September 16, 2013
Since its formation in 1947, the U.S. Air Force has tended toward the high end of the combat-aircraft spectrum. The service began its independent life flying the lightweight P-51 Mustang and F-86 Sabre, but quickly gravitated to the heavy F-105 Thunderchief, F-106 Delta Dart and eventually the F-111, a fighter in designation only.
The Vietnam War showed the need for agile gun-armed fighters, but the Air Force's interpretation was the heavy, twin-engine F-15 Eagle. It took a determined group of Air Force officers and civilian analysts, dubbed the “Fighter Mafia,” to advocate for a lightweight fighter.
The result was the F-16, arguably the most successful U.S. fighter ever, and the “low” end of a potent high-low mix with the F-15. But the Air Force was quickly back to its old ways, developing the stealthy, but heavy and expensive F-22 Raptor. The low end of the mix now is intended to be the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but it is hardly a lightweight and more strike aircraft than fighter.
F-22 procurement was cut back to barely 190 fighters, and the F-35 program is under intense cost and schedule pressures. The Air Force, meanwhile, has been burning millions of dollars a day using its F-15s, F-16s and even B-1 bombers as orbiting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms over Afghanistan. Is it time for another forced reboot of the Air Force's thinking?
A group of former Air Force generals and officials, teamed with industry “outsider” Textron, thinks it is and has begun private development of a low-operating-cost combat aircraft, the Scorpion, that would fit below the close-air-support A-10s and F-16s, but above light-attackers like the Super Tucano and ISR platforms, such as the twin-turboprop King Air (see page 22).
This type of intervention has worked before. In the early 1960s, a pair of Marine Corps officers conceived a counter-insurgency aircraft that was picked up by North American and became the successful OV-10 Bronco. In the early 1970s, the Fighter Mafia gave birth to both the F-16 and F/A-18. In the early 1990s, General Atomics acquired what would become the Predator and set about persuading the Pentagon and Air Force to operate the unmanned aircraft—and redefine warfare.
But the history of attempts to buck the system, from inside and outside, is littered with failures. In the early 1980s, Northrop tried with the private-venture F-20, a development of the F-5 that died when the U.S. lifted export restrictions on the F-16. In the mid-'80s, Boeing tried with the Skyfox jet trainer, and a pair of Army aviators teamed with iconoclastic designer Burt Rutan to fly the Ares low-cost attack aircraft—a concept similar to the Scorpion that went nowhere.
Can some retired generals and a company best known for making business jets, helicopters, security vehicles and golf carts succeed where others have failed? The right question to ask may be: Will their gutsy move put pressure on the Air Force to heed experience and once again reset its high-low mix to reflect the realities of warfare?