Air Force Seeks a Cheaper Way to Fly and Fight

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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 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 could use to kill insurgents today and to train local pilots, such as Afghans and Iraqis, tomorrow.

The list of requirements for what the Air Force is calling its Light Attack Armed Reconnaissance plane is fairly basic and harks back to the Vietnam-era A-1 Skyraider. The aircraft must be capable of flying 900-mile missions at up to 200 m.p.h. (compared with up to 1,500 m.p.h. for the F-22), including at night and in poor weather. It will carry guns and rockets, along with a pair of 500-lb. 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. Its two pilots will have warning systems for enemy radar 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 — set 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 counterinsurgency 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 such a plane "will help build up the security capabilities of partners facing counterterrorist operations, counterinsurgency 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 would pay for a fleet of about 50 of these planned counterinsurgency warplanes.