View Full Version : P.W. Singer: No COIN planes necessary
09-23-2009, 06:57 PM
There has been some discussion on SWC about the Air Force's move to field low-cost COIN/CAS aircraft for irregular warfare. Folks seem to be generally bullish about the idea, both here and elsewhere, so I thought it interesting to see P.W. Singer take a shot at the program (http://www.brookings.edu/opinions/2009/0922_drones_singer.aspx?p=1):
Just like the movie, though, this plan may seem appealing because of the guts and glory of the pilots who would fly these fabulous old planes back into battle (indeed, one of the entrants is even a version of the P-51 Mustang). But it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. It is somewhat questionable to add 100 new planes (if one can describe 50-year-old designs as "new") at the very same time that the Air Force is seeking to accelerate the retirement of about 250 F-15s, F-16s and A-10s. Unlike these proven multi-role aircraft, light propeller planes could only be used at the low end of war, not against China or even Iran.
Moreover, in its haste to show that it is not focused on the next war, the Air Force may be trying to fight the last war. These planes won't be deployable for use in Iraq or Afghanistan until 2013 at best. The plan thus rests on two huge assumptions: 1) that we'll still be fighting counterinsurgencies there or elsewhere for which we'll need 100 more planes, and 2) while we are going back in time militarily, our enemies won't be going forward. Even within insurgencies, various non-state actors like Hezbollah already field anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles; now we would just be providing them with easier targets.
For operations that need planes to fly low and slow in support of troops on the ground, actually new technologies, like the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned system, have already proved to be far more effective. The old planes rely on the pilot's "Mark II eyeballs"; the drone carries Gorgon Stare, a technology that monitors 12 high-powered cameras at once. Reaper also carries almost double the weapons and can stay on the scene four times as long. Drones are admittedly less fun to fly, but that's not how we are supposed to make serious weapons decisions.
The ultimate kicker is that the very partners the Air Force claims it is buying the planes to train and fight with don't actually want them. The head of the Iraqi air force reportedly wants F-16s instead, while the head of the Afghan National Army Air Corps wants Predators. Perhaps they haven't seen the movie?
I am inclined to disagree with Singer on a number of points. For one, I think it is pretty patronizing to imply that the Air Force is trying to rekindle their scarf-wearing glory days rather than attempting to realistically tackle a legitimate criticism of their force structure. If anything, even if one disagrees with the program, they should be commended for displaying some 'out of the box' thinking that appeared to be woefully lacking of late (e.g., the efforts SecDef Gates had to go through to increase Predator sortie rates).
I am also skeptical of the idea that Predators are the answer. Drones are expensive--they require an extremely sophisticated C2 network and other high-end infrastructure investments--so if you're looking for a low-cost solution they probably wouldn't be the best choice (also why they would be a terrible idea for the Afghan Air Force, amazing Singer is even taking that argument seriously). And there is something to be said for having two pilots in the loop, on station, peering down from a bubble canopy at the fight (not to mention their FLIR pods).
I am more sympathetic to the arguments about survivability, but those cut against Preds and Reapers too. Also the Columbians seem to do well with their Tucanos against a fairly sophisticated and well-armed irregular opponent.
All in all, the op-ed seems like a cheap and ill-informed shot against the Air Force (with some legitimate arguments). Anyone else think Singer may be going a little 'drone-happy' ever since publishing Wired for War?
09-23-2009, 07:34 PM
I don't get the reference to F-15s and F-16s. I don't know any Soldier who has interacted with one without a JTAC as an intermediary. I mean, maybe it happens, but probably not as the ordinary course of business. For the rest of us, how many JTACs does the AF have available to attach to ground forces down at the platoon level? And even if that were feasible, F-16s brought little more to the fight than a bomb dropped from umpteen thousand feet with a gigantic danger zone and a 30-second delay from the moment that it was requested. It's nice when you need it. But most of the time you just need another set of eyes from a different vantage point and some well-placed fires on a nearby target. Take Kiowas, for example. I communicated in plain English with Kiowa pilots - sometimes with mere hand gestures because they flew so low. And if a Kiowa fired, I didn't need to back up a few hundred meters to avoid being danger close.
Surely there is a happy medium between the firepower and speed of a jet and the responsiveness and precision of a Kiowa. I don't think UAVs are the way to go. They are not responsive. If that problem could be solved, then maybe we would be on to something, but a human in the cockpit is still far more preferable. I also don't think the F-15 or similar jet is the answer. I understand his gripe is that the newly proposed planes won't be useful against China. Yeah, maybe not in the initial HIC. But in the LIC that follows, I suspect it would be. Regardless, aren't we supposed to be focusing on the wars that we're fighting? In that regard, he raises doubt on whether we'll still be fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan by the time these things might be fielded, in 2013. Now there is some wishful thinking.:rolleyes:
09-23-2009, 07:48 PM
It takes a lot of background to understand the whole COIN aircraft (let's think of the OV-10D+ Bronco as an example) discussion.
1) The Korea and Vietnam story of Skyraider vs. jets.
The propeller-driven Skyraider was slow and rugged, its pilot had enough time to find and identify the target (or marking smoke) and to communicate with the FAC or FO.
This is generally used as an example that it takes slow aircraft for safe and effective CAS. That's where much of the A-10's popularity comes from.
The A-10 had its embarrassing sorties about fratricide as well, though (think of AAV's being misunderstood for BMP's in Iraq).
2) The counter-concept to the slow&low school is the "high, fast & technical sensors with zoom" school. Air forces love the latter (if they have enough money) because the platform is much more versatile. You can attach a FLIR pod to a fighter to make a CAS aircraft. Speed is supposedly no problem because the aircraft can circle at a safe altitude.
I'd like to add that supersonic jets can fly slow as well. Maybe the air forces need a new, alternative high authority autopilot software for slow&low CAS (AOA issues may be a challenge, though).
3) Drones (can) have extreme endurance and a good sensor, but most are slow. Especially the original Predator drones are as slow as a WWI biplane. So that's a kind of platform that you want to use on lasting ops, not as a quick reaction asset.
4) Drones also require bandwidth, and as far as I know it's simply impossible to increase the quantity of drones on station by much. Bandwidth is the critical bottleneck afaik.
5) Air support is more than just staring and using guided munitions
* show of force (show yourself, lightshow)
* strafing runs (autocannon, possibly unguided rockets like 68mm SNEB or 70mm Hydra or CRV)
I'd like to add that a 70mm Hydra smoke rocket salvo can at times get infantry out of trouble real quick.
6) New (or re-started) COIN aircraft production takes years. The only quick fix would be to buy and at most refurbish existing aircraft.
Brazil has Tucanos, the USN has T-45's, Broncos sit in the desert, Hawks are available in many places, L-159's are available on the market (even some with almost no flying hours). Such light jets consume only about 1/3 as much fuel as an A-10. They're also two-seaters with superior abilities in communication and sensing (due to shared workload).
7) Normal tactical aircraft cannot easily be operated inside Afghanistan. That takes a lot of ground personnel plus all the fuel and ammo would need to be moved in That would happen either by air (insanely expensive) or on unsafe roads.
The supposed COIN aircraft would be less much thirsty, while the maintenance requirements may be much lower than an A-10's as well.
8) The Taleban don't seem to have effective ManPADS and only occasionally something like 14.5 or 23mm AA weapons. Even WW2 aircraft would be quite survivable (for now - I don't think that the Pakistanis guard their ManPADS systems as well as their nukes).
09-23-2009, 07:55 PM
Take Kiowas, for example. I communicated in plain English with Kiowa pilots - sometimes with mere hand gestures because they flew so low. And if a Kiowa fired, I didn't need to back up a few hundred meters to avoid being danger close.
I think Kiowas are a perfect example. Being able to get "low and slow" and communicate directly with troops in contact (maybe the ability to survive some SAF or an RPG) seems like an excellent solution to make the Air Force more relevant in LIC/COIN/SFA operations.
I also agree with your point about what the Iraqis and Afghans want. Is it possible that they don't actually know what would be best for them, and are stating their preferences based on the "gee whiz, cool!" factor rather than the usefulness of such aircraft?
09-23-2009, 08:35 PM
Everybody wants the best -- shiniest, fastest, etc., etc., etc. One of the military forces I was assisting wanted a fleet of F-16s, as a "gift" from the U.S. As any of you who have run guns for a living know, the expense isn't in procurement, it's in training, O&M, etc. Partner Air Forces need frames that they can afford and can master the maintenance of. Blessedly, our security assistance program sells full packages (training, spare parts, maint. equip., etc.), but even then, with an initial stock of spare parts, vehicles/airframes still become hangar queens through cannibalization.
So quite aside from what the "COIN" aircraft can do for me, please consider what they can do for our partners. Remember, endstate is being able to exit, leaving behind a reasonably self-sustaining partner.
09-23-2009, 08:45 PM
Everybody wants the best -- shiniest, fastest, etc., etc., etc. One of the military forces I was assisting wanted a fleet of F-16s, as a "gift" from the U.S.
Bingo--which is why Singer is disingenuous (or just ignorant) when he writes, at face value, that the head of the Iraqi air force wants F-16s. Of course he wants F-16s; and they will be about as useful to him as the MiG-29s were to Saddam.
And as far as the Predator going to the Afghan Air Force--what are the odds they will be able to stand up the sort of networked systems necessary to operate them anytime in the next decade? Considering the country's literacy rate, I think I have a better shot of winning the lottery.
On the other hand, could these militaries operate a one or two-engine, two-seat prop plane with some basic avionics and weapons systems, along with the necessary maintenance and training programs? I dunno, but I'd say they had a better shot than with F-16s and Predators.
09-23-2009, 08:51 PM
I'm often asked why I'm unreasonably and implacably opposed to 'Think' Tanks and academics who are 'Strategists' or military experts. Theoreticians with considerable book knowledge and little experience are particularly bothersome... :mad:
Then I read ill-informed, rather ignorant and unduly patronizing articles like that from Singer and I recall why that's the case... :wry:
Aside from that pseudo-psychobabble about scarves which demeans the writer, not the aviators, the points made by you and others are all valid. I'll also point out that any turboprops bought won't last long enough due to normal wear and tear to be around if we have a China problem. As for Iran, he apparently is unaware of the moonscape that is Iranian territory... :eek:
No question UAVs have their uses but there are many things they cannot do and he misses the point of in-theater availability. He also should be aware that the F-16 and other fast movers can indeed do CAS -- but Troops and the JTACs on the ground in Afghanistan will opt for the A-10, the AH-64 and a Kiowa in that order given the call. I suspect there's a reason for that. :cool:
Dippy article that contributes little and demonstrates a lot of arrogance, only slight knowledge and not much else.
09-23-2009, 09:03 PM
Agreed with all of the above.
Also, I think it's a bit absurd that Singer talks about partners for the Air Force to support, and ignores ground forces. Of course an AF general (no doubt in flight suit during the interview) wants more high-performance fighters. Ground troops of any stripe - coalition or indigenous - I assume would prefer the COIN aircraft to drones or more strike jets.
Then again, it's hard for me to understand the Air Force when I can only (unfairly) think of their role as one of supporting other services. . .
09-24-2009, 04:28 AM
Singer is pretty much out of his depth with that commentary...I would think he knows better.
Oh yeah...and what Ken said too.
09-24-2009, 07:15 AM
Surely there is a happy medium between the firepower and speed of a jet and the responsiveness and precision of a Kiowa.
Can I get an A-10, Brothers and Sisters? :D
My battle buddy here is widely known as Mr. Excalibur, making him an icon of precision indirect fires in the close fight. He advocates first round precision as the new standard for indirect and has delivered that standard to troops in contact.
Let's face it. Having been in the write for your life game on the USG side, sometimes guys like Singer gotta scribble something and the old rule something needed bad gets delivered bad comes into play.
William F. Owen
09-24-2009, 08:45 AM
I think the real problem here is that Singer has no idea of the dynamics of CAS. Singer gets it half right in the absence of understanding.
a.) JDAM, AGM-114 and similar does not care what airframe it comes off, so all the Low and slow stuff is pretty moot. "Rolling in on the Smoke," ready to loose 18 x 2.75, is not really relevant to modern operations. - We can do better.
b.) Your sensor does not have to be the shooter - the IDF use UAVs to cue Apache and F-16, but "allegedly" do not wish to arm UAVs - and for normal operations do not. A UAV can cue GMLRs - why differentiate between "Air Support" and Fire Support?
c.) If you want to use 30mm, DAGR (guided 70mm) and similar, Armed helicopters would seem a sensible choice. USAF has none, so human, emotional and organisational bias, get in the way.
Personally, I am against specialist fleets of "COIN bug bashers." unless they bring a lot more to the party, as a true multi-role platform. I'd want OV-10 capabilities as an absolute minimum - eg: Observation, transport, para-dropping, and specialist sensors.
09-24-2009, 10:28 AM
Wayback when I visted Davis-Monthana airbase, Tucson, Arizona and went on the public tour of the mothballed USAF fleet apart from the size of the stock, more interesting was the commentary that regularly the AF returned to take old planes out of mothballs and into active service. I cannot now recall which planes he cited. The USN and USMC have similar stockpiles.
I would suggest whatever "slow" airframes needed are there, including then dozens of OV-10s; moot point if all the spare parts etc are stockpiled too.
09-28-2009, 05:35 AM
Wilf gets it right I think, but tack on two points:
1. Platform is much less relevant than it used to be for delivering good CAS.
2. Each situation is different and METT-TC dependent. There isn't one ideal platform and weapons load that works for every situation - In other words, the air support that one gets is probably going to involve some compromise.
I think I COIN aircraft will be better in a few niche areas but won't bring a dramatic improvement in CAS in most cases. It would seem to make more sense, to me at least, to bring A-10's out of mothballs and upgrade them to the new "C" standard.
Finally, it's kind of funny, to me at least, how stereotypes of pilots are used in arguments about procurement. I'm not sure who to believe - Singer, who thinks pilots pine for the good ol' prop days, or many AF critics who think the AF doesn't want anything that won't go Mach 1+ and pull 9G's.
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