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:: September 2018 Letter ::

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Dear Fellow Air Power Observers,

Congress gets a bad rap. Often viewed as a bunch of do-nothings, the US government’s legislative branch can act decisively. Take, for example, OA-X, the nascent USAF acquisition program covering scores or hundreds of light turboprop attack planes. Congress added $100 million for OA-X “unspecified quantity and long-lead items” to the FY 2019 Appropriations Conference bill. As Roman Schweizer, analyst at Cowen and Co., put it in a note this month:

We cannot recall an effort that has garnered so much congressional support (by that we mean money) with so little detail from the military branch. Typical DoD acquisition programs require formal requirements, a documented acquisition strategy and an independent cost estimate (at the minimum). Yet Congress seems ready to just keep throwing money at this program (including $100M in R&D that we missed last year).

So there. Congress does get stuff done. It moves like greased lightning to push really bad ideas. And OA-X is the mother of all really bad ideas.

First, as anyone who recalls the brutal history of the OV-10 and OV-1 in Vietnam knows, low-level turboprop combat operations are a good way to kill pilots. Light prop airplane technology hasn’t changed much, but ground defenses have gotten considerably more sophisticated. Almost any kind of ground-based air defense systems would destroy OA-X planes, unless those systems were built by the Nerf Corporation. That means USAF OA-X operations could only take place in the most desperate, destitute, and somewhat ungovernable countries. Afghanistan, basically, and parts of Africa. They’d be unusable even in Syria.

One reason they’d be unusable in most places is that the US has come to value pilots’ lives. So have most militaries in the developed world. Israel, which knows a thing or two about irregular combat, would never use a plane in this class. Nor would most NATO countries. Or Russia. Or even China. Finally, the US Marines, arguably the nation’s chief low-intensity conflict service, has no use of a plane like this.

The two OA-X candidates’ sales records tell us who does use planes like this. Textron’s AT-6 may have been ordered by Iraq (unconfirmed) and nobody else. Embraer’s Super Tucano has sold well, but its order book (outside of Brazil) looks like the departures board at a Third World airport (Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Mali, Ghana, Angola, Indonesia, etc.). Congress seems to identify with Burkina Faso’s military procurement plans.

People push bad ideas with false dichotomies (“if you don’t join the communists, fascism will win!”). Congressional OA-X promoters work that way too. As Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colorado), wrote in an Air Force Times editorial this month, “Estimates of the cost per hour to fly an F-22 range as high as $70,000, while a light attack aircraft costs about $2,000 per flight hour.” In Coffman’s curious view, only an OA-X can break that costly paradigm.

In reality, there are many other ways to hit ground targets. USAF could use much less expensive fighters like the F-16, or the seemingly immortal A-10 (the best close air support plane yet built). Fighters cost more, but thanks to their range, carrier operability, and air-to-air refueling, they don’t require in-country bases. Since OA-Xs would be operated in unstable regions, basing is a big problem. And there are Reapers and other drones, cheaper even than an OA-X. All these options are reasonably priced, and none endanger a pilot’s life as a light prop would.

And then there’s this little exercise. Imagine a hypothetical air vehicle…something that has fantastic loitering capabilities, lots of firepower, and that flies low and slow like OA-X. Amazingly, it even takes off vertically, so it can operate a few miles away from where troops need it. Isn’t this notional creation a better idea than OA-X? Sure, and it isn’t notional: the Army has around 800 AH-64 Apaches. Similarly, the Marines rely on 160+ AH-1W/Zs.

Despite Congressional support, the Air Force has yet to budget money for OA-X, and it’s very hard to know if this will ever be a real program. To understand what’s going on, perhaps it’s best to traffic in conspiracy theories…er…I mean, discuss possible motivations:

Theory 1: USAF is bluffing as a way of killing the A-10. This posits that the Air Force is proposing an OA-X competition as a rationale for retiring the A-10. It’s true that the service has been trying to kill the A-10 (since it was born, really); from there, it’s just an easy stretch to think that they’d concoct a crazy scheme to kill it by creating a replacement plane and then killing that replacement plane too.

Theory 2: Congress is calling USAF’s bluff. This assumes that Congress knows what USAF is doing (per Theory 1), and is determined to force them to take a new light attack plane. This theory might have merit – the Air Force annoyed many in Congress when it killed the JSTARS recap, saying it couldn’t survive in a contested environment, and now the service claims to want a plane that has even less of a chance of surviving in a contested environment. That looks weird.

Theory 3: USAF actually likes OA-X because it’s the only way to grow force structure. At the Air Force Association show a few weeks back, AF Secretary Heather Wilson said the Air Force needs 386 operational squadrons, or 25% more than today’s 312. Since the service has no plans to get there with additional aircraft procurement, and since deferred retirements of existing aircraft won’t get them there, the only hope is to build force structure by buying hundreds of $12 million turboprops. That would be like building tent cities as a form of urban development.

As a market forecaster, it’s very hard to forecast demand for aircraft in this class when there’s all this program noise. But really, it comes down to the nation’s strategic goals. If the US wants to spend young lives and treasure on wars of choice for decades to come, then it will do OA-X (even if many of these conflicts involve weaponry too dangerous for OA-X). If it decides that these wars of choice are a painful diversion away from serious strategic threats to the country, then it will put the money elsewhere. OA-X represents a proxy for a much bigger debate – one that Congress has never been good at having.

Yours, ‘Til The OA-X Winner Scores An Actual Air-To-Air Kill – Against A Kite,
Richard Aboulafia
 

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