20 November 2016

The Human Cost of the Wild Blue Yonder Crowd

If you look at activities in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, the overwhelming majority of the missions could be accomplished by low cost low performance Turboprop aircraft, and the reduced logistical tail would have eliminated many of the casualties from the huge number of convoys that fast jets required:
The U.S. Air Force has been continuously at war for more than 25 years. From the opening minutes of Desert Storm to the present, there has not been a time when the Air Force was not flying combat missions in support of national security objectives, often simultaneously in widely separated locations. The vast majority of that burden has been borne by the fighter/attack force, which has been continuously employed for over two decades without a break. The effectiveness of that force and its versatility remain undisputed. Yet these operations have not been without their challenges, particularly of the logistical sort. Combat operations in the 1990s were easy to support logistically, flown from NATO, Saudi, and Kuwaiti airbases under permissive conditions. But from the early days of Enduring Freedom when A-10s moved into Afghanistan, the logistical burden of supporting our legacy fighters jumped precipitously because the supply routes into Iraq and Afghanistan were never free from hostile threat. The high fuel consumption of legacy fighters necessitated a very intensive logistical effort conducted at significant cost in blood and treasure.

Today in Syria and northern Iraq, the Air Force avoids this problem by flying from distant bases, a concept of operations that adds excessive flying hours to its aging jets at exorbitant cost. If there was no alternative to fast jets, this would largely be an unavoidable burden. But modern turboprop-powered light attack aircraft offer a capable, viable alternative for providing air support in irregular conflicts. Light attack aircraft, operating in place of some legacy fighter/attack aircraft in current or future irregular conflicts, offer an opportunity to greatly reduce the fuel burden imposed by air operations, offset the high cost of employing airpower, and expand our definition of “global reach.” Had the Air Force done this a decade ago, we might also have reduced the number of Purple Hearts awarded to servicemen and their families.


Combat operations drive high fuel consumption. In 2006, as Central Command argued for a surge in Iraq, the majority of the U.S. military’s fuel use (58 percent) was jet fuel, dwarfing the next largest category (marine diesel) at 13 percent. In 2008, total fuel deliveries to Iraq and Afghanistan exceeded 90 million gallons per month — 20 percent of the entire Defense Department consumption. Because of the poor in-ground petroleum transport infrastructure in Iraq and especially in Afghanistan, the heavy use of fuel in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom can be directly tied to casualties incurred by ground operations required to get the fuel to U.S. bases, particularly airbases. Overall, roughly half of the total tonnage hauled overland was fuel, with the Army bearing the lion’s share of the ground transportation burden for all of the services. Air Force airpower supported the Army’s wider campaign, but the Army itself moved and protected the fuel needed to make that happen.


The same document also quotes the British Ministry of Defence in assessing that between 2001 and 2010 a whopping 39 percent of the total killed in action of U.K. uniformed personnel and contractors (over 190) was related to resupply efforts.


The direct link between fuel and casualties is not news. However, the impact of high fuel consumption by Air Force fighter/attack aircraft remains poorly understood and rarely discussed. If there were no alternative to the current jet fleet, the discussion would be moot. But for the kind of challenges faced in Iraq, Syria, Africa, the Philippines, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, there is a viable alternative: a turboprop-powered light attack aircraft. Air Combat Command has a designation for its proposed light attack aircraft: the OA-X. Among its other capabilities, the fuel consumption of OA-X is known to be a fraction of the consumption of fast jets. [A note here, technically, not all of the aircraft here are turboprops, the turbofan powered Textron Scorpion gives similar advantages.]


OA-X can be operated from austere airstrips, providing true tanker independence and the ability to operate effectively with substantially less fuel support than legacy fighters. The PT6A engine is extremely resistant to foreign object damage, always possible on unimproved strips. The fuel burned in an hour by a cruising OA-X will be burned by an F-15E in eight minutes of ground taxi. In March 2010, the AT-6B and T-6C flew 24 sorties in 2010’S Joint Force Experiment (JEFX)  at Nellis Air Force Base. In total, the two aircraft flew 46 flight hours and burned 15,640 pounds of fuel, averaging 340 pounds per hour. That’s around the amount that it takes to fuel a two-tank F-15E to half capacity. On a per-hour basis, OA-X will use between 3 to 5 percent the fuel of an F-15E and 6 to 10 percent of an F-16C. A single 5,000-gallon fuel truck, sufficient to top off an F-15E for a two-hour sortie, will supply OA-X for over 90 hours of flight.
The US Air Force will not do this unless it is forced to, because tactical air is dominated by white scarf guys on both the bomber and the fighter sides of the coin, and the idea of aircraft being selected through this sort of holistic process is an anathema to them.


Post a Comment