Naval aviation continues to be called on to strike irregular forces that often are armed with little more than an AK-47 and a pickup truck. The primary method of conducting such strikes is heavy, expensive, and relatively short-range tactical jet aircraft such as the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The Navy needs a smaller and more versatile fixed-wing counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft.
Burning Flight Hours
Close air support (CAS) for COIN is unique in the amount of time aircraft can spend loitering over the battlespace waiting for friendly units to engage insurgents or simply to obtain permission to release a weapon. This gets expensive, as tactical jet aircraft cost between $5,000 and $10,000 per flight hour to operate.1
As a result of its experience in the war on terror, the Air Force concluded that “while there are a few specific missions which require the speed and firepower of advanced tactical aircraft, the vast preponderance of missions could be performed by a light attack aircraft.”2 By employing tactical jet aircraft such as the A-10 Thunderbolt in COIN operations, the Air Force was burning through airframes’ flight hours, resulting in the retirement of planes that will be sorely needed in a near-peer conflict.3
With cost and mission requirements in mind, the service began developing the Light Air Support Program to obtain an aircraft for the COIN mission. The program cost roughly $500 million for 20 aircraft, versus $100 million for a single F-35.4 Despite the need for a dedicated COIN/CAS aircraft, however, the Air Force is shelving the program in favor of developing more high-end aircraft for a near-peer competition.
The Navy’s situation is somewhat different, but a lot of flight hours are being burned fighting terrorists and less-than-near-peer enemies. Even for a sea-based service, close air support and counterinsurgency operations are important missions that require specialized assets. The answer? The AT-6 Wolverine.
The AT-6 can carry avionics suites that support the use of precision-guided ordnance or sensor equipment to monitor enemies at sea—at a cost of between $1,000 and $2,000 per flight hour.5 The aircraft mounts more than half a dozen hard points capable of carrying Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), Paveway, or traditional “iron” bombs, rocket pods, and cannons for conducting strafing runs for troops in contact or against enemy small boats. In addition, it is well suited to carry smaller Hellfire missiles and 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs, which can destroy a single boat, car, or building without extensive collateral damage.6
The two-seat AT-6—which has 1,600 shaft horsepower and a maximum load of more than 4,100 pounds—should be modified into single-seat COIN aircraft. The weight savings from eliminating one pilot and the accompanying systems should be used to support increased fuel capacity, the addition of light armor, or, perhaps most important for a maritime service, the capability to make arrested landings. Additional fuel promises more unrefueled loiter time. Light armor ensures the pilot is protected from small arms fire and that the aircraft can carry on its mission despite minor damage. The capability to make arrested landings will eat into any weight savings with heavier landing gear and the addition of a tailhook but ensures the AT-6 is mission capable when and where needed. As with any aircraft, careful balancing of weight allocation is critical to ensure the Navy is getting the most bang for its buck.
Such an aircraft would not require as large a support infrastructure as strike fighters. The aircraft could launch from smaller forward landing strips, with support limited to fuel, weapons, and maintenance shops, more akin to a “crop duster” strip—an advantage when insurgent groups have proven their ability to launch mortar and suicide attacks against even heavily defended airfields such as Bagram. A squadron of AT-6s dispersed among multiple smaller airfields would make it much more difficult for insurgents to take out an entire squadron.
Flying from distributed unimproved strips, COIN aircraft also would be able to provide close air support more quickly than traditional strike fighters. Strike fighters are fast, but when seconds count, a turboprop COIN aircraft based 10 miles away could support troops in contact faster than an F/A-18 200 or 300 miles away.
COIN aircraft could be flown off not only less advanced airstrips, but also less advanced ships, such as a future light aircraft carrier or a modified LHA. Such aircraft would complement Navy efforts to field smaller surface combatants such as the FFG(X) and unmanned surface vehicles by providing air support in the maritime environment without the presence of a large and expensive carrier strike group. This would free carrier strike groups for deterrence patrols against near-peer adversaries or more time between deployments. In place of multimillion-dollar Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles, COIN aircraft could drop more warheads for a fraction of the cost while providing close air support and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities for task groups of littoral combat ships, FFG(X)s, and unmanned surface vessels.7
Finally, because the AT-6 Wolverine is based on the T-6 Texan training aircraft, Navy and Marine Corps aviators would be familiar with its handling characteristics, emergency procedures, and operation. Given the training time for tactical aircraft pilots, some aviators are close to making O-3 before reporting to a strike fighter squadron (VFA/VMFA). Student naval aviators who qualify for “tail-hook aircraft” should get their first strike training with the AT-6. Instead of taking almost three years to report to a VFA squadron for their first sea tour, newly winged aviators could report to a light attack squadron in as little as a year, with follow-on training to fly tactical jet aircraft during their first shore tour.
As the Navy seeks to end production of the F/A-18 Super Hornet and focus on next-generation fighter programs, AT-6 Wolverines should be purchased to keep Super Hornets and F-35s ready for a fight against near-peer adversaries. For the cost of a strike aircraft, the Navy could have an entire squadron of aircraft that are just as lethal in the COIN mission—and naval aviators could be on the front lines in a matter of months instead of years.
1. Steven J. Tittel, The Cost, Capability, and the Hunt for a Lightweight Ground Attack Aircraft (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 2009), 38.
2. Tittel, Cost, Capability, and the Hunt, 19.
3. Tittel, Cost, Capability, and the Hunt, 2; Pat Host, “Pentagon Budget 2021: U.S. Air Force Again Pursuing A-10 Cuts,” Janes.com, 12 February 2020.
4. Aaron Mehta, “Embraer Delivers First A-29 to Air Force,” Military Times, 25 September 2014.
5. Tittel, Cost, Capability, and the Hunt, 41; Textron Defense, AT-6 Wolverine brochure.
6. Boeing Global Strike Systems, “Boeing Celebrates Small Diameter Bomb Delivery Milestones,” news release, 28 February 2008.
7. CAPT Robert C. Rubel, USN (Ret.), “The Future of the Aircraft Carrier,” Naval War College Review 64, no. 4 (Autumn 2011): 24.