A few years back when counterinsurgency was all the rage and building the security capacity of partner countries was considered an important U.S. strategic goal, the Air Force came up with a plan to acquire a fleet of light attack and transport aircraft. This notional force would consist of low cost, propeller-driven, simple to operate and maintain platforms suitable to operations in less developed countries with limited infrastructure. While the Air Force never planned to buy more than a limited number of such aircraft, it hoped to encourage partner countries to acquire them as the core of their national air forces. With support from the U.S. Air Force and a low price due to volume purchases, it was hoped this plan would lead to the creation of a virtual global counterinsurgency air force.
The “test case” for this strategy was to be the Afghan Air Force. In order to provide an initial capability, the Air Force contracted with the Italian company Alenia to provide 20 refurbished G222 cargo planes, a variant of the C-27J which was then in service with the U.S. Army. In fact, the Army at one time had plans to acquire some 78 C-27Js. In addition, the Air Force began a competition to develop a Light Air Support (LAS) aircraft. It hoped to have the first 20 aircraft in the hands of Afghan pilots and their Air Force trainers by the beginning of 2013.
Slowly, but relentlessly, the plan to create a global counterinsurgency air force came undone. First, the Air Force decided not to proceed with its plan to buy some 100 LAS but to acquire no more than 15 for training purposes. Second, in December 2011 the Air Force awarded the LAS contract to a team consisting of Sierra Nevada/Embraer, then cancelled the procurement when the other contender protested and restarted the competition. A new award is expected this month, after more than a year-long delay. This means that even if everything goes smoothly from here on, the Air Force will only have a year to train its Afghan counterparts before the withdrawal of virtually all U.S. forces from that country is completed. Finally, the Air Force just announced that it is terminating the contract for the G222s even though 16 of the planned 20 aircraft have been delivered. Instead of the last four G222s, the Air Force proposes to provide 4 C-130s, a wonderful transport but one that is larger and more expensive than the platform it is replacing.
Virtually nothing remains of the Air Force’s plan. Any further delay in the LAS program will undoubtedly mean the termination of this last little piece of what was once a serious plan to knit together a global network of counterinsurgency air fleets. This is a particularly disturbing situation given the resurgence of Al Qaeda and its affiliates across North Africa. For countries such as Mali, Chad and even Libya, a fleet of low cost, light attack/transport aircraft is just what is needed.