Bronco 12 Cleared Hot

By Captain Andy Walton, U.S. Navy

Fighting a low-end war with high-end supersonic aircraft has put a heavy burden on the Department of Defense’s fourth-generation fighter and attack fleet. Sustainment of aging fourth-generation and acquisition of fifth-generation aircraft have left the U.S. Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps with little interest in adding low-end light-attack airframes to their inventories and quieted the debate over light attack for U.S. special operations forces (SOF) and general purpose forces (GPF).

From as early as 2002, advocates of “low-cost irregular warfare aircraft” such as the AT-6, A-29, AT-802, OV-10, Scorpion, and others argued the overall cost savings in fuel, maintenance, and manpower were worth exploring. They proposed that even small numbers of these forward-deployed expeditionary aircraft could ease the flight-hour and service-life strain on fourth-generation aircraft performing low-threat armed reconnaissance (AR), air interdiction (AI), and close-air-support (CAS) missions, the airborne tankers supporting them, as well as the number of fuel convoys traveling to air bases in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and Iraq.

The recent OV-10 deployment, named Combat Dragon II (CD II), provides a template for how adaptable, flexible, innovative, forward-thinking people can produce ideas easily applied to the combatant commander’s capability shortfalls. If adopted, it would ease service topline budget pressure and position the DOD to be prepared for the range of missions it may face in the future. The CD II deployment also demonstrated how gaps in our current strategy can be filled with repurposed or off-the-shelf hardware.

Senior leadership, from Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter to U.S. Navy Director, Air Warfare, Rear Admiral Mike Manazir (as well as their predecessors) have directed development of imaginative, creative, and affordable ways to create military capability and capacity that is capable of being rapidly fielded, especially knowing that our nation’s current fiscal situation is unsustainable.

The idea to conduct an experiment using off-the-shelf, low-cost CAS aircraft was born out of this direct call by senior leadership for innovation. In the middle of the last decade, light-attack advocates realized the asymmetric counterterrorism fight would continue for the immediate future, creating significant pressure on service budgets.

In 2011, then-Commander, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Marine Corps General James Mattis, proposed an experiment to include the full kill chain (find, fix, and finish), which sought to reduce the cost of air-power support, but also to explore new synergies between the aircrews and ground combat elements (GCE). His experiment was patterned after a Vietnam War-era experiment dubbed Combat Dragon II. In that, Mattis hypothesized that:

Properly manned and employed turbo-prop driven aircraft with find, fix, finish, assess (F3A) capabilities will increase synergy and improve coordination between the aviation combat element (ACE) and the GCE. This will result in expanded capacity and increased effectiveness of airpower in a counterinsurgency (COIN) or irregular warfare environment while reducing cost and preserving for future employment the high-end special aviation resources currently performing similar missions.

As alluded to, CD II was influenced by the first such experiment that began in August 1967. Twenty-Five A-37As flying from Bien Hoa Airfield, South Vietnam, were evaluated in their performance conducting CAS, forward air control (FAC), AR, and AI missions. In that experiment the U.S. Air Force also evaluated the cost savings on manpower, logistical support, and fuel expenditure compared to other Air Force assets, as well as how effective the system would be if acquired by the South Vietnamese Air Force.

Funding for the experiment was provided by Congress and CENTCOM, partnered with U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the U.S. Navy to conduct a stateside limited-objective experiment (LOE) to prove the hypothesis. Not surprisingly, the stateside LOE proved the hypothesis to a large degree, but because of exercise artificialities some questions concerning the efficacy of the approach remained. To address some of the lingering questions/data shortfalls, CENTCOM was approved to conduct an in-theater extended user evaluation (EUE). Along with the continued support of the Navy—specifically Commander, Naval Air Systems Command and Commander, Naval Special Warfare Command—CentCom planned to expand the LOE into an EUE to add live operational stressors and better evaluate the expeditionary nature of the hypothesis. The targeted location was Yemen.

This point in the project is where the proverbial “enemy gets a vote.” With the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, CD II EUE planning was quickly shifted to execute the EUE at an expeditionary location in Iraq while providing in-stride direct-support air power support to SOFs.

Much like the LOE, the CD II EUE intended to gather data on employment of light turboprop attack aircraft, manned with specially trained personnel operating in an expeditionary manner and in direct support of the GCE. The CD II detachment (DET) deployed in early summer 2015 to Northern Iraq with 15 personnel and two highly modified 1960s-era OV-10G+ Broncos. The DET’s intent was to demonstrate the effectiveness and capacity of air power to support U.S. and Coalition SOF, GPF, and their host-nation partnered elements in a COIN environment; and evaluate the additional efficiency and capacity provided by a cost-efficient turboprop aircraft outfitted with appropriate technology and capabilities.

In other words, a small element of light-attack aircraft cost-effectively ties together low-end manned aerial reconnaissance and interdiction provided by high-end aviation assets once they reach the objective area. The CD II approach is not a replacement for fourth-generation fighters and bombers, but will complement their capabilities at a dramatically reduced cost per flight hour once the conditions have been set for their entry into the battlespace.

Cost was not the only reason CENTCOM conducted the experiment, but it did result in hard data that could be compared to current practices. The table here represents cost data collected during the EUE. CD II cost included fuel, maintenance, and other incidental amounts. While cost data for the platforms currently executing the F3A mission was not available to CENTCOM, data from the DOD Comptroller’s 2 October 2015 Fiscal Year 2016 DOD Fixed Wing and Helicopter Reimbursement Rates, “Other DOD Component User Rates” column was used for comparison.

In the table, the data was broken down to a cost per flight hour from a three-hour vulnerability window. Transit time to/from the objective area, tanking, and ancillary support required to perform the full F3A mission were included.

The late Air Force Colonel John Boyd, father of the OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) Loop, used the construct of “people, ideas, hardware, in that order” often when describing military problem-solving. Even though his innovative ideas and imaginative approaches caused friction in the Air Force ranks while he lived, it provides a perfect example of creative solutions to current problems. This construct was applied successfully by CD II leadership and is provided as an example for others with similar ideas in services or other warfare communities to follow.


Colonel Boyd argued that people were the most important variable, and in the case of CD II, he was absolutely correct. Fifteen experts were chosen from across the naval aviation enterprise as well as two Air Force enlisted members and two contract mechanics. The entire DET was thoroughly cross-trained to perform each other’s jobs to the maximum extent. Aircrew were trained to assist the ordnance and maintenance team to rapidly refuel and reload the .50-caliber gun pod and LAU-68 rocket pods at night, in full combat gear under fire. The intelligence team helped the maintenance crew with the nightly turnarounds. All personnel were qualified brake riders and plane captains. All were chosen because of their common mindset:

• Enthusiasm, humility, credibility, and a relaxed, focused, open mind

• Never forget you are support to the guy on the ground

• We can never be in the “all right” business

• “Customer first; no fail” is the name of the game

• Be passionate, but not emotional

• Always wear thick, abrasive skin

• Ensure constant transparency and never-ending self-assessment.

All six aircrew had extensive fighter/strike fighter backgrounds as instructors at the Fleet Replacement Squadron, the Naval Aviation Development Center, Top Gun, and F/A-18 weapons schools. All were forward air controllers (airborne) (FAC[A]), four of the six aircrew were SOCOM fire-support officers with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and JTACs, including JTAC instructor/evaluators. Almost all of the Navy and Air Force enlisted members were pulled from their respective schoolhouses as instructors to ensure the small cadre of personnel would have the experience and technical backgrounds required to excel on a combat deployment to the Middle East.

Putting this kind of team together within the detailing and individual augmentee process was the most challenging part of CD II, but was by far the most important key to the unit’s success.


CD II leaders quickly learned that the people described here must have innovative, forward-thinking ideas to cost -effectively solve problems with minimal manpower. Out-of-the-box thinking was required to take a 50-year-old aircraft on a combat deployment without a service sponsor, minimal logistics support, no depot-level maintenance, class desk, or resident knowledge anywhere else in the DOD.

One of the key principles of the LOE and EUE was the idea to have the DET work directly for the end-user and at the lowest possible level of the command-and-control structure, as opposed to working directly for the Combined Air and Space Operations Center. The small size of the DET and focus on the end-user clarified day-to-day tasking and built a better relationship and understanding with respect to the ground scheme of maneuver.

Mission systems were designed and chosen by the end user—the guy on the ground, not industry and the acquisition community. Analysis and requirements were generated by combat controllers, JTACs, FAC(A)s, GFCs, joint fires observers (JFOs), and fire-support officers with years of combat experience controlling air power. They recommended the systems based on life-and-death situations they had faced in the past. Massive PowerPoint presentations and detailed acquisition strategies were replaced with bar-napkin discussions with the operators CD II would be supporting. “Man, wouldn’t it have been nice to have ‘x’ or ‘y’ when we were faced with ‘z?’”

CD II leadership realized early that a shift in thinking would have to occur to transition carrier naval aviators into an expeditionary mindset.

• Base as far forward as possible. Be ready to execute short takeoff and landing (STOL) from unprepared surfaces both day and night. Live with the GCE you are supporting.

• Bring as many different types of air-to-surface weapons (and defensive countermeasures) you can to the fight.

• Bring payload capacity, utility, and survivability. Max out the roughly 70 cubic square feet of space to put what the task force commander, GFC, JTACs, medical team, signals intelligence leads, J2 and controlling agencies request on or in the aircraft. Ensure room for body armor and 5.56 carbines.

• Know your history and learn from the past. Our fathers and grandfathers performed this mission in the same aircraft almost 50 years ago, and their successes and failures were well documented.

• Familiarize yourself with the local villages well enough to know what looks right and wrong on an hour-by-hour basis. Look for signs of ISIS presence. Know what vehicle and foot traffic looks like on any given night. Watch for out-of-the-ordinary activity such as vehicles moving without lights, small fires, or generators running where they had not been before. Develop pattern of life.

• Understand the enemy’s goals, strengths, and weaknesses.

• HD sensors and 22-inch displays can provide what lower altitudes, parachute flares, and binoculars did in the past, but be ready to operate and employ from low altitude if needed.

•Apply former SOCOM Admiral William H. McRaven’s six keys to a successful operation: surprise, speed, security, simplicity, purpose, and repetition.

• If you cannot solve it otherwise, go violent.

In August 2001, no one expected U.S. forces to be fighting in Afghanistan or expected having them stay as long as they have. No one expected our military to go back to Iraq or have it stay as long as it has. But violent extremism is not going anywhere anytime soon, so the CD II experiment was tasked to provide critical insight on what is in the realm of the possible should a key stakeholder ask for a capability such as this in the future.


Two NASA OV-10G aircraft were selected for the project because of their minimal administrative government-to-government transfer cost, immediate availability, Naval Air Training and Operational Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) publications still on file, and moderate supply of spare parts still available. Once transferred to the DOD, the aircraft were heavily modified to perform the F3 mission and redesignated the OV-10G+.

Aviators’ thoughts and attention immediately tend to gravitate toward gray aircraft sitting on the ramp, not the people and ideas that led to them to being parked there. CD II from the beginning has been a “platform agnostic” program, focusing more on the capability strengths and shortfalls of current light-attack platforms available than pushing a certain airframe.

Three key hardware takeaways came from the LOE and EUE. First was fielding an ISR platform with focused survivability against the next generation of man-portable air-defense systems in mind. CD II planners were able to find a platform that was designed from the beginning as an attack aircraft. The next generation of ISR will need survivability not just through missile-warning systems and advanced expendables, but through maneuverability, sustained “G” performance, and speed. At some point in the near future, the manned 20,000-foot, 130-knot left- hand ISR orbit will no longer be a sanctuary. Second was the development and integration of ISR and light-attack mission systems into a two-place ejection-seat cockpit. Current manned ISR platforms are derived from civilian passenger and cargo aircraft and are operated by four to five aviators. They have the advantage of stowable swing-arm video monitors and keyboards for ISR data entry and Internet relay chat. CD II had to design an open architecture that integrated light-attack employment systems with current Windows-based ISR hardware and software that could be employed by two aircrew riding in armed ejection seats. Third, HD FLIR with supported large-screen HD touch-screen displays was generations ahead of current strike fighter and attack aircraft and was key to identifying, tracking, and attacking high-value individuals in dense urban terrain. This also provided HD beyond-line-of-sight video to the Engagement Control Authority for weapon-release authority and intelligence support.

At the end of the combat deployment to Iraq, CD II leaders believed that the OV-10, although an excellent platform in the current configuration, was only the 80 percent solution to the problem presented to them. The emergence of ISIS in Iraq added both a sense of urgency and opportunity to put the CD II approach through its paces. Had the CD II team had more time, they would have updated a few of the sensor models to their latest versions and qualified additional weapons for the platform. The team was literally building on-the-fly some of the techniques employed during the EUE, which in its own right is what EUEs are all about—evaluating new approaches/equipment. There was no expectation that the OV-10G+ used during the experiment was a fully fielded and thoroughly tested platform of record, although it mostly performed as such.

‘Resounding Successes’

On all key performance parameters, the LOE and EUE were resounding successes. The few programmatic shortfalls that were identified had minimal impact on the overall mission-concept potential and can be easily rectified by minor mission system upgrades and ordnance improvements.

The detachment flew 134 sorties, accumulating 477.3 total hours during the 82-day deployment, achieving a 99 percent sortie completion rate. Aircrew employed 63 APKWS in 41 separate engagements, achieving over an 80 percent ground force commander’s intent met, which is on par with similar platforms in the CENTCOM and Africa Command areas of responsibility. The cost savings in using existing government-owned and thoroughly tested aircraft, off-the-shelf technology, and forward basing, small personnel footprint, and extremely low operating costs validated CentCom’s evaluation and sets the stage for follow-on deployments or air platform programs of record if desired.

The major takeaway from the deployment was the OV-10G+ is an excellent near-term gap-filler, but not necessarily recommended as a program of record if long-term light attack is to become a reality. Aircraft designation aside, what the platform did provide is a list of key performance parameters that should be considered if the DOD decides to build a light-attack capability in the future. The lessons learned in proving the hypothesis and the view from the ground and the air what capability should be resident in a future light-attack platform is the legacy CD II seeks to impart to the DOD.

Other advances in light attack continue to prove the concept as well. South American and Indonesian air forces have used light attack effectively against narco-trafficking and terrorism for decades. The recent delivery of four A-29 Super Tucano turboprop aircraft to Afghanistan’s air force is another example of how a low-cost solution can be administered. The platforms and the recent training in the United States provided to the Afghan aircrews and maintainers will be key to their ability to sustain gains and provides a good example of rapid capability and capacity with low comparative costs to larger fighter and attack aircraft.

Captain Walton, a former F-14 radar intercept officer and F/A-18 weapon systems officer, helped take the Combat Dragon II (an OV-10G+ Bronco) concept into Iraq against ISIS in 2015. He is currently serving at Commander, Operational Test and Evaluation.




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