Noah at Defense Tech is asking why the U.S. Air Force doesn't have an aircraft designed for COIN operations anymore. I can think of two reasons off the top of my head:
- The Air Force doesn't want the job.
- The development of the Fast-FAC (Forward Air Controller) during the Vietnam War.
Until recently the Air Force couldn't wait to dump the A-10 Warthog. The Close Air Support role the Warthog is designed for is not something that the Air Force wants - they want the "sexy" missions of air superiority, strategic bombing, and space. Really, who wouldn't? Air to mud flying in support of the grunts doesn't seem to fit with those missions, but they won't go back from the Key West agreement and let the Army have fixed wing aircraft. The problem is that CAS is a critical task, and someone has to do it. After Desert Storm USAF wanted to pretend that the F-16 and F-15E are sufficient for CAS, but their high speed and low loiter time makes them less than ideal. The Air Force went so far as to put the A-10 up for sale.
These days, the A-10 has seen a resurgence, and the branch that never really wanted the plane in the first place is giving it some serious upgrades. It still isn't quite right for the COIN mission, though, due to the nature of its ordnance - the GAU-8 Avenger 30 MM cannon, AGM-65 Maverick missiles, iron-bombs, and the like. These weapons are designed for use on tanks, not soft targets. At best they are overkill, at worst cause huge amounts of collateral damage. Looking at this situation, Noah thinks we need a real COIN aircraft.
I agree. The Air Force used to fly the A-1 Skyraider and the OV-10 Bronco, and the Army had the venerable O-1 Bird dog. These planes were piston or turbo prop aircraft, flew low and slow, had good range, and long loiter times. Just what you need for tooling around locating bad guys, and either engaging them or calling in troops or aircraft with more robust armaments. They were chased out of the sky by the Air Force's and Army's lack of interest - after Vietnam both services basically decided they didn't want to fight insurgencies anymore. Both services wanted real wars, like the one confrontations with the Soviet Union or the People's Republic of China promised.
The development of the Fast-FAC over the skies of North Vietnam just encouraged the United Stats to allow the old birds to go without a suitable replacement. After all, Commando Sabre, or Misty, showed that slightly outdated fighters could serve as FAC aircraft quite well, and had the ability to avoid anti-aircraft fire, surface to air missiles, and enemy aircraft. The Misty pilots learned that it took special skills and aggressive pilots to perform the FAC mission well, but the Air Force probably figures out any of its well-trained, highly skilled, and intelligent pilots should be able to learn the job. They're probably right.
I don't particularly like drones or helicopters for this role. Drones have no option to be radio-silent, and if the Aussies can figure out how to hack the F-15's IFF system, someone will figure out how to hack the encryption protocols (if there are any) on a Predator drone. Just imagine some insurgents taking over a Predator armed with a Hellfire, and then using it on our own troops - or a hospital or school. How do you even prove that your didn't shoot the building? Of course, short of hacking, the drone's controls might just be jammed, making it useless.
Helicopters have a different set of problems - short legs, low speed, high maintenance requirements, and unreliability. Maybe this isn't true of the Kiowa, but I just don't see the AH-64 Apache in this role. They use Kiowas to find targets for Apaches for a reason.
So where does that leave us? We need a prop plane to find and deal with insurgents. The good folks commenting over at Defense Tech have some good suggestions - the AT-6B, Modified Cessna Caravans, A-37, A-67 Dragon, or even Predator drones. With the exception of the Predator, I like these suggestions, though I think the Schweizer RU-38B is also a great bet. I would also suggest something along the lines of the V-22 Osprey due to its speed, ability to hover, and capability to mount weapons. Personally, I think it could be the next AC-130. Maybe that's too much bad cyberpunk speaking, but there it is.