OA-X Program?

Yup, they used a couple from NASA a few years ago to fill a light attack requirement:

The bigger issue here is not “We can afford to”, it’s opportunity cost.

Every flight hour spent and fancy piece of ordinance dropped on Toyota Hiluxes is a flight hour and fancy piece of hardware not at the ready to either fight or deter a conflict, which leads to premature obsolescence of your jets, which leads to acquisition costs and timelines which, put lightly, are mildly problematic.

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Oh I get the need for a low-cost, perhaps even propeller driven attack platform. I just specifically think the Air Tractor is a joke and there is no way our Air Force will take it for OUR use. We might give a few away like we did Tweety Birds and Sky Raiders a couple of generations ago. Or they might make it a drone. But they will not put an American human in the thing. And you cannot compare it speed for speed with a helicopter. Helicopters can… Well isn’t it obvious!? As for service ceiling, a Cessna 182 has a service ceiling of 18,000 feet. So sure you can get it up there. But now try maneuvering it! The Air Tractor is very capable at carrying huge loads at low level. It is a great machine…for killing bugs. It is probably a decent machine for killing Toyota trucks as well. But the risk to the human inside, if there is a human inside, is far too great. We have at our finger tips a great tool for testing. Fire up DCS and try hitting shilkas buried in a city with a Su25 and remember that it enjoys performance that doubles or triples anything the Air Tractor can achieve. Plus you need two engines. If we really want to jump back into the manned prop world maybe we should get Argentina to build us a bunch of Pucaras. They could certainly use the cash.

Except that’s not what any of these aircraft are being asked to do. A ZSU is not a threat they’re expected to combat; though I suppose they could be pressed into it, if really needed – just that they all have limited options for dealing with serious AAA. Once again, don’t think of it as an independent air asset; it works in conjunction with friendly forces. An asset that serves the ground commander first and foremost. That means in your scenario, there needs to be friendly armored units and infantry taking shots at the ZSUs, not the Su-25s alone. Don’t use a flyswatter to kill a bear, in other words.

One other consideration: the OV-1 Mohawk, which saw service in Vietnam, had a maximum speed of ~300mph. That was also a high performance aircraft, quite similar to what current requirements are, yet still fulfilled the mission. Speed isn’t a huge consideration in this realm. Yes, more is better, but not at the cost of mission performance. Once again, the Apache does it at a much lower speed, with less ordnance capacity and less loiter time. The advantages of a helicopter have not been used much, if at all, over the past 16 years versus what a light prop can bring to the table.

The Pucara has a very poor service record and is considerably underpowered. The Bronco and Mohawk are far better options than that one. Heck, the Air Tractor has 3 times the payload! In addition, the Cessna 182 isn’t a turboprop, nor does it have the wingspan of the Air Tractor – and since all we’re really doing at these altitudes is orbiting to drop PGMs or setting up for an attack run, being able to fly like an F-16 is irrelevant.

Here’s a counter scenario for you: replace that Su-25 with a Ka-50. That Ka-50 is probably gonna get ripped to shreds against a bunch of ZSUs, right?

And lacks the ability to identify and engage targets from true stand off distances. These aircraft are only going to be used in environments were air superiority is guaranteed. You can fly above the shilka’s max engage altitude all day long, punch his location into your TGP, and leisurely feed him a PGM. You don’t need two engines for that, you need to be able to fly a straight line at 15,000 AGL.


I think armed drones are plenty sufficient and superior to a modified crop duster that will put a pilot into great danger for equal return.

However, I think it safe to say that as a concept, deterrence only works on a large scale against adversaries which it would seem likely that nukes could be used. Against ones which it would be seen as politically and militarily ill advised to do so, we have seen nothing but contempt for our forces.

So we can kill large numbers of their forces, so what? They have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of idiots willing to die for their cause. We kill one leader, another takes its place spouting the same mantras and nonsense. There is literally no weapon that can be designed or even imagined that will work to wipe it out besides nuclear annihilation, but that wipes everyone on all sides in the process.

You can kill a man, a battalion, an army. You can’t kill an idea. We’ve been trying for years, first to kill communism, now to kill extremism, and the evidence is in and the proof is unequivocal–you can’t. You can defeat it, but not with kinetic weapons, only with superior ideas. We didn’t blow up the USSR, it collapsed under the pressure of our messages that there was a better way. Our economy could do things theirs could not, and they shattered when they tried.


I mentioned the 182 only to highlight that many flying turds post surprisingly high service ceilings, signifying nothing. What do I know? I will never fly in combat. But I have lots of friends who do and I am pretty sure that they’d sooner clean toilets with their personal toothbrush than fly over bad guys with a single engine crop duster. Then again, one did it at night with a U-28 so I guess it isn’t completely outside the bounds of possibility.

The problem a drone has is situational awareness. A drone pilot only gets a straw tube’s view of what’s going on, not the full environment. Now, that may change in the future as sensor systems improve, but given current technical limitations (as well as overall expense), it makes more sense to use a ready-made solution as with the existing AT-6 or A-29.

[quote=“smokinhole, post:27, topic:4688”]
But I have lots of friends who do and I am pretty sure that they’d sooner clean toilets with their personal toothbrush than fly over bad guys with a single engine crop duster.[/quote]

I’ve actually known quite a few guys who actually have done that, as has my old man. :slightly_smiling_face:

A single camera looking in one location is indeed just as bad for SA as having a pilot in a walled cockpit with only a periscope to see outside.
There is no technical reason there can’t be 360 degree camera coverage, though. A few wide-angle cameras with a fast-moving narrow FOV one to slew to areas of interest would do it.

Right, but most of the entrants to this program are using large bubble canopies, not armored canopies with a periscope. Once again, I must direct everyone to helicopters like the Apache and the Havoc which don’t have ideal visibility from the cockpit, yet are still conducting the mission.

While there is no technical limitation for multiple cameras, that still brings up the cost in an extraordinary way – same reason why the F-35 is so expensive.

Like @Franze said, they’re currently trying this on the F-35 and realizing that it’s both incredibly expensive and hard to find an optimal design point.

The cameras need to be high enough resolution such that the pilot can ID targets while also having the field of view to avoid the soda-straw effect, and you want multiple of these suckers placed in good spots on the airframe such that you get enough coverage to make the system worth the cost without sacrificing aerodynamics or significantly increasing vehicle weight. By the way, these gucci cameras and their housings need to be certifiably reliable to both aviation and mil-spec standards.

This is a headache inducing problem for a program that has effectively an unlimited budget, vague/flexible deadlines, and a carte blanche for trying out new technologies, which, at the end of the day, can fall back on the pilot just looking out the canopy.

Sacrificing aerodynamics? Did you look at that Airtractor? Can you honestly say a few bulges for cameras is going to make fuel burn worse at 100 kts? The F-35 has stealth to worry about, no COIN aircraft will.

Cameras are cheap. You can go spend a few hundred dollars for your own little UAV and mount a bunch of GoPros on it for less than $1k all up. The very notion that the US military is simply not capable of accomplishing that proves that the entire acquisition corps and their governing regulations needs a massive kick in the face.

A single human pilot has two eyes which always point in the same direction and are limited in spectral bandwidth with a 150 degree FOV max. Half a dozen cameras can cover 360 the entire time and can even go multispectral to see through camo or dirt, then using algorithms to highlight details that a pilot might need to spend a long time looking at to notice. Couple that with a ground-based pilot with far lower stress levels, a platform that can be far smaller than a massive bomb truck that carries a pilot (like a Predator) making it much harder to shoot down, and what it boils down to is an illogical dislike for an unmanned platform solely because there is no pilot sitting in it.

This is the idea behind the swarm concept. Many small, individually low capability units that can each look a different direction attacking a target in unison from multiple directions, or just providing recon, that is largely immune to interception due to small size and the ability to lose 1/3 or more of their number before losing effectiveness. Each is cheap on its own, and if one gets lost no budgets are ruined and no pilots are lost coupled with an indefinite persistence as units can cycle in and back as payloads/fuel are used and the ground controller can easily swap if they get fatigued during a long engagement.

The basic point is we’ve been using airplanes in combat nonstop for 100 years. Of course we know how to use them effectively now. Yet we’ve been using these things pretty much only for the last dozen years outside of edge cases that provided little data into more effective large scale use. If we put the effort into working out how to best use them (which means most likely NOT using them as we mostly have been–as small planes with remote pilots), I have no doubt we can make them more effective and less risky, for the side using them anyway, than a conventional plane or helo.

It took airplanes decades to prove they were superior to trains for travel or even equal to other ground-based weapons in war. I think the declaration of the undying supremacy of planes over unmanned options is likewise premature.

Let’s dig up this thread in 2050 or so and I think then we will have a better understanding of where they are going.


I don’t think a few cameras will give something like the AT or any of the OA-X contenders a problem, really. Many of them already sport cameras on the airframes, some capable of supporting targeting pods.

Uh, yes, the US military is that dumb. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

The problem isn’t that a few GoPros will do the job (and quite well at that), the problem is that nobody in the gov’t will accept that. They’ll specify that all components must be made in America, in this district by that factory, then they will have to withstand X pressure, Y test, etc. ad infinitum. This balloons the cost in a big way and contractors are gonna want to milk it for all they can get out of it. For example, you or I can buy a VTC system for ~$4,000; through the Army’s CHESS system, a completely identical system costs anywhere from $28,000 to $35,000.

And look at all the problems the F-35 is having in getting that kind of system integrated. Once they do get it ironed out, then look to that tech being replicated on future platforms – especially unmanned platforms. Thing is, we need a COIN capability right now – not in the future. Remember the famous saying: “You go to war with the military you have, not the military you wish you had.” That’s us. Having a UAV with all those capabilities 10 years from now doesn’t do us any good when we need the platform now.

Agreed on this, but the problem is you’ve got an institutional bureaucracy that does not want to embrace this. Fighter jocks make up the vast majority of the USAF and they are reluctant to give up their idea of glory and chivalry in the air, fighting 1vs1 battles against an enemy air force. These capabilities have been delayed because they threw everything they had on the F-22 and F-35 boat, with little to no funding toward R&D and unmanned systems. Look at how few of them even want to fly UAVs as it is! The Army has done what it can, but Army Aviation is a very small cross section of the Army as a whole; they had to give up the OH-58 in order to maintain what they had, putting what they can into UAVs – which they’ve been trying to embrace. But they’re still having to contend with the rest of the branch for funding, which is a huge issue as they have everything from training, vehicle repair and replacement (seriously, the Army’s vehicles are in VERY bad shape), medical care (huuuggeee issue), etc.

The USAF does not want to embrace UAVs, COIN, CAS, or the ground fight. They sincerely believe that they can win a war through air power alone; the problem is, F-35s only work for one part of that war – and they won’t apply for every conflict. Sometimes, a C-17 applied with the right cargo is the way to win a war; it simply does so by stopping it before it occurs.

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Alright, I don’t know where you’re getting your drones and GoPros, but I want in on that deal.

I think I gave the wrong impression with my reply- I’m not talking about what airspace is going to look like in 2050. The OA-X program and potential suitors that would be used in its stead are needed now. Any R&D work is going to be on borrowed time, heavily favoring what is both cheap and readily available.

A reliable, proven, inexpensive light aircraft with a nice big canopy (Tucano, Bronco, etc) that can mount targeting optics, a gun, and a couple PGM’s is something a military can buy pretty readily, if it so desires. Swarms of sensor-fused semi-autonomous combat drones? Not so much.

…Which is why the F-22 and F-35 prioritize stealth, electronic warfare, and the ability to communicate and share information with all friendly assets in the sky? I guess bards did enjoy singing about the glories of getting a friend to assassinate your opponent while he rode in to duel you in the ring of honor.

Institutional bias and budget fighting probably do their fair share of damage to American strategic planning, but I don’t think my tin-foil hat is thick enough yet to believe that any nation’s Air Force top brass enjoy sitting around smoking cigars and dreaming up ways to deprive the honest, hard-working boots-on-the-ground of their vital resources.

“Say Bill, know how Army’s trying to get that new bullet proof vest / chest rig thing going?”
“Maybe it’s time we bid for a new cruise missile.”

EW with the F-22 and F-35?

Yeah, so why is the E/A-18G being used as an EW aircraft? Don’t those fools in the Navy know the AF has got this?!

No, I won’t drink that koolaid. The F-22 and F-35 are stealth fighters, geared for air combat. That they can do some additional stuff is irrelevant. Given all the problems both the F-22 and the F-35 are having with regards to getting their tech integrated, I strongly suspect that the end result won’t be this flying aerial command post like the AF and LockMart is trying to sell them as. They aren’t going to be able to replace an E-8 or E-3 – they don’t have the crew for it.

I’m sure there’s some that think that way, but most of them are simply short-sighted with regards to what they’re actually supposed to do. In a lot of cases, it’s not clear what they’re supposed to be doing because Congress hasn’t made that part clear, either. There are a lot of folks within the USAF that have been critical of the focus on technological gee-whiz fighter junk in light of the current environment and projected future environments; these people often find themselves at odds with the “higher, faster, farther” community that makes up the brass. Michael Pietrucha is one of these outspoken critics, and with good reason.

I’ve worked with a lot of the lower echelon AF folks and they are some seriously smart cookies. The AF, bar none, has to be the smartest branch of all the services. They have excellent people in signal, JTAC, airlift, refueling, etc. but the issue is that none have any time in the seat of a fighter jet. That means that they aren’t the ones getting to the top and bringing a different perspective to the organization; only the guys who have done nothing but fighter jets are getting there, and those guys certainly don’t see the world the same way a guy who’s been flying C-17s his entire career does. They get target fixation and think that shiny new jets are the only way to solve a problem.

There’s also a huge institutional bureaucracy at the upper echelons that is very buddy-buddy with the military-congressional-industrial defense complex. This isn’t unique to the AF, but they’re the biggest offender when it comes to dollars spent.

Here’s an excellent read regarding tac-air and the 21st century USAF:

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I dunno man. War On The Rocks, Foxtrot Alpha, War is Boring, etc. are all fun to read and make good points, but I can’t help but feel like their understanding of aviation and technology is perpetually frozen somewhere between 1968 and 1990.

The USAF probably needs an OA-something to fill the upcoming gap in COIN and CSAR capability.

The entire USAF should probably not be optimized for fighting insurgencies and performing persistent on-call CAS.

Just sitting here :wink:


Part of that is because the vast majority of the past 50-60 years have been COIN conflicts, with less than 6 months of that being in a true non-permissive environment. Time and time again we’ve been told by the USAF that this pointy nosed fighter will do this or that and that there’s no need for anything else; time and time again they’ve been proven wrong. Neglecting their other missions in favor of the shiny new thing has got to stop – or we need to revise the rules on who gets what mission and the funding that goes with it. 30 years ago, the AF was going to the Army and offering huge bonuses for pilots to jump ship and fly A-10s, and that was after they tried and failed to get the Army to take it – because the AF wouldn’t give up the funding for it.

In the past, the AF has not been concerned with COIN or on-call CAS, despite both being missions they get funding for. With the OA-X, they at least appear to be giving some consideration to it, which is better than nothing. For the price, having a small segment of the AF capable of operating in a permissive environment as we’ve dealt with for the past 16 years is a pretty damn good value.

Once the F-35 matures and associated technologies can be shifted to UAVs, then we can see about pushing mass drones into the role. Until then, a cheap, light plane is a good enough solution, albeit an imperfect one. But don’t be surprised if in another 20-30 years we’re still stuck in COIN while the shiny F-35s bomb the snot out of mud huts and we have the next “fighter crisis.”