The Penny Drops: COIN Aircraft for Blackwater?
Operating and recapitalization costs for front-line fighters are up in the stratosphere, even as a wide variety of conflicts around the world fit counterinsurgency profiles requiring affordable, persistent surveillance and rapid fire support. UAVs are filling an important niche, and their success is triggering major bureaucratic showdowns in response, but they remain expensive, are much more crash-prone than manned aircraft, and offer a limited field of view.
Under the circumstances, it isn’t surprising that some nations are turning back to simpler aircraft whose speed, view, and weapons carriage are purpose-built to offer dependable counter-insurgency surveillance and fire support at lower cost. America’s A-10 “Warthog” widely outclasses much more expensive aircraft, for instance, and has become the key manned fighter of the global war on terror. Even as nations like Columbia purchase dual role trainer/COIN(COunter INsurgency) Super Tucano planes, and Iraq holds an aircraft competition for modified trainer/COIN aircraft of its own.
Trends becomes more surprising, and interesting, when private security firms look at their options, see a solution’s logic, and step on board…
Richard North notes that security contractor Blackwater bought a number of BAE OMC’s mine-resistant Mamba vehicles from the British Army for use in Iraq, even as Britain was still fielding Land Rovers as their primary transport in a land mine war, and America was buying flat-bottomed Hummers. Now StrategyPage reports that Blackwater has ordered some Super Tucano aircraft of its own. One EMB-314 has been purchased for pilot training, a function to which the platform is also well suited – and more aircraft will reportedly follow.
In contrast to government air forces, buying F-16s or high end fighters wasn’t really an option for Blackwater. Even if the legal hurdles could be overcome, the purchase price was affordable, and one did not count the amortization costs involved in using an limited flight hours asset with an $80 million replacement value; paying high-end fighter jets’ $10,000 – $15,000 per hour flight costs, in order to use the same advanced surveillance pods that a Super Tucano can carry, would make little sense.
If Blackwater ends up using their aircraft effectively in conflict situations, the current penchant for dismissing the value of COIN aircraft would suddenly face higher hurdles, and closer scrutiny from cost-conscious taxpayers.
These sorts of incidents illustrate why the slow growth of military capabilities among private security firms, who can amass a combat record and lessons learned faster than most nation states, is an underlying defense trend worth watching. During the Cold War, this function was performed via superpower-supported proxy wars. These days, private entities that can react more nimbly than almost any government may be stepping into that vacuum.
- DID FOCUS Article – A Higher-Tech Hog: The A-10C PE Program. Explains why slower COIN aircraft often have an advantage over fast jets for close air support, with anecdotes from the front.
- DID (May 9/07) – Iraq Issues RFP for COIN Aircraft
- Defense of the Realm (Sept 23/07) – Jackpot! Covers a series of letters to The Sunday Telegraph, including one from from Group Captain Hastings (Ret.), who commanded the Sultan of Oman’s tactical air force in Dhofar Province in the latter stages of a war which, he writes, “had similarities with the current Afghan operations… Air strikes were flown against a ruthless and determined enemy equipped with surface-to-air-missiles, heavy machine guns and AK47s.” Their weapon of choice? A slow-flying BAE Strikemaster counter-insurgency aircraft, derived from an RAF trainer. The same fast/jet/slower plane effectiveness dynamic applied back then.