The Case for Low Cost Airpower

A proposal to extend the UK's air Defence Engagement capability to include conflict prevention at the lower end of the spectrum

After what seems like decades of argument back and forth, the United States Air Force (USAF) seems to be getting serious about a low cost fighter attack aircraft like the ubiquitous Super Tucano.

Flight Global reported on the 23rd of February 2017 that;

The US Air Force has requested funding for a low-cost fighter experiment in its supplemental budget request, indicating the service is serious about finding a close air support alternative.

The idea seems to be to field a low cost aircraft (capital and running costs) to supplement, not replace, existing fighter jets and unmanned aircraft, to be used where the threat to aircraft is lower than a conventional combat environment.

That is not to say that environments like Iraq and Syria are completely safe, they are not, MANPADS and AAA are a real threat. But, within acceptable risk margins and with appropriate mitigations, the theory goes that the cost can be reduced.

It is as simple as that.

There is another side to this story, and arguably, a more important side.

Complex aircraft like the Typhoon, F-18 and F-35 are simply too expensive and technologically demanding to operate for many of our regional allies.

With a revanchist Russia, precious and very expensive fast jets are better employed providing territorial defence than destroying ISIS pickup trucks.

In line with our stated objective of developing allies capabilities and letting them fight their own battles, the UK and other NATO nations are putting considerable effort into this on the ground.

The picture below shows a British soldier training Peshmerga personnel

In a UK context, the British Army has the reactive and adaptable force, with newly announced Special Infantry Battalions (SIB) that will formalise mentoring and capacity development on the ground.

In the air, we are still doing the heavy lifting, or in some cases, the only lifting.

So if there is a recognition that the struggle against terrorism in the Middle East and Africa is a generational effort, the strategy of mentoring allies on the ground but doing almost everything in the air, is not sustainable.

It is not sustainable for two reasons, the threat from, Russia and the high cost of conventional air power.

This is proposal to take the same approach in the air, i.e. creating a fully integrated Adaptable Force (RAF), with a number of equipment support capabilities.

It is not an argument that the RAF should replace Typhoons with Super Tucano’s


Table of Contents


Defence Engagement, Capacity Building and Conflict Prevention

Roles and Requirements


Developing the Capability




Change Status

Change Date Change Record
 03/03/2017 initial issue



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July 10, 2016 12:32 pm

How many pilots would be needed for this proposal?

July 10, 2016 2:40 pm

I think you have discounted Scorpion too quickly (and no, I am not working for Textron or any of their associates). Speed matters at times, particularly when getting from A to B, and jets win over pops in the speed stakes.

July 10, 2016 5:13 pm

What about planes like the F/A-50 Fighting Eagle, Yak-130, Aero L-159 Alca, Alenia Aermacchi M-346 Master & the BAE hawk 200. You have Aircraft like that is perfect for small Air forces pocket planes for their work.

The Other Chris
July 10, 2016 9:15 pm

Once you step into turbofan/jet territory, you’ve stepped up an order magnitude of complexity in operating the aircraft compared to a piston/Wankel/etc or even a turboprop.

Foreign Object Ingestion, fuel consumption, faster airframe, more complex avionics, more skilled maintainers, higher-end runways, more people needed to operate it, clear birds, etc.

Exactly where TD wants us to get to with this initiative I think, though the partner nations would need to start in a more sustainable fashion to begin with.

July 11, 2016 8:48 am

As a part of low-cost surveillance option, may I suggest Pipistrel Surveyor?

stephen duckworth
July 11, 2016 4:37 pm

Great article TD and good proposal to re/start fledgling air forces attached to existing security services giving access to that extra dimension of space.Literally over flying ground based obstructions, be they terrain or human based, with a very much greater speed and flexibility than ground based assets.

July 12, 2016 4:52 pm

Well argued proposal. Now. How do we garner the attention of Politicians who are wooed and wedded to the high tech, high cost end of the market? Equally, this idea lends itself to a containerised module that can be bolted on RFA, Type26/31 and QE Carriers to enhance expeditionary capabilities . Like it.

stephen duckworth
July 13, 2016 12:10 pm

Perhaps the OV-10 Bronco deserves a mention .The Vietnam era close air support aircraft is still being used including a recent deployment of two OV-10G+ against ISIS supporting USN Seals . They flew 120 missions over an 82 day period last summer.
These refurbished aircraft trialled in the Combat Dragon II programme (after Congress repeatedly canned it as it wasn’t using AT-6’s) can carry 3000kg of external stores, land on rough fields and roads and provide small team insertion or extraction .

July 13, 2016 8:35 pm

How about a new UK design light ground attack a/c based on the Bronco that can be carrier based – would sell globally in my view. Could be the air equivalent of the Type 31.

Stu W
July 17, 2016 2:12 pm

Tornado’s retiring 2019. Lots of still relevant tech being stripped off the a/c. US companies have chopped about the 146 to make it fire bomber. This is Heath Robinson (isn’t that what the UK does best) but fit out some 146’s using Tornado kit. Simple bomb truck approach, Paveway, Brimstone, JDAM.

I hate doctrine
I hate doctrine
July 25, 2016 8:26 pm

There are a few general assumptions that need to be dispelled.

Firstly, the RAF has been doing defence engagement since its conception and contributes quite widely to the BMATT programme from defence attaches to specialist fields e.g medical, engineering, SERE trg.

And secondly, you don’t need high end and/or an extensive air based solution to engage in defence diplomacy. Yes the adage of ‘height, reach, speed’ is relevant but only in the context of what you set out to achieve for said engagement vs what a host nation/partner needs. Most countries that can, already have air arms of some fashion of which either we, our partners (yanks) or our rivals (China, Russia) already have a stake in.

Equally, for those that do not have, there’s a reason and that’s usually a combination of cost vs utility vs complexity – it’s too expensive for what I need to do and I don’t have the resources to try and figure out how to run the damn things all the time.

There are other options for air defence engagement. A light weight off the shelf UAV with a go pro camera can achieve the same effect as a fixed wing ISTAR piloted asset in the context of ultra low budgets or zero formal air based capability.

In many ways, it can do better as the information acquisition, analysis, dissemination loop would be quicker from a tactical point of view, and with the addition of good digital comms allied to mass I.e. A lot of small teams with the same tech, can still provide that theatre wide coverage. Equally, a man pad with decent training on potential OPFOR tactics provides a cost air defence. A bunch of low cost drones in the flight path of an aircraft is an effective deterrent.

As these examples operate in the air environment, they are considered to be part of air power. Even the use of ruggedised ‘home made’ EW jammers can be considered to be air power. The best part? You don’t need aircrew however for presentational purposes it helps.

August 31, 2016 11:27 am

Not sure where to put this but, defensenews is reporting that the fifth RAF Sentinel will be kept this financial year, while long term plans are decided.

September 26, 2016 1:58 pm

A proposal to transfer Islanders and Defenders (N-B,not JLR) from AAC to RAF – “rationalisation”. Manpower savings? I doubt it. Another click in the ratchet for RAF to tae over the AAC? Maybe. A possible quid pro quo: transfer Puma to the AAC?

Keith Campbell
Keith Campbell
September 29, 2016 1:59 pm

Regarding the Super Tucano, it is necessary to clarify a common error. It is NOT derived from a training aircraft. It was designed as a combat aircraft that can be used for training. It has built-in armament (2 x 12.7 mm machine guns, one in each wing) and can be fitted internally with kevlar armour. It comes in both single-seat and two-seat versions. All exports have been two-seaters, because those customers wanted dual-use capability, but two-thirds of those delivered to the Brazilian Air Force are single-seaters. Both versions use the same canopy, so are difficult to tell apart from a distance. The name Super Tucano was adopted for marketing reasons.

October 2, 2016 11:34 pm

I’ve always felt that the Services, particularly the technologically reliant ones have always gone or the ‘gucci’ option, instead of having a suite of options. Just as warfare has a spectrum, so should our equipment. We don’t need Tornadoes, Typhoons or Lightning II for COIN ops, we need durable, simple & robust weapon platforms. It took a while for us to catch on to the UAV concept, could we not benefit from a more expansive airpower approach? Such a capability could also lend itself to helping to develop allies, as we help friends to generate their own organic strength based on their needs, as was shown with Iraq.

November 7, 2016 12:41 pm

defensenews says all 6 RAF E-3D Sentry are grounded with wiring issues. Is that true?

All Politicians are the Same
All Politicians are the Same
November 7, 2016 8:00 pm

@JH it is true an Uk AEW is currently being provided by our NATO Allies that many on here suggest we cannot rely on.

November 7, 2016 8:23 pm

The joys of having old aircraft, long in need of a very expensive upgrade.

March 4, 2017 9:20 am

it really depends about the battle environment. M-346 FA can be an answer but if you want greater persistence and an effective Gun an AC-27J with GAU-23A and PGMs could be an alternative solution

March 4, 2017 3:55 pm

Low cost air power is reaper/protector and shadow both fleets increased after the last sdsr.

David Flandry
David Flandry
April 22, 2017 5:01 pm

I always thought the RAF should have a squadron or two of specialized Hawks, stripped of training equipment, optimized for combat as light attack or even sovereignty patrol. Seems like it would have a decent export market.

April 23, 2017 7:25 pm

Not sure why we would need hawks for light attack when we have reaper.

If by sovereignty patrol you mean QRA, they can’t it requires supersonic performance. Hawk can do point defence of a Airfield or a High value target near where it’s flying from but not a lot else.

April 24, 2017 4:57 pm

Do we even still have any Aden gun pods or would it just be a couple of ….hang on, do we still have any Sidewinders? Were the Hawk T1As ever cleared for ASRAAM?

Looking like a complete nonstarter to me.

April 25, 2017 8:58 am

BAE developed for the Indians a light strike demo Hawk. I think it was more agile than standard, with all the latest RAF weapons (Paveway IV, Brimstone, Asraam). Then Indian politics turned against it. If you want a light combat Hawk, look at that.

September 10, 2017 5:05 pm

This always seems like a good idea to everyone. Everyone but the guy that has to fly
one of these stripped down aircraft in the face of organized resistance.
If you’re fighting Uganda you might be alright.

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