The Buzz

Yes, Really, Destroy ISIS With Turboprop Light Attack Aircraft

The Obama administration is searching for options in Syria. The conflict, which has raged for four years, shows no signs of abating. The Russian entry into the war on behalf of the Syrian regime is an unwelcome development that will serve to increase civilian casualties.

For the United States and NATO, there are few good policy options available, and Western governments have long since lost the illusion that they can exert any sort of control over events in Syria. The conflict has become a battleground for long-deferred grievances, policy agendas and power struggles throughout the region.

At this stage, U.S. strategy options arguably revolve around containing the conflict within Iraq and Syria while trying to mitigate the effects on vulnerable populations in the conflict zone. Air power offers tactical options to support containment while remaining at a distance and minimizing the involvement of U.S. ground forces.

There are geographical challenges inherent with supporting the fast-jet fighter and bomber force, and there are emerging options for introducing a light attack capability that America hasn’t employed since Vietnam.

If the United States is planning on increasing the presence of ground forces in support of Iraqi and Kurdish ground elements, we should bring along a little local air power and reintroduce light attack aircraft.

Basing challenge

First, the United States has a problem—there are no bases in Iraq which currently support the coalition’s fast-jet fighters. The existing fighter bases which served us through Operation Iraqi Freedom are generally too close to the enemy or no longer in the hands of the Iraqi government.

Fighters operating over Mosul in northern Iraq have to come from Kuwait, a carrier in the Persian Gulf or airfields in the Gulf states—a one-way trip covering 500 to 1,000 nautical miles, depending on the base.

Incirlik Air Base in Turkey recently reopened for fighter operations for the first time in more than a decade. Incirlik’s proximity is a bonus, in that it knocks 125 nautical miles off the flight from Kuwait to Mosul, but the base is subject to constraints imposed by Turkey.

Even at the height of the no-fly zone enforcement, Turkish authorities regularly canceled flying operations on short notice, usually because of “special missions.” Turkish special missions, in the parlance of the time, were air strikes against Kurdish targets in Turkey, Iraq and even Iran.

The distance from suitable bases places a huge burden on aircraft, requiring massive amounts of tanker-delivered fuel and eating up the airframe life on a legacy fighter force that has an average age of more than a quarter century. The fuel consumption that this operational distance drives is equally large, and made more expensive in that tankers deliver the majority of it.

While the Air Force justifiably boasts of “Global Reach,” that reach is bought at huge expense and is completely reliant on secure bases with long runways and deep logistical support. This leaves small airfields in Turkey and Iraq out of reach.

Another issue is that distance equates to response time. If we are going to introduce additional ground forces to fight the Islamic State and shore up our Iraqi and Kurdish allies, those soldiers will still be highly dependent on aircraft flown from very distant basing.

Light attack

It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s possible to base combat aircraft inside Iraq. More accurately, it would be possible if the Air Force had any.

In Vietnam, the Air Force relied heavily on the Korean War vintage A-1E Skyraider for close air support and escort for rescue aircraft. The Pentagon transferred those aircraft to the South Vietnamese Air Force in 1973, and the U.S. Air Force transitioned to the A-7 Corsair II and the A-37B Dragonfly.

By 1991, the Dragonflies had been retired and the United States was out of the light attack business.

Turboprop light attack aircraft like the AT-6 Coyote or A-29 Super Tucano require a less constrained basing structure and much less logistical support than their fast jet counterparts. Fully armed, they carry the same bombload as an F-16 with three external fuel tanks, while gaining roughly twice the unrefeueled endurance.

They can operate from rough fields and are comparative fuel-sippers. The engines are highly reliable and resistant to foreign object damage.

Importantly, they use the same weapons and tactics as modern fighter/attack aircraft, capable of aerial gunnery, rocket employment and release of a variety of precision bombs. Today, every Air Force and Navy pilot receives flight training in the T-6 Texan II, making them familiar with low wing turboprops in this class.

The AT-6 and A-29 are off-the-shelf aircraft. The AT-6C is a fencer, benefiting from commonality with the A-10C Thunderbolt II and T-6 Texan II — and possesses a very robust communications and data array. The A-29 is a bruiser, with a higher, heavier airframe and a slightly heavier stores load. They each use the PT-6A-68 turboprop delivering 1,600 shaft horsepower, making them some of the most powerful single-engine turboprop aircraft in the world.

Both aircraft, combat loaded, are comparable in power-to-weight ratio and wing loading to a similarly configured P-47D Thunderbolt of World War II fame.