The Air Force Seeks a Low-Tech Alternative to the F-22

The Air Force Seeks a Low-Tech Alternative to the F-22

The Air Force spent years fighting to keep building the $350 million F-22
fighter, an airplane crammed with so much gee-whiz technology there’s a law
barring it from being sold to any other nation. But since no other nation is building such a plane to challenge it, the F-22 has become a costly investment with an uncertain payoff, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates just killed it. That sent an unmistakable message to the two new top Air Force officials Gates recently appointed, and now the service is seeking 100 slower, lower-flying and far cheaper airplanes — most likely prop-driven — that it can use to kill insurgents today and use to train local pilots — such as Afghans or Iraqis — tomorrow.

The list of requirements for what the Air Force is calling its Light
Attack Armed Reconnaissance plane is fairly basic, and harkens back to the
Vietnam-era A-1 Skyraider. It must be capable of flying 900-mile missions at
up to 200 miles per hour , including at night and poor weather. It will carry
guns and rockets, along with a pair of 500-pound bombs, according to an Air
Force solicitation issued last month. It will have to fly to and from dirt
airfields where the only ground support is fuel. The its two pilots will have
warning systems for enemy radars and missiles, an armored cockpit and
self-sealing fuel tanks — and ejection seats if those protections fail. It should convert from an attack plane to a trainer by simply removing those weapons.

Planes likely to vie for the contract — slated to begin flying in 2012 —include the Kansas-built Hawker Beechcraft T-6, currently the Air Force’s
basic trainer, and Brazil’s Embraer EMB-314 Super Tucano, which the U.S.
Navy may buy to support SEAL missions. After being trained on the aircraft, foreign forces could buy such planes for their own use.

This emphasis on down-and-dirty warfare is a real change for the Air Force, which
for years has been hyper-focused on building the most sophisticated
fighter planes in the world. The military blog Danger Room recently quoted from
Air Force studies dating back to 2005 that spoke of the service’s
“pre-occupation with procurement of the F-22” at the expense of
counter-insurgency missions, and its “nasty habit of forgetting the
hard-learned lessons of irregular operations.” Its Cold War hangover got so
bad that Gates complained during a speech to Air Force officers last year
that getting the military to fight today’s wars was “like pulling teeth.”

The Air Force’s new top officer has said this low-tech aircraft “is
really consistent with Secretary Gates’ thinking” in favor of simple weapons
that can be bought quickly and perform more than one mission. A rugged and
simple warplane that can be flown against insurgents by U.S. pilots who also
train foreign pilots in their own language “is a very attractive way to
approach this problem,” General Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of
staff, said in April.

His civilian boss concurs. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley recently
said that such a plane “will help build up the security capabilities of
partners facing counter-terrorist operations, counter-insurgency
operations.” Nations like Afghanistan and Iraq “are not going to be able to
— and do not have a need to — operate at that higher end of the conflict
spectrum,” he added. Nor can they afford to — the $350 million used to buy
each of the 187 F-22s will pay for a fleet of about 50 of these planned
counter-insurgency warplanes.
Read “Congress’s Bid for More Plush Planes Hits Turbulence.”