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The Air Force has a perpetual meh-hate relationship with light attack aircraft, a platform that lives somewhere between shooting an M-16 out of a Cessna and laying hate with an A-10 Warthog. What
Light attack has consisted of a number of efforts over the past 13 years, from Imminent Fury and Combat Dragon II to the blandly-named Light Attack Experiment. For those who’ve lost track of all of these, we got you. Here’s a handy graphic that shows what the entire saga looks like:
Collectively, this has resulted in 100s of millions of dollars spent with nothing to show for it: zero permanent combat capability has been delivered to the warfighter.
After much handwringing, politics, and even the tragic death of a Navy pilot during the Air Force’s 2018 light attack experiment, the Air Force declared it would definitely NOT move forward with any plan to field a light attack fleet.
So…the Air Force bought four planes anyway.
It’s not over yet, so this week we’re going to unpack those question marks.
As a political appeasement strategy, the Air Force purchased two AT-6 and two A-29 turboprop planes—from the only two competitors in the canceled light attack experiment. Congress had already appropriated $200 million to buy them and no one is NOT going to spend money, right?
Deliveries of the airplanes are happening now, which begs the question: what to do with them? Afghanistan is in the rearview mirror and everyone is focused on China and Russia.
Despite this, one thing remains crystal clear: The Air Force does not need another experiment.
So…the Air Force is running another experiment.
The Continued Light Attack Experiment (CLAE) is projected to run for about 5 months starting in early 2022. This is a real sh!tty name because, while it’s going to use the four airplanes, it has almost nothing to do with a light attack program.
But that would ignore virtually everything we know about how competition between major national powers works.
While nations seek to deter head-to-head action, they actively compete on the fringes via proxies. These can be physical, geographic, economic, social, etc. Notable geographic proxies you might have heard of are the Vietnam War, the Iran-Iraq War, and the Russia-Afghan War.
Weirdly, this notion makes security cooperation more important now than it ever was in Afghanistan.
Competitive proxies have been growing for a number of years, you just don’t hear much about it. Russia is extremely active in Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Chile whereas China has a growing influence in both Latin America and Africa.
Back to the CLAE. It has nothing to do with buying a light attack fleet, which is convenient because the Air Force has zero interest in fielding a fleet, there is no money to buy them, and no pilots to operate them.
Instead, keep tabs on two key elements related to security cooperation:
- Allies: An essential part of security cooperation is having someone to cooperate with, duh. CLAE has a handful of regional competitive proxy nations involved.
- AERONet: The Airborne Extensible Relay Over-Horizon Network is a low-cost commercially-based data-link developed specifically for security cooperation.
OBTW: Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is running a very similar program called Armed Overwatch. They sound similar, but AFSOC’s plan is to find out which aircraft will replace its aging U-28 Draco fleet and buy 75 of them.
Despite the promise of what could come from CLAE, the Air Force needs an intervention to generate a serious discussion about the strategic value of security cooperation—before spending another penny on anything associated with light attack.
You'd think it would have happened by now, but nope it hasn't
That intervention should focus on answering five key questions:
- What is the potential value of Air Force security cooperation in terms of strategic competition and national security guidance?
- How might the Air Force best organize to provide said multi-platform multi-mission security cooperation with the unity of effort and unity of command like the Army has?
- What do the futures of Air Advisors and Combat Aviation Advisors look like and are there synergies to be gained by merging these specialties?
- What is the cost-benefit-risk analysis of doing this?
- What is the cost-benefit-risk analysis of not doing this?
It's time to sh!t or get off the pot.
In That Number
Of those few DoD Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II programs that eventually end up producing revenue, only 23 percent of said sales come from the military.
Trivia: On Halloween 1997, the Secretaries of State and Defense jointly unveiled the Demining 2010 initiative, whereby global coordination and increased spending would rid the world of millions of emplaced anti-personnel mines.
It’s 11 years past the deadline. How many mines are still left out in the wild, buried in the ground, waiting for someone to step on them?
A) 1 million
B) 11 million
C) 110 million
Commercial weather data is the latest space sector garnering defense interest. Specifically, we’re talking about startups that are building constellations of radio occultation satellites to measure temperature, pressure, and humidity throughout the atmosphere to feed prediction models. Spire Global and GeoOptics are two leading companies that supply this data to NASA, NOAA, and the Air Force. But PlanetIQ is seizing on a second-mover advantage with a satellite design that listens for signals bouncing off the Earth from the four sources: US GPS, European Galileo, Russian Glonass, and Chinese Beidou Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). Speaking of GNSS, startup TrustPoint raised $2 million in seed funding from venture capital firm DCVC to develop a fully commercial next-generation GNSS that will be better more accurate, more precise, and more secure than the GPS that most of the world relies on. The co-founders have the right pedigree and have VC-backing, which will make either a huge success or an epic failure. Kratos and General Atomics were awarded yet another developmental drone contract from the Air Force. This one is called Off-Board Sensing Station (OBSS) and seeks to rapidly build a low-cost open architecture conventional takeoff drone—not rail-launched like most of Kratos’ products. Judging by the name, they will probably be used for penetrating collaborative sensing and mesh network relays for fighter escort.
They Said It
“We cannot learn that we don't know how to do basic engineering and we are failing in flight tests prior to testing our hypersonic flight articles. That's unacceptable. That's an unacceptable outcome.”
— Pentagon Principal Director for Hypersonics Mike White on the string of recent test failures spanning multiple hypersonics programs.
Startup Accelerator: a fixed-term, usually cohort-based program that provides mentorship, education, expertise, networking, and capital to accelerate a business idea into a company.
Why it Matters 1: Seraphim, an end-to-end space venture capital firm, recently launched Seraphim Space Camp Mission 8 (i.e. startup accelerator cohort 8), consisting of six space startups. Why it Matters 2: [pun alert] The Space Force has launched Soft Landing, their first accelerator program. It’s jointly funded by AFRL and the Space Force, run by Q Station, and the first cohort of startups was just announced.
People have unique fingerprints. Duh. But did you know that cities do too? Zoom in here to learn more about metropolitan microbial fingerprints. Or, you can fall asleep reading the entire report here.
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