With any conflict, whether it is conventional or counterinsurgency (COIN), airpower will play an important, if not pivotal role. When fighting a large, sophisticated army the air assets need to be equally sophisticated to counter the vast array of weapons that will be deployed against them. In a counter-insurgency war, the anti-aircraft weapons deployed by the enemy tend to be somewhat less sophisticated, and of the sophisticated weapons deployed, these will tend to be few in number.
The exception to this was evident during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan where the Stinger Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) were supplied to the insurgents by a sovereign state, the USA. Due to the insurgents’ lack of sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, the aircraft deployed against them can themselves be somewhat unsophisticated, and therefore significantly cheaper. Given the recent deployment of RAF’s Tornado’s to Afghanistan, replacing the versatile Harrier, the question needs to be asked, ‘is the RAF using a sledgehammer to crack the erstwhile nut?’
Utilising such a sophisticated aircraft, especially when dropping a 500kg laser-guided bomb on a relatively small target, seems to be all too reminiscent of the Vietnam Conflict, along with the associated risk of collateral damage.
To give the RAF their dues, they are somewhat limited in the type of aircraft they can actually deploy as they can only use what they have in their inventory. Although the Tornado may be a versatile weapons platform, it is tied to a long runway and in-depth support facilities, in this sense it is not a true weapon for counter-insurgency; Sniper Pod or no.
The successful COIN type aircraft evolved following the Second World War, these small, single-engined fighters had been relegated to ground attack due to the advent of the jet age. These aircraft surpassed in this role due to their rugged construction, effective armament and grass field capability; aircraft such as the P-51 Mustang and the A-1 Skyraider. The Skyraider, previously a carrier-borne aircraft, fulfilled a great deal of the criteria required of a COIN aircraft in that it could carry a large and varied weapons load, loiter on station for hours at a time, was highly manoeuvrable and could absorb significant levels of battle damage. Unfortunately being large and slow, the Skyraider was unceremoniously kicked into obsolescence on the battlefields of Vietnam by the advent of the SA-7 Strela MANPAD. In spite of this, the Skyraider was one of the key aircraft that defined the requirement of a COIN aircraft.
Counterinsurgency conflicts determine the type of aircraft that can be used due to their very nature, they, on the whole, tended to be located in countries with large rural areas. If the insurgents followed Mao’s doctrine, the government forces had to spread their forces more thinly and over a larger area in comparison to a conventional conflict, hence the need for air power to provide far-reaching fire support. These countries also tended to be ex-colonial, less affluent and lacking a large scale industrial base, meaning they would have some difficulty in supporting highly expensive, state-of-the-art jet fighters from large, dedicated airbases.
Therefore, like the Skyraider, a dedicated COIN aircraft needs to be robust and relatively unsophisticated so that it can operate from grass or dirt strips away from a dedicated support facility. In reality, these aircraft would not be permanently deployed in the field, but operate on short term deployment, returning to their main base for interim servicing and repair. They also need to have excellent range and endurance capabilities in addition to armour plating, self-sealing fuel tanks and a heavy and varied weapon load mounted on a large number of hardpoints. Cargo carrying capabilities would also be an additional bonus, allowing the aircraft to shift men equipment as well as drop ordnance on the enemy.
Before reaching for a fresh pen and a clean sheet of paper, the aircraft designer will accept that a number of existing designs already exhibit many of these attributes. However, due to the advent of the MANPAD, current designs will require a greater element of sophistication with regard to self-defence systems. Fortunately, it is not too great an industrial task to graft these systems onto just about any existing aircraft of appreciable size.
The first port of call for a COIN aircraft is the propeller-driven trainer; the advantage here is that many of the types currently in production offer armed variants for weapons training. The RAF’s current turboprop trainer, the Shorts Tucano, can be fitted with weapons hard-points, as a number of these were sold to Kenya, although this weapons capability is not utilised by the RAF. This model has a more powerful engine than the standard EMB-312, but it is debateable whether this aircraft could cut the mustard in the harsh, hot and high environment of Afghanistan. Also, its ability to carry a modest 1,000 lbs (455 kg) of ordnance on four under-wing hardpoints severely limits its attack capability, especially if carrying additional, necessary items such as drop tanks and armour plating.
This is in sharp comparison to the larger and more powerful Air Tractor AT-802U, a modified agricultural aircraft, which can carry an impressive 8,000 lbs (3,636 kg) of ordnance on eleven hardpoints; a modern example of Russian Sturmovik. The AT-802U also has an in-built AAR-47/ALE-47 countermeasure system for use against MANPADS; although the addition of infra-red shielding around the jet pipe would not go amiss despite the drag penalty.
Embraer, the parent manufacturer of the Tucano have recognised this lack of attack capability in the original model and have unveiled a larger, more powerful model, the EMB-314 Super Tucano. This dedicated COIN variant can carry a variety of dumb and smart bombs, rockets and even sidewinder missiles in addition to its two inbuilt, wing-mounted 12.7mm machine guns, which it has used on a number of occasions to shoot down drug smuggling light aircraft. Embraer is not the only manufacturer to recognise the suitability of the armed trainer aircraft for combating insurgents. Beechcraft is offering their Texan II trainer in combat guise as the AT-6, as are Pilatus and Korean Aerospace with the PC-9M and KO-1 Wong Bee respectively.
Variations on the COIN theme can be seen with the Cessna 208 Caravan which, in addition to its cargo role can carry two Hellfire missiles. This concept could be transferred to the RAF’s Beech King Air B200 aircraft, however, how successful this concept would need to be seen. Hitting a target with a Hellfire at night from high altitude carries with it a certain element of safety as the enemy cannot see you. Hitting one with rocket and cannon fire at a low level during the day is a different matter altogether, and inherently more dangerous.
Larger dedicated, twin-engined COIN aircraft are still available on the global market, aircraft like the FMA IA-58 Pucara. Although still a viable airframe it demonstrates perfectly the limitations of deploying a COIN aircraft against large and well equipped conventional forces; the majority of the Pucara’s deployed by Argentina during the Falklands conflict was destroyed with the few remaining being captured. Hence, one needs to remember why such aircraft became obsolete in the first place.
This situation also highlights why a dedicated COIN aircraft has yet to be adopted by the UK for use in Afghanistan, despite the obvious advantages of deploying such an aircraft; its role will be limited to the low-intensity conflict. The attitude of the MOD would seem to be that they prefer to have an aircraft that is flexible enough to operate within both a conventional and a COIN environment and unfortunately, this means sticking with hi-tech, high-cost jet fighters. One of the most truly flexible aircraft currently in the UK inventory is the Harrier, although it is now in its final decade of operation. Whether its replacement, the F-35B is up to the task and is capable of operating from a muddy field in Germany or a jungle clearing in Belize has yet to be seen. But given the costs involved, it would appear to make better sense to operate a lighter and cheaper, dedicated COIN aircraft rather than a super-fighter.
Not for the first time has the MOD been accused of operating a Cold War mentality years after it ended, this is one of the areas where it appears to be guilty as charged. In this sense whether it is just the MOD’s lack of vision and flexibility or the RAF senior commands’ reluctance to get away from their large concrete runways and air-conditioned facilities and actually get their knees dirty, is beside the point, the point is that there is an actual need for such an aircraft in our forces inventory. COIN aircraft is not just a one-trick pony, in addition to their primary role, such an aircraft can be utilised for weapons training, FAC, reconnaissance or just as a standard trainer, although in this role they wouldn’t be as cost-effective as their lightweight cousins.
Given the diversity of aircraft currently on the market and their differing capabilities, it may be necessary to utilise two types of aircraft. A single-engined Super Tucano type for daytime ground attack and a twin-engined, Hellfire armed, transport type for night attack/interdiction.
The RAF’s new Commander in Chief Air, Air Chief Marshall Sir Christopher Moran, may acknowledge that his service’s role has changed from that of fighting the Cold War to one of fighting a counter-insurgency. However, despite having fought a counter-insurgency war in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, at this time the only dedicated COIN aircraft in the RAF’s inventory is a single captured Pucara sat in the RAF Museum at Cosford.
Until a squadron of COIN aircraft in RAF markings are sat on the dispersal at Kandahar combat-ready, it will be difficult to believe that both the RAF and the MOD have truly stepped out of their Cold War mentality and accepted the realities and needs of fighting an unconventional war in the 21st century.