The military is increasingly focused on high-tech weapon systems. There are not only expensive, but also complex and very prone to malfunctions. The German Air Force can tell you a thing or two about that (for example regarding the Airbus A400M military transport plane or the NH90 helicopter). However, for certain scenarios, the US forces have now rediscovered a type of military equipment, which was long thought to be obsolete: light propeller combat aircraft.
In a remote area of the Hindu Kush, Afghan military combat pilots are training with their Super Tucano airplanes, under the guidance of US instructors, to attack Taliban units on the ground. The Super Tucanos are not high-tech jets, but small propeller planes – a combat aircraft type that had its heyday during the Second World War, and has since been considered obsolete. But propeller planes are currently undergoing a renaissance. For the fight against the Taliban, the US has equipped the Afghan Air Force with four of these aircraft, and another 16 will follow.
The US Air Force is now considering introducing light-weight propeller combat aircraft on a larger scale for itself. At the moment, interested manufacturers are launching their light propeller combat aircraft at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico (see here, here and here). The commander of the US Air Force, General David Lee Goldfein, is a fervent supporter of this project.
[This is a] great idea — and I tell you why — because I think we are 15 years into a long campaign in the Middle East this will continue to be a coalition fight and so we got to continue to evolve to look the way we prosecute and sustain this campaign against the power of extremism. […] So we are, actually, right now, looking at an experiment when we go out to the industry and say ‘what do you have commercial off the shelf low cost that can perform this mission’ — and we gonna do an experiment and see what’s out there. — General David Lee Goldfein, at the beginning of the year at an event in Washington on the future of the US Air Force, organized by the Think Tank American Enterprise Institute (Future of American Airpower: Conversation w/ Chief of Staff A.F. Gen. David Goldfein, 2017, ab 39’30”)
For the chairman of the Bundeswehr Association of Jet Pilots, Thomas Wassmann, using propeller airplanes is quite useful from the military point of view:
You need to imagine a fighter jet that is attacking: it will be going somewhere between 700 and 900 km/h. Propeller airplanes are flying about one third of that speed. That means they can observe the target area much more accurately. They can spend more time in sight of the target; because they don’t fly by it as quickly. They provide the option of flying much lower, in a terrain that is very mountainous and otherwise obstructed with obstacles. These certainly are a few advantages. — Thomas Wassmann.
For Hermann Hagena, a former combat pilot and general of the German Air Force, propeller aircraft are even superior to drones in some respects.
It can be said that drones are much more susceptible to ground based air defense. Because drones usually fly, as the aviator says, “straight on level” — without widely observing or dodging. And a plane like the Super Tucano is substantially more capable of surviving than any drone. And it has the additional advantage that the aircraft operator can immediately report what he is currently seeing to the forces on the ground, which have to deal with this threat. — Hermann Hagena.
All these abilities are necessary when military operations are to be successful in asymmetric wars. It is no longer a question of attacking cities or masses of hostile combat aircraft. Instead, the Air Force is meant to support special units in tracking down and eliminating opponents, who usually commit attacks in small groups and then immediately withdraw, such as the Taliban or, in some cases, the terrorist organization “Islamic State“.
For such counterinsurgency operations, the US Air Force likes to use propeller airplanes in the future again. Ultimately, the US government and the military are certain that the war on terrorism will take years.
Purchasing propeller planes for the military is also attractive for another reason, says the former German Air Force General Hermann Hagena:
If you want to continue to wage war in modern economies, then you have to try to lower system requirements, at least for the asymmetric ones, for small conflicts like Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria. And one of the ways to lower them is the propeller plane. — Hermann Hagena.
Propeller planes are significantly cheaper than jet aircraft when it comes to procurement and maintenance. The unit cost for the modern Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor for the US Air Force is 140 million US dollars. A propeller plane like the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II costs only 4.2 million. The T-6 is used by the US Air Force and also by the German Armed Forces as a training aircraft for young pilots. The manufacturer Beechcraft is now trying to offer the US Air Force an armed version.
Because of the low cost, there is already a niche market for propeller combat aircraft. Smaller countries, which are directly involved in asymmetric conflicts, have bought such planes. In Colombia and Peru, for example, the air force is chasing courier aircraft from drug smugglers with Super Tucanos in the Amazon region. In the Libyan Civil War, the United Arab Emirates supported their chosen side with a series of propeller planes – flown by mercenaries.
The inhospitable theatres of war in asymmetric conflicts, mostly in failing states or developing countries without a significant infrastructure, also support the use of propeller airplanes. Unlike high-tech combat aircraft, these planes are very robust. Thomas Wassmann from the Bundeswehr Association of Jet Pilots:
They have a relatively simple engine, so that they can be repaired with standard tools even in an emergency at the edge of the world, if they can land there. With fighter jets, the [technicians] first have to arrive with some laptops and the like, then take a reading of the plane to determine where the error could be. Because generally it isn’t about something mechanical, with a component, but about an electronic software error or something else. — Thomas Wassmann.
Militarily effective, cost efficient, and uncomplicated – for the US armed forces it makes sense to procure propeller combat aircraft for asymmetric conflicts. However, whether this will come about is still completely up in the air. It is true that the influential US Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate’s Armed Forces Committee, is making a push to buy 300 of these planes from 2022 onwards. However, supplying the few propeller combat aircraft to the Afghan armed forces led to fierce lobbying between the suppliers. The US Air Force respectively the Pentagon had to face a lawsuit from the US manufacturer Beechcraft, whose offered T-6 planes did not make the cut, in order to be able to buy the Brazilian Super Tucanos for Afghanistan. Although the purchase decision took place back in 2011, delivery of the planes to the Afghans was delayed by almost five years.