio check away from each other.

        • TrustButVerify

          Fortunate, then, that the Predator has built-in VHF/UHF radios which are linked back to the operator’s GCS.

          • TMB

            Predators are flown via satellite link in the States. My dismount radio isn’t going to talk to them.

      • IKnowMoreThanU

        You might want to recheck your math. An AT-6B costs about as much as a Pred, which is about a quarter of a Reaper. So how will RPAs be the only solution? And please note the operational limitations…

    • IKnowMoreThanU

      Drones have some severe limitations dictated by physics. They are not the end all be all. Btw, it takes a lot of manpower to operate RPAs that are going to employ weapons. Plus, it extends the kill chain, something that troops being shot at do not want.

      • Shyon66

        If a drone gets shot down, no one dies. There’s no risky CSAR mission. Whatever the AT6 lists for, you can count on costs shooting up for the training program , the ejection seats, the bringing up to NATO spec. And what’s with the cult of guns? Hellfire is almost always a more accurate, definitive solution than a gun run. Drones can loiter forever and can hang lots of Hellfires. Anyone who questions the efficacy of Hellfire strikes vs fixed wing gun runs should read Not a Good Day to Die about Operation Anaconda.

        • TMB

          I’m fighting a platoon sized enemy hidden in a tree line. They’re spread out across about 200 yards of trench line. I’ve got air support on the way. Do I ask for a missile or several seconds of strafing gunfire? I’ll help you out – I’m not going to let loose an entire aircraft’s load of $30k missiles when a couple hundred rounds will do the trick at a fraction of a fraction of the cost.

          • Shyon66

            If you need a gun run run, call in the A10s, or the apaches or the Cobras. Usually, COIN does not involve platoon-size engagements. If and when they do, I would rather have a well armed helocopter or drone on hand than an AT6. Lets use the tried and true platforms that we have than spend beaucoup $$$ on a new platform that would be expensive to update, train, and support. That cash should go F-35

        • Read, “Not a Good Day…”. You should read it again. They used 20mm during the fight and were able to place those fires closer to troops in contact than some munitions because of the kill radius of the bombs.

        • tiger

          What does a hellfire cost? Vs. a .50BMG round? I don’t need a million dollar missile to take out a Toyota pickup truck…………………

          • TMB

            $68k/missile and $3/round.

      • blight

        The eventual wet dream is drones that can be vectored in by a hand-held GCS station. I don’t know if it can be done in the near future, but it would be nice…

  • 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.

      • blight

        The 30mm may still be useful to this day: Emplaced targets like mortar pits, sangars, houses or tribe/clan complexes can still be engaged with a 30mm in lieu of missiles.

        The A-10 was literally built around the Avenger, and maybe if we do go ahead with its replacement we should think about a way to have a detachable gun for the days we don’t have tankbusting missions, but still need a axial gun (instead of a gun pod) for the day we do need tank busting. I imagine the Avenger might still be used against the targets I mentioned before, but it isn’t the most effective use of the weapon system. If anything, modern warfare calls for accurate fires more than the high rates of fire delivered with a multi-barrel cannon.

        Wikipedia has this to say about the GAU-8’s accuracy:

        The GAU-8/A accuracy when installed in the A-10 is rated at “5 mil, 80 percent”, meaning that 80 percent of rounds fired at 4,000 feet (1,200 m) will hit the target within a 20 feet (6.1 m) radius circle. By comparison, the M61 is rated at 8 milliradians.

      • Musson1

        Get rid of the machine gun. The airwar in Vietnam proved that front line aircraft don’t need machine guns. Ask the Phantom pilots.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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?

    • JE McKellar

      Aren’t manned turboprops cheaper than UAV’s?

    • IKnowMoreThanU

      And you would be assuming that the RPA loss rate is on par with manned aircraft…thus, operating RPAs would far more expensive. Especially when you account for all the different ground stations and crews.

  • 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!

    • chaos0xomega

      I’m not well versed on the subject, but I think it has something to do with the fact that Fairchild Republic was bought out by Dornier.

    • Goldmember

      Because the airforce has been ruled by one type of person… and if doesn’t have a pointy nose, two afterburners and two tails… he’s just not that into it…

    • There are more A-10’s at DM (boneyard) than on active and reserve bases.

  • 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…

      • Sanem


        UAV: $10 million to buy, $400/hour to operate
        fighter jet: $70-150 million to buy, $4000/hour to operate

        UAV’s are better for “low intensity operations in uncontested airspace”, but modern Western air supremacy means that’s 90% of all missions, so yeah…

        UAV’s don’t stand up against fighter aircraft ofcourse, but perhaps that’s because they’re unarmed. you send an unarmed F-22 against an armed Mig-29, and there’s this weird chance that the Mig might win…

        now if you arm UAV’s: in Iraq that Mig-23 was performing hit-and-run attacks on Predators, the Air Force couldn’t protect them. after that Predator fired that Stinger (and missed), the Iraqi’s stopped all attacks, because they now knew the UAV’s could shoot back

        I say put advanced air-to-air missiles on $3 UAV’s (the price of a Predator when you strip its satellite class spy equipment), send them at the enemy in waves, use external targetting data (from AWACS, ground stations or any fighter jet) and you’ll swarm any air force in the world (including the USAF)

        • Sanem – at one point you say UAVs don’t need AA missiles and in the next you do. Secondly a very likely reason the Iraqis stopped trying to shoot tdown Prdeators in 2003 is we invaded the country.

          UAVs are great. They do not provide the payload that manned aircraft do and they can’t deploy guns (controller – UAV time lag makes that dangerous).

        • Skeletor

          Don’t believe the hype, trust me, they are not bulletproof, cheap or even easy or reliable… good for a few things, really expensive in the long run and not the end all be all of airpower…
          MQ-9’s = 30+ million per aircraft (excluding ground stations, BLOS link cost, ground IT infrastructure, weapons, crew training, etc…)
          AT-6B = 9 million a copy with no need for two cockpits deployed around the world with all the stuff needed to run them and BLOS links

  • 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.

  • 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.

    • chaos0xomega

      Why not pusher prop? gets the pesky prop out of the way entirely.

      • mike j

        The answer is, you can have a pusher, but… You get the prop out from in front of the pilot, and the whole plane is in the way of the prop. For a very agile aircraft, that means greatly variable, turbulent loads on the prop. If it’s flying out of rough fields, that means potential FOD. These were at least some of the reasons Scaled went with a turbofan for the ARES. Different designs could mitigate those problems (and create others, of course).

  • 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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