Saturday, August 7, 2010

Airpower and COIN Update

Last weekend Air Force Times carried an article about converting A-10 Warthogs to drones for use in combat.  The idea is that a JTAC (Joint Terminal Attack Controller) would designate targets and coordinate weapons release with an A-10 pilot in order to increase accuracy on the battlefield.  Since current COIN doctrine is worker hard to limit civilian casualties, the idea is that this would reduce accidents, and be more useful than the current fleet of MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones due to speed and ordnance flexibility.  DARPA program manger Stephen Waller contends that the A-10 in question could have a pilot in it, or not, but that his vision is that a soldier could use his JTAC computer to attack targets just like he uses his M-16.

Depending on the implementation, this may be a good idea, or even a good temporary solution until USAF gets some dedicated COIN aircraft in the inventory.  I'm not in favor of a drone-only A-10 solution, even paired with a JTAC controller on the ground, having an A-10 pilot in a trailer many miles away reproduces some of the same problems with drones - a highly destructive weapons system, flying at high speed, that may crash on take-off or landing, or due to enemy fire because a desk chair pilot doesn't have the same situational awareness as a pilot in the aircraft.  Instead of losing at least a third of the drones we fly, we'll be losing the more expensive, more capable A-10s at a high rate.  we just may not be hitting as many of the wrong targets while doing it.

Don't get me wrong, this solution, if it works when demonstrated in 2014, looks a damn site better than the Reaper or planned follow-on aircraft, and infinitely better than dropping a JDAM from 30,000 feet from a B-1.  However, I can't help but think that this is just a stop-gap until funding for a real turboprop aircraft for COIN comes through.  New CentCom head Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis and ISAF Commander Gen. David Petraeus both want a replacement for the old A-1 Skyraider and OV-10 Bronco, but since the leading candidate comes from Brazil's Embraeur, funding is proving hard to come by.

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