It is becoming clearer with the publication of each e-mail, transcript of telephone calls and time line related to the tragic events in Benghazi on September 11, that the U.S. lacked the appropriate forces to deal with this kind of situation. In particular, what was missing was responsive air power. The Predators that provided real time video of the assaults were unarmed. There were no AC-130 gunships within range. Jet fighters from bases in Europe might have reached Benghazi in time but would have faced the challenge of providing close air support in an urban environment.
Because we can expect more scenarios in the future like Benghazi it may be time to rethink the Air Force’s opposition to acquiring a fleet of light attack aircraft. At one time, during the height of the counterinsurgency craze at the Pentagon, the Air Force had considered buying some 50 of these aircraft for its own use in low-intensity conflicts as well as selling or otherwise providing a large number of them to allies in Africa, Latin American and Asia. The Air Force currently is considering a new round of bids by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Hawker Beechcraft to build some 20 Light Attack Support (LAS) aircraft for the Afghan Air Force. Unfortunately, given the delays in awarding this contract it now seems possible that the aircraft will be delivered to the Afghans after the Coalition forces have withdrawn from that country.
A fleet of LAS-like aircraft may make a lot of sense even for a post-Afghanistan Air Force. The combination of a rugged, relatively low maintenance airframe and power plants coupled with advanced avionics, ISR systems and precision weapons looms to be the kind of capability that might have made all the difference for the Americans under attack during the night of September 11. One of the problems faced that night was the lack of military forces available to AFRICOM, the Combatant Command in whose area of responsibility Libya fell. Advanced airborne platforms and special operations aircraft are in scarce supply as it is. Therefore it was not surprising that AFRICOM did not have any at its disposal when things went bad. A LAS is the perfect platform for many of the challenges the U.S. will face in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia.
Opponents of this idea will argue that deploying such a capability will come at the expense of the already stretched fleets of advanced tactical fighters. In fact, the reverse is the case. With a fleet of up to several hundred LAS, the constant wear and tear on the rest of the fighter force would be reduced. So too would the operations and maintenance costs associated with maintaining a high-end fighter presence to respond to Benghazi-like events.
The Air Force is reported to be having problems pumping out enough rated officers to meet the level of demand from all the various commands, planning staffs, training establishments and combat units. It would be relatively easy and cheap to use some fraction of an LAS fleet to qualify personnel for many responsibilities.