Light Fighter Planes: From Crop-Dusting to Counterinsurgency?

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

September 22, 2009

In the 1992 film “Iron Eagle III,” a retired U.S. Air Force fighter ace is asked by a buxom South American woman to defend her village against narco-terrorists led by a former Nazi. He does the only logical thing: He rounds up some vintage World War II-era propeller planes, updates them with laser-guided bombs and flies down to teach the bad guys a lesson. It is great to see those beautiful old planes in action, but all the nostalgia in the world cannot rescue a bad idea of a movie.

I thought about this recently when the Air Force announced its plan to explore purchasing 100 “light fighters.” The planes must be able to cruise 180 knots for at least five hours on mission, carry at least two 500-pound bombs and operate out of rugged bases in the field. The contenders for the potential contract include propeller planes used by Third World militaries and a converted crop-duster.

Supporters argue that, compared with the modern jets we now use in Afghanistan and Iraq, such light planes could fly closer to the ground at slower speeds, giving a better view of what is happening, as well as be used to train and advise foreign partners’ air forces. It is also a symbolic way for the Air Force to show that it is finally buying into the Pentagon’s focus on current counterinsurgencies. It is a good counter to the criticism the Air Force has taken for seeming only to want to fight the next war, such as with its last purchase, the high-priced stealthy F-22 jet fighter.

Just like the movie, though, this plan may seem appealing because of the guts and glory of the pilots who would fly these fabulous old planes back into battle (indeed, one of the entrants is even a version of the P-51 Mustang). But it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. It is somewhat questionable to add 100 new planes (if one can describe 50-year-old designs as “new”) at the very same time that the Air Force is seeking to accelerate the retirement of about 250 F-15s, F-16s and A-10s. Unlike these proven multi-role aircraft, light propeller planes could only be used at the low end of war, not against China or even Iran.

Moreover, in its haste to show that it is not focused on the next war, the Air Force may be trying to fight the last war. These planes won’t be deployable for use in Iraq or Afghanistan until 2013 at best. The plan thus rests on two huge assumptions: 1) that we’ll still be fighting counterinsurgencies there or elsewhere for which we’ll need 100 more planes, and 2) while we are going back in time militarily, our enemies won’t be going forward. Even within insurgencies, various non-state actors like Hezbollah already field anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles; now we would just be providing them with easier targets.

For operations that need planes to fly low and slow in support of troops on the ground, actually new technologies, like the MQ-9 Reaper unmanned system, have already proved to be far more effective. The old planes rely on the pilot’s “Mark II eyeballs”; the drone carries Gorgon Stare, a technology that monitors 12 high-powered cameras at once. Reaper also carries almost double the weapons and can stay on the scene four times as long. Drones are admittedly less fun to fly, but that’s not how we are supposed to make serious weapons decisions.

The ultimate kicker is that the very partners the Air Force claims it is buying the planes to train and fight with don’t actually want them. The head of the Iraqi air force reportedly wants F-16s instead, while the head of the Afghan National Army Air Corps wants Predators. Perhaps they haven’t seen the movie?

The U.S. Air Force is in a time of great transition, wrestling with everything from how to integrate 21st-century unmanned technologies to the very roles and missions it is to perform in our nation’s grand strategy. No matter how neat it would be to return to an era of brave men in white scarves flying those fabulous old flying machines, going back in time is not the answer.