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 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.