Light Attack Aircraft (LAA) represent an interesting development in aerial warfare.
Much of the focus on future military aviation capability is on extremely high tech fast jets or drones, but are these really the best tools for some jobs?
Using a fast jet to deliver ordnance in a fight against irregular militias armed with light arms with an effective range of 500 metres at most is seen by many as being analogous to using a steamroller to crack peanuts.
Increasingly Coalition forces are engaged in warfighting against such irregular forces and the high tech armaments that have traditionally given them a massive advantage are also very expensive and ill-suited to such conflicts.
A typical LAA is a propeller driven aircraft with two seats. They are extremely versatile, cheap to operate, have a much longer “linger time” and allow for better visual contact should that be required.
For some time the United States Air Force (USAF) has been trialling LAA’s and now a decision has been made to purchase a small quantity of two types.
This was largely inspired by the use of the Vietnam War era North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco by special forces in the Middle East in recent years. A twin-turboprop light attack and observation aircraft its origins lie in the 1960’s when it was developed for counter insurgency and forward air control operations.
Decades later it was still deemed to be the best tool for the job so some examples of the type were brought back into service.
Inspired by this example, the USAF has now decided to purchase just two to three examples each of the Textron Aviation AT-6 and Sierra Nevada Corporation/Embraer Defense and Security A-29 aircraft. Both types will be extensively trialled with Coalition partners in training and experimental roles, but it seems very likely that with the prospect of irregular warfare not about to go away in a hurry these sorts of aircraft will become very busy.
The two aircraft types will initially have different missions. The AT–6 will be based at Air Combat command at Nellis Air Force base and used to develop tactics and platform attributes for export and cooperation with Coalition partners.
Meanwhile, the A-29 will be with Air Force Special Operations Command and used to develop an instructor program in response to requests from allied forces for greater assistance and advice in developing indigenous LAA capabilities.
The trend towards LAA is in its infancy but it makes sense on many levels.
The cost of a typical LAA can be one-fifth or less of that of a fast jet. They can carry a vast range of missile, gun and bomb combinations and they are well suited to Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions with plenty of room to fill them with electronics and a second seat for aircrew dedicated to that function.
They are subsonic but easily fast enough for the purpose of raining down pain upon irregular forces and they have a huge range – with external tanks the AT-6 can go for more than 3,000km, providing a massive linger time for most missions.
And if the enemy does have some surface to air capability, they can always go high and still deliver ordnance with precision.
They are the perfect solution for nations trying to combat insurgents on a budget and even the world’s biggest air force gets the rationale for the return of the propeller driven combat aircraft to front line service.