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Despite the massive application of US military aviation against irregular adversaries in the wars of the 21st century, American airpower has been unable to facilitate a decisive military victory against groups like the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. Airpower has held an essential role in managing these threats, but mitigating terrorism requires a long-term effort of which military force is only a portion. The potential for direct armed conflict against great power competitors remains a potent threat to US national security and remains a top priority for the Department of Defense. The past, present, and almost certain future of the United States Air Force (USAF) – and its partner nations – involves fighting asymmetric conflicts. However, the system used by the USAF to support American and partner efforts in these conflicts over the past 20 years has been costly and resource-intensive, especially when using 4th generation aircraft like the A-10 and F-16 and 5th generation aircraft like the F-22 and F-35.
The Light Attack Aircraft (LAA) program sought to address both the requirement to provide air support in irregular conflicts while freeing up advanced aircraft to accomplish the missions for which they are better suited. The USAF has opted against a large scale acquisition of LAA while US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) has elected to pursue an Armed Overwatch program. However, LAA can still be a useful tool for partner air forces seeking to provide their own sustainable close air support (CAS) and strike capabilities and fill the gap left by USAF aircraft shifting increasingly towards other missions. The requirements of the program and continuing experimentation were shaped by decades of experience and have produced capable options that can meet the hardware needs of partner nations facing irregular threats. However, to create sustainable aviation capabilities within partner nations, the discussion around LAA must go beyond its initial focus on technical capabilities and an American employment model.
The success of the LAA program will depend on an advising structure that can assist partners in developing effective methods for utilizing LAA in such a way that enables tactical successes that resonate at the operational and strategic levels of war. The selected aircraft meet the technical requirements for an affordable, capable, and trainable platform. Training programs for the LAA cannot merely focus on tactical skills; they must also assist militaries with refining air-ground cooperation and fusion of intelligence operations. Furthermore, advisors should focus on helping partners understand the problems they face and develop structures that allow them to employ LAA in ways that support their overall strategic goals, rather than relying on unguided tactical successes. From pilot training to operational planning and all the integration in between, the LAA program’s success as a security cooperation tool relies on the ability to get the human components right.
Image Source: Official Lebanese Army Twitter account
Thankfully, the hardware part of the equation is mainly complete: the US has successfully developed aircraft that fulfill the requirements of the LAA program. All of the concepts offered, including the AT-6 and A-29 that were ultimately selected, provide relatively cost-effective, capable solutions. These aircraft can operate under rugged conditions and have relatively simple infrastructure requirements that can enable distributed operations. These systems are also far more suitable to the support systems of many partner nations. Single-engine turboprop aircraft are simpler to operate and maintain than 4th or 5th generation fighters. Past security cooperation experience has demonstrated that advanced technologies will often simply be turned off or ignored if personnel are not prepared to utilize them.
The LAA concepts already available can also form the basis for larger organizations, like squadrons and wings, that can generate more robust military capabilities. The program was also specifically designed for operations against adversaries like insurgents and terrorists, with particular focus on tactical missions like reconnaissance and overwatch. One key advantage of CAS aircraft like the A-10 is the role of the physical platform in underpinning a dedicated community of air support professionals. This specialized structure allows for organic innovation and adaptation to better achieve a defined mission.
The right hardware is an essential component of the overall solution, but as Special Operations Forces Truth #1 states, “Humans are more important than hardware.” The USAF tends to gravitate towards skill-training for host-nation aircrew and direct support personnel (e.g., maintenance), mirroring the American training pipeline experience. Training is a time-consuming endeavor, even in the United States. Undergraduate Pilot Training takes over a year, and that is with a carefully selected pool of candidates, well-resourced bases with the necessary infrastructure and personnel, and decades of experience to refine the pipeline. The process becomes even more complicated when conducted with limited access to partner forces and the inherent struggles of working with foreign personnel (including language and cultural differences).
Even with properly trained aircrews, airpower in irregular warfare inherently requires air-ground integration. Unfortunately, many partner nations lack the joint mindset, experience, and processes needed to link air and ground forces successfully. Closing this gap requires systems to handle tasks which range from controlling airstrikes to planning air support for major operations. However, these systems must be maintained, and creating then maintaining a culture of mutual support takes long-term investment from both partners and advisors. This integration is an essential prerequisite for linking tactical actions with strategic objectives.
US airstrikes or direct action raids against adversaries like ISIS or its predecessor, al Qaeda-Iraq, were successful only partially because of the tactical skill of American forces. The US, particularly Joint Special Operations Command, invested heavily in the ability to study and attack the networks of non-state armed groups, which led to the development of operational approaches like F3EAD (Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit, Analyze, Disseminate). Successful irregular warfare approaches depend upon a clear understanding of the problems facing an organization. Problem analysis is a fundamental intelligence requirement but can be challenging to develop when forces encounter ill-defined challenges for which they are poorly prepared (as the US military frequently found in Iraq and Afghanistan) or due to institutional culture reasons. Furthermore, intelligence personnel, planners, and commanders must develop an organic, sustainable, and effective system for fusing intelligence and operations. Irregular challenges require organizations to adapt, to analyze their environment and adversary continuously, and shape plans based on this dynamic understanding. Without this fusion, the LAA concept is simply an unguided tool which is unlikely to meet its desired utility.
Image Source: Andrew Quilty, The New York Times
Addressing the human factors of training, air-ground integration, and intelligence-operations fusion provides the raw material necessary to develop effective concepts for employing LAA. Concepts determine how nations and militaries envision employing the forces at their disposal, which translates into factors like doctrine, operational planning, and the professional education of military leaders. These ideas attempt to answer the question of how to maximize the strategic impact of the limited assets at a nation’s disposal. Concepts derived from theories determine how military force can contribute to the achievement of national objectives. However, the theoretical process is dependent upon an understanding of the problems faced. Historically, conventionally focused militaries struggled to adapt to threats from asymmetric foes (e.g., insurgents and terrorists), requiring significant learning and adaptation to occur. This intellectual underpinning plays a cyclical role, shaping the organizational structures of national armed forces.
Operational level planning means to connect tactical actions with strategic plans, setting the conditions for the successful employment of tactical capabilities. Modern military forces are arranged from disorganized component-parts into structures for employment, integrating different capabilities, and establishing systems to control them as part of broader operational approaches. From a practical standpoint, operational level structures must be sustainable and competent to provide capabilities to high-level decision-makers. Likely customers for LAA are usually resource-constrained, necessitating structures that generate strategic results while remaining efficient.
Each nation faces unique strategic challenges and possesses physical and cultural limitations that enable or limit possible responses. Each case is individual, and capabilities like LAA will only be useful if they are integrated into more extensive strategic plans and developed from effective problem analysis.1 Against irregular opponents, this requires what is colloquially referred to as “COIN (counterinsurgency)-mindedness” among military officers. US military advisors have an essential role in providing technical and tactical training to partners, but partners must also develop the ability to analyze inherent problems and develop solutions. The US should work to assist them in expanding these critical thinking abilities.
Unfortunately, the USAF does not provide a perfect model for partners seeking to develop air capabilities to counter irregular threats. Even in irregular conflicts, the USAF brings more resources to bear than most partners could hope to employ. No partner nation could afford to have advanced 4th and 5th generation fighters simply orbiting above forward operating bases. At its core, the USAF remains focused on conventional conflict and global operations reliant upon airpower tenets that are often ill-suited to irregular conflicts. The USAF’s lack of significant strategic impacts in Afghanistan after nearly two decades suggests that the American approach to airpower in irregular warfare cannot and should not simply be scaled down. Shaping a partner’s model requires an appreciation and understanding that the scale of American operations will not be possible. Though the core concepts of American airpower could translate to other nation’s battlefields, American advisors must build a model which suits the size of the host force as well as the inherently irregular nature of that nation’s conflicts.
Image Source: Staff Sgt. Benjamin Gonsier (USAF), defense.gov
“Everyone wants to be the US Air Force” is a frequent refrain among American military officers who have worked with partner air forces. The USAF has built a reputation for unrivaled combat performance over the past 50 years. However, the USAF benefits from materiel and human resources unmatched by any other nation and continues to develop and refine its concepts. American advisors are the beneficiaries of this mature system, but these conditions are rare in partners. Historical experience with employing similar aircraft should be studied, and the ongoing light attack experiment must test operational employment models to develop a better understanding of the necessary conditions, advantages, and limitations. To maximize the effectiveness of partners employing light attack aircraft, US advisors should prepare to help partners develop the “COIN-mindedness” and problem analysis skills necessary to formulate organic approaches.
Historical experience has also demonstrated that getting concepts and the intellectual basis correct is essential for campaigns to be successful. Airpower’s speed and range allow for mistaken approaches to cause severe damage while decision-makers remain oblivious. Tactical improvements can be counterproductive if they increase the impact of misguided operational approaches. LAA have the potential to increase the striking power of partner militaries. However, if misused, partners have the potential to commit human rights abuses and exacerbate dissatisfaction within the population, offsetting the benefits of providing LAA to partners. Advisors must understand these dynamics and assist partners in thinking through the consequences of LAA employment.
These intellectual solutions will then need to be implemented by organizational structures. Specifically, advisors trained and prepared to provide operational-level advice for partner air forces will be required. The existing advisory units within the USAF (Combat Aviation Advisors and Mobility Support Assistance Squadrons) are primarily focused on tactical advising and lack the specialization or capacity to take over the full LAA mission as well. These advisors should tie in with operational USAF light attack units and trainers who can provide a baseline of technical expertise for advisors, in addition to placement and access among partner air forces. From this talent pool, the Air Force should develop a small number of highly trained and educated personnel with the time and focus to develop an in-depth understanding of specific partners and the challenges they face. The USAF should also heed the lessons of the advising missions of the past 20 years, which demonstrated that the ability to work through issues with partner militaries benefits tremendously from a dedicated and professionally developed cadre.
The LAA experiment is a much-needed material solution to the problem of providing affordable air support to ground forces in irregular operations. As the USAF increasingly shifts to other missions, continued military effectiveness requires a sustainable and affordable alternative. However, this platform development must couple with intellectual investment. Each conflict is unique, but historical lessons, along with ongoing light attack experimentation, can provide core concepts and a training and education curriculum. This knowledge base is essential to empower a cadre of operational advisors who can then use their knowledge to assist partner air forces in developing tailored operational approaches. While the LAA program may appear to be a purpose-built foreign military sales platform, without the ability to assist partners in employing these aircraft, the USAF will not see the sustainable partner airpower it expects from this effort.
Riley Murray is a US Air Force 2nd Lieutenant currently in the USAF Intelligence Officer course. He previously served as an assistant in the SOCOM Legislative Affairs office in Washington, DC. He holds a BS in Military and Strategic Studies from the United States Air Force Academy and an MA in Security Studies from Georgetown University, where his research focused on aviation foreign internal defense. Email: Riley.C.Murray@gmail.com
Johnson, Wray. “The Republic of Korea Air Force in the Next Century: Thinking Strategically.” presented at the 50th Anniversary International Airpower Strategy Symposium, The Republic of Korea Air Force Air University, September 16, 1999.
Featured Image Source: Staff Sgt. Alexander W. Riedel USAF, Army Times
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.