How War Went Retro and the Pentagon Was Left Behind

The U.S. military has been trying — and failing — to buy a simple counterinsurgency aircraft for more than 10 years. Here’s what went wrong.

In 2005, on a mountain in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, four U.S. Navy SEALs were ambushed while on a mission to kill or capture a Taliban leader. In the ensuing firefight, three of the SEALs were killed, along with 16 other U.S. special operations forces whose Chinook helicopter was shot down while trying to rescue them.

The one SEAL to return from the mission alive, Marcus Luttrell, went on to write Lone Survivor, a book about his experience. While the best-selling book, and later the movie based on it, made the doomed mission famous, less well known is that the tragedy spawned a search for technology that could have helped prevent the loss of life.

Hollywood’s version of battle might conjure up images of advanced aircraft coming to rescue special operations forces. But what troops needed in a place like Afghanistan was a relatively simple armed aircraft that could hit the enemy at close range.

“After that [mission], the Navy started to say, ‘What do we have to do to make sure this never happens again?’” said Taco Gilbert, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, who worked in the Pentagon at the time of the mission. “As they talked to people involved, the No. 1 request they had was for a light attack aircraft that could be out with them in the forward areas.”

The outcome, according to Gilbert, who now works as a senior vice president for Sierra Nevada Corp., a company offering light attack aircraft, was what in military jargon is called a JUON (pronounced ju-on), short for “joint urgent operational need.” A JUON is a document that spells out something that is needed urgently on the battlefield, within days or weeks.

The Navy wanted a cheap counterinsurgency aircraft for close air support, something that only required taking an existing light propeller-driven aircraft, such as a trainer, and putting weapons on it. In theory, that could be done within months.

Yet, more than a decade later, the U.S. military still doesn’t have a plane that responds to this urgent requirement. Other countries, from the United Arab Emirates to Kenya, have either bought or are looking at buying a counterinsurgency aircraft. Even Afghanistan now has light combat aircraft, courtesy of American taxpayers, while the Pentagon is still trying to figure out what to buy or whether it should buy anything.

One prominent critic of the light combat aircraft idea, the aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia, said the Defense Department shouldn’t go forward with the program at all. “I think sanity will prevail, and it won’t happen,” he said.

That the U.S. military can spend more than a decade trying to address a simple problem is nothing new. After all, the Air Force’s newest air superiority fighter, the stealthy F-22, was first conceived in 1981 amid concerns about a confrontation with the Soviet Union but wasn’t fielded until 2005, nearly 15 years after the Warsaw Pact collapsed. But in that case, the lengthy time was needed to develop the underlying technology, including stealthy features and advanced avionics. Yet various types of light attack aircraft, by contrast, now exist.

Now, 13 years after the ill-fated mission in Afghanistan, the Pentagon may be finally moving forward. The Air Force has conducted the second of two rounds of flight experiments with potential candidates, and lawmakers appear poised to fund the aircraft.

Air Force Gen. James Holmes, the head of Air Combat Command, which is conducting the flight experiments, is aware of how long it has taken to get to this point and the danger of simply giving up.

“Looking back in hindsight, it would have been great if we had put the money into a lower-cost solution to handle this mission set, 15 years ago, 10 years ago,” Holmes said. “But going forward, there’s a tendency, if you’re a military planner, to look forward to the next thing and to say, ‘We’re going to stop doing this.’”

That, he insisted, won’t happen this time.

Even if he’s right, the Defense Department’s failed efforts to buy a relatively simple aircraft have been a tale of competing visions of warfare, congressional interference, and Pentagon indecision. More than a decade later, the question is whether it still even makes sense to buy them.

Above: The Archangel, an armed cropduster, which was sold to the United Arab Emirates. (IOMAX USA) Top: Super Tucano planes at an air show in Brazil on July 13, 2017. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

While the Navy spent the next few years after the failed Afghanistan mission thinking about a light attack aircraft, someone was already working on developing a prototype. As far back as 2005, Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater USA, was looking at using the Super Tucano, a light aircraft built by the Brazilian aerospace company Embraer, for counterinsurgency operations.

The following year, the Navy, working with U.S. Special Operations Command, leased the Super Tucano, owned by a subsidiary of Prince’s company, to fly in a classified test evaluation called Operation Imminent Fury. “They liked the aircraft so much that they invited even the Air Force to come fly it as part of phase two, and they were going to take it forward into combat to evaluate it in Afghanistan,” said Gilbert, the retired Air Force brigadier general.

Congress balked at buying a foreign aircraft, and the Navy backed off the plan, but the Air Force, which has long played a leading role in close air support, moved forward. The service announced plans in 2008 to spend around $2 billion to buy 100 light attack aircraft. At the time, the idea was to buy something quickly and have it ready for combat within a few years.

In the meantime, Prince was looking at another low-tech solution: arming an Air Tractor agricultural crop duster. 

In Colombia, the U.S. government had used an Air Tractor for drug eradication. The work there gave Prince the idea of removing the spray equipment and adding guns and rockets, according to Seamus Flatley, who spent two years working with Air Tractor on the first AT-802U prototype, an armed version of the crop duster.

“It really was his vision back in the day to look for a low-cost alternative to counterinsurgency operations,” said Flatley, who now works for Iomax, another aviation company involved in armed light aircraft.

The armed crop duster grabbed attention when Prince debuted it at the 2009 Paris Air Show. At the time, Prince had his eye on a lucrative arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, but the deal fell through when Prince ran into problems obtaining an export license amid a spate of bad publicity linked to his private security firm, Blackwater. (Among other issues, Blackwater was involved in a 2007 massacre of civilians in Iraq).

Prince’s loss was a gain for Iomax, which stepped in to take the Emirati deal with its Archangel aircraft, another armed crop duster. “Well, that made it through to us as a requirement and an opportunity by the UAE, and we were then asked if we could integrate these aircraft and deliver them, and we did,” Flatley said.

While the UAE and other countries around the world were buying armed crop dusters and other light aircraft, back in the United States the Air Force was still struggling to move forward. In 2011, the service selected the Brazilian-made Super Tucano over a version of the American-made T-6 trainer, in spite of lawmakers’ objections.

The congressional delegation from Kansas, home to the T-6 manufacturer Beechcraft, blasted the Air Force for going with Embraer’s Super Tucano. “Embraer has a long and documented history of working with rogue regimes, including Iran,” then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, and both Kansas senators wrote in a joint letter to the Air Force secretary in 2011.

In 2012, amid budget pressure and congressional pushback, the Air Force canceled plans to acquire its own light attack aircraft, even as it continued with plans to buy similar aircraft for the Afghan Air Force. In early 2016, four A-29 Super Tucanos were delivered to Afghanistan, part of a planned fleet of 20, providing a capability that the U.S. military still didn’t have for itself.

But U.S. officials hadn’t given up on the idea of acquiring their own light attack aircraft. Holmes, the head of Air Combat Command, announced plans to hold a flight demonstration in 2017, followed by combat flight testing. Though the first round of flight tests featured four competitors, the field was eventually narrowed down to two companies: Sierra Nevada, which teamed up with Embraer on the A-29, and Textron Aviation, offering a version of the Beechcraft T-6 trainer.

The combat test deployment was canceled, but the Air Force plowed ahead with the second phase of what is formally known as the Light Attack Experiment, or OA-X, at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico. The focus was on the unsexy but critical area of logistics since the cost to maintain the aircraft is a crucial factor. The Air Force was also looking at how the aircraft would communicate with troops, even experimenting with cell phone-based communications, according to Holmes.

Yet several potential contenders have been left out of that flight experiment. Iomax’s armed crop duster, which the company is also marketing as a surveillance aircraft, lacks an ejection seat, and other requirements put in place by the Air Force.  K.C. Howard, Iomax’s CEO, said he had some dialogue with the Air Force, but the criteria for OA-X made it ultimately impossible for the firm’s aircraft to compete. “So, I think at this point it’s a lost herring,” he said.

Others, however, are not giving up so easily. The South African defense firm Paramount Group developed a turboprop aircraft called the Bronco II, a throwback to the Vietnam War-era counterinsurgency plane the Bronco. This year, the company sought to jump into the fray.

“By chance, we happen to have a solution, which is the 2019 solution, that meets the OA-X requirement in our opinion,” said Ivor Ichikowitz, the executive chairman of Paramount Group. “We’re not a competitor in the same category as the other airplanes. We’re different because those airplanes were developed in the early 2000s.” But since the Bronco II isn’t part of the ongoing Air Force experiment in New Mexico, it’s likely to be at a disadvantage in any formal procurement competition.

That’s if there is any Pentagon procurement to fight for in the first place. The light combat aircraft is supposed to supplement the A-10 Thunderbolt II, a close air support aircraft the Air Force has flown since the 1970s. The A-10, which is known for its nose cone art that often features shark teeth or a warthog, carries substantially more munitions than the light combat aircraft, and is better armored, which allows it to operate in more dangerous combat environs.

Last year, the Air Force also started looking at plans to replace the A-10 but didn’t get very far. “Frankly, it was limited to what I would call a BOGSAT, or a bunch of guys sitting around [talking],” Holmes said. Looking at the costs of a replacement, officials decided to keep the A-10 flying until 2030, at which point many of the aircraft will be approaching 50 years old.

Therein lies the dilemma for the Air Force: Even when it wants to buy something quick and cheap, it tends to fall back on developing something complex and expensive that takes decades to field and thus too precious to retire after a few years. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, the head of Air Force Materiel Command, has argued for embracing more of a “throwaway” culture when it comes to aircraft.

“We should not be going out and trying to get our own supply chain and rebuilding parts that we don’t get anymore,” she said. “Our objective in this should be a price point that you fly for five or 10 years, and if it’s not supportable, we retire it. Instead of planning to keep flying the thing for 58 years, for these light attack aircraft it should be 10, 12, or whatever.”

Yet Aboulafia, the light combat aircraft critic, continued to mock the entire idea, arguing that counterinsurgency aircraft were just a passing fad riding a wave of congressional enthusiasm. “You know, if you have this wonderful vision of a world where you are hunting small marsupials and not much more, it makes enormous sense,” Aboulafia joked. “In the real world of actual adults, most combat environments feature effective return of fire.”

Buying a few light combat aircraft to combat insurgencies might make sense, Aboulafia argued, but not a fleet of aircraft. “Boko Haram,” he said, referring to the West African militant group, “is not enough of a reason to buy 350 planes.”

A Beechcraft AT-6 experimental aircraft flies over White Sands Missile Range on July 31, 2017. (Ethan D. Wagner/U.S. Air Force)

In November 2017, as the light combat aircraft program was still rolling forward in fits and starts, the Air Force released dramatic footage of the stealthy F-22 dropping bombs on a narcotics lab in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon initially hailed the strike as a success that eliminated millions of dollars in drug revenue for the Taliban, but an inspector general report later challenged that narrative. The F-22 costs an estimated $150 million each to build and more than $50,000 an hour to fly — hardly worth the paltry financial damage inflicted on the Taliban, critics charged. The Air Force was mocked for using such heavy — and expensive — firepower against a relatively simple target.

Even Air Force officials are now acknowledging the ludicrous nature of bombing primitive drug labs with a fighter meant for battle. “You do not need a high-end stealth fighter to destroy a narcotics factory,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a speech in May, in a nod to the light combat aircraft. “It is not a cost-effective way to combat violent extremism.”

Then, in June, the Senate Armed Services Committee gave a very public boost to the light combat aircraft when it voted to allot a whopping $350 million to the Air Force for the program in 2019 and an additional $100 million for the Marines to take part as well. The president’s budget had not requested money for the program.

Yet, just a few weeks later, the program suffered what could become another setback, when one of the A-29s being used in flight tests at Holloman Air Force Base crashed. The pilot ejected from the aircraft but died of his injuries.

On July 3, the Air Force announced that it was ending the flight experiment.

The Air Force says it’s still proceeding, as planned, with issuing what’s known as a request for proposals later this year from those companies interested in competing for a potential acquisition, yet the accident doesn’t bode well for a program that has already stretched out for years. Briefing reporters at the Pentagon on July 3, Lt. Gen. Arnold W. Bunch, the Air Force’s senior acquisition official, said the branch was still “marching to that [original] timeline” but that there was still no formal decision to proceed with procurement.

Blackwater founder Prince, who has continued his private efforts to sell armed light aircraft, offered some of the harshest criticism of the Pentagon’s protracted attempts to buy counterinsurgency aircraft. “When I first visited Afghanistan in early 2002 I predicted that the conventional military would screw up and it would be left to unconventional small footprint capability to solve it,” he wrote in an email. “Sadly 16 years later, who is right?”

Even if the Pentagon moves forward, it’s not clear what would happen if the Air Force chose a foreign-designed aircraft, such as the A-29 or the Bronco II, even though both planes have U.S. partners. Pompeo, who worked to block the A-29 when he was in Congress, is now secretary of state and a confidant of Trump, whose America First policies could complicate the political support the program would need to move forward.

In the meantime, the wars for which the light combat aircraft was intended appear now to be winding down. In Iraq, the Islamic State is effectively defeated. And even if the United States stays in Afghanistan, it’s handing over more operations to the Afghan military, which is flying its own light attack aircraft. And the new National Defense Strategy, released this year, emphasizes great-power competition with countries such as China and Russia, rather than counterinsurgency operations.

Given the changes going on in the world, what if it’s already too late? “We think there’s still time,” Holmes, the head of Air Combat Command, offered, describing the fight against terrorism as a generational struggle. “There’s still years for using this airplane.”

A light combat aircraft, he argued, would help with alleviating the pilot shortage, by helping to train new pilots, and allowing the United States to fly with coalition partners operating similar platforms.

“We don’t think the window is closed.”

Amy Cheng contributed reporting to this article.

Sharon Weinberger