Re-visiting the Concept of a Counter-Insurgency Aircraft


05/05/2011 With the request by General Mattis for a Counter-Insurgency Aircraft (Imminent Fury) and with the forthcoming USAF fly-off to choose an aircraft to play such a role for the Afghan National Air Force, the question of the potential role of a turboprop counter-insurgency aircraft has re-surfaced.

Late last year, SLD team members Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake sat down to talk with Bill Buckey, former Deputy Commander of the NATO Airbase at Kandahar in 2009 and now vice-president for business development for Embraer North America to talk about the potential role and impact of a COIN aircraft both for the U.S. and the Afghan forces.

SLD: How did your time at Kandahar shape your thinking about the role of a COIN aircraft and where it might fit into the mix?

Buckey:  We were launching a lot of airplanes but not necessarily expending a whole lot of ordnance.  When you talk to the aircrews they’ll tell you they were doing a lot of “show of force,” and when they did drop they were certainly not expending the 1000-pounders and the 2000 pounders.  They were dropping 500 pounders or even smaller Hellfire, or Brimstone, which the RAF had just introduced into Afghanistan.

So what you realized right away was that in this COIN environment, you needed manned presence and you needed the systems to provide you with the information required to accomplish the task; but you didn’t necessarily need a boatload of ordnance.  Were there times when you surged and you needed a lot of iron on target?  Yes.  But on a day-to-day basis, there just wasn’t that much being expended.

SLD:  So for a normal manned aircraft engagement in COIN, the observation is that presence is extremely important and ability to put some ordnance onto target is necessary but it was not necessary to carry a heavy bomb load.

Buckey: If you needed to call in more, a B-52 or a B-1 might be given the task, or an F-16, F-18 or Harrier, but on a routine basis in a COIN environment your platform does not need to be carrying a lot of heavy ordnance.

SLD:  Why not use unmanned systems rather than a turboprop COIN aircraft?

Buckey:  To digress just a little bit, one of the aims of the Imminent Fury ( program was to have the ability to get close air support but sometimes it was a matter of sitting and waiting to see if a high value target was actually present in a certain compound, you’re waiting for him to show up to that compound, or you are waiting to find out whether there are women and children in that compound before you take this guy out.  And it means sitting and waiting, developing more information.  And in the meantime, you need weapons in a moment’s notice to be able to kill this guy when you’ve got the go ahead to do it.   So if what you are working with are F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, or whatever, you’re talking about a lot of resources to perform find/fix/finish.

SLD:  If you’ve got a clearly identifiable target and that you need a rapid response, that’s one scenario.  A different scenario is where you perform the “find/fix” phase and have the persistence to actually “finish” the target.

Buckey:  Exactly.  And, if you need to pour it on to a level that goes beyond what this aircraft is carrying, you want to have somebody up there, a FAC-A or a SAC-A who’s then able to start marshalling in the heavy iron and the ability to provide the target brief during ingress to build their SA .

SLD:  Are you’re trying to develop a new layer here that gives him a persistent…

Buckey:  It’s not a new layer; it’s a different way of looking at the existing layer of air combat support. You’re offering the same capability but you’re driving down your cost of providing that capability.  In a COIN environment, one of the insurgent’s main goals is to drive up your cost of operating to an unacceptable level.  The cost of using fast jets is in this environment is simply unsustainable.

SLD:  Those costs per hour should be augmented as well, I would guess, by the cost of logistic support in an extreme environment?

Buckey:  What does that pound of fuel cost by the time it’s going through the boom into that F-16?  There’s a monstrous logistical tail to get fuel into Kandahar; the ships that get it to Karachi, the trucks that drive it up into Kandahar.  Then we eventually have to get some of it out to FOBs like Dwyer and Bastion.

SLD:  But your point is by driving down price point for the operation is a crucial strategic element.

Buckey:  Exactly.  It was a concern of Gen. McChrystal and it’s clearly what Gen. Mattis was trying to address at JFCOM and now as CENTCOM.  If you believe that a goal of an insurgency is to drive your cost of operating to an unacceptable level, we’re doing a great job of it over there right now given the logistical constraints and the aircraft we’re putting against the operational requirement.  What we have to do is field the same capabilities in a platform that’s hundreds of dollars per flight hour instead of tens of thousands per flight hour.

SLD: How does a turbo-prop compare to unmanned aircraft in providing such a savings or performing such a role?

Buckey: One of the things that the special operations forces, who started the idea of the whole Imminent Fury piece, wanted was the ability to have a partner in that light attack platform; a TAC-A or supporting arms coordinator that would be above them in the air and who, if things got ugly, could then marshal in other aircraft.  The guys sitting at Creech can’t do that.

The individual in the backseat of the aircraft is the one that’s going to be communicating to these jets who are still 30 minutes away – 15 minutes away, an hour away – and giving them the target brief and the whole situational awareness piece of what’s going on while they ingress; which is something that your guy at Creech is not going to be able to do.

But now that’s the tactical piece.  The operational piece is back to the whole COIN environment.  Again, if what you’re trying to do in a COIN environment is drive your cost of doing business down as close as you can to the level of the other guy; right now, UAVs ain’t cheap.

You’ve got a tremendous logistics piece; you’ve got the sophisticated communications infrastructure required to fly them.  You’ve got the whole piece back in CONUS in order to operate them.  Your cost of doing business is huge and you also have reliability issues. The accident rates are not great with UAVs right now.

And in terms of that ability to act as FAC-A, that’s something that you just can’t get with a UAV.

SLD: And presumably, your ground and air team are forcing the insurgents to do something vis-à-vis your ground element.  This is what was often not recognized is people are not placidly waiting around. So essentially your ground element is affecting their behavior.  So you want your air tool to be part of a quick response to the behavior they are creating on the insurgent’s part.

Buckey:  And it may be a four to six-hour operation because if it doesn’t necessarily happen when you want it.  The other guy gets a vote when he wants to move.  And the problem with cycling in fast movers is if I am a JTAC on the ground, or let’s say I’m a FAC-A, is how many times am I giving target briefs to a new crew?  Every thirty to forty minutes I’ve got a new callsign checking-in; maybe even less than that depending on whose available, time/distance, tankers, etc.

But I’m spending a lot of my time briefing new crews; whereas if I’m working with a platform with greater persistence, not only am I giving fewer target briefs, he’s constantly building Situational Awareness over a greater period.  I have more time to focus on the target while he’s building up more and more SA.

From the aircrew perspective, if I’m checking-in in a fast-mover, I may have 30 or so minutes on station.  I’ll get a good target brief and I’ll be able to build a certain level of SA.  But am I able to absorb as much as someone who is on-station for hours?  No.

SLD:  So to summarize your thinking about a COIN aircraft, you want to drive down the cost of providing close air support to the guys on the ground.   You want manned air for the roles that you have described – to be involved with the ground commander, the ability to loiter, the engagement, the systems to provide the “find/fix” piece and the persistence to be there for the “finish.”  You want sufficiently lethal manned airborne presence but at lower cost than a fast jet.

Buckey: We have the systems and the weapons to pair up with a turboprop aircraft that has the persistence to get us through the entire “find/fix/finish” process at a substantially reduced cost that is more appropriate for air operations in a COIN environment.