The Buzz

The U.S. Air Force Need More Than 300 Light Attack Aircraft (Now)

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.