Do you want to know why General Stanley McChrystal’s departure is so costly? He’s no longer around to fight the inept Congress, who just rejected a $22-million reprogramming request for Imminent Fury, a $100-million classified Navy-run light-attack airplane program he championed. An indisputable expert in Special Forces, McChrystal strongly felt that light air support was needed in Afghanistan. In a May 20 memo to the Joint Staff urging the backing of the request, he wrote, “The immediate deployment of the Imminent Fury team into Afghanistan will validate the concept while simultaneously providing rapid means to help meet urgent theater demands.”
Air support is still in high demand in Afghanistan. Even though there were 19% fewer bombs dropped in the 10 months up to April compared to the previous 10 months, there was an overall increase in fighting. Before his departure McChrystal authorized over a dozen special operations per night against the Taliban. In this type of irregular warfare where collateral damage is not acceptable, it’s understandable that McChrystal felt light air support was critical to finishing the job, especially when some Taliban fled from population centers when attacked. Chasing them down could be better handled by light aircraft with .25 mm strafe, rather than the overkill of an F-15E or F-16. Getting close to the enemy is what this war is all about and McChrystal knew that. The nighttime raids were working. In one successful nighttime op, the “shadow” governor of Kandahar, Mullah Zergay, was captured. Light air support would make the raids work even better and fill the gaps left by dropping fewer bombs.
Light air support would also be helpful against the two insurgent groups linked to al-Qaeda, led by former commanders of the anti-Soviet Jihad, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani, both of whom we supported in the ’80s. They are currently hiding in the sanctuary of the rugged tribal areas in Pakistan. McChrystal knew part of his strategy in winning this war would be to keep costs down yet keep the pressure from the air on the insurgents in Pakistan. He recognized how much cheaper it would be to fly prop planes over Afghanistan compared to F-15Es or F-16s.
In fact, Hawker Beechcraft sees prop-driven aircraft playing a key role in irregular warfare. Of course it would be in their best business interest to think that way, but there’s no question their AT-6 gives us an economical edge too. Once we have air supremacy thanks to the F-15Es or F16s, running a prop plane makes much more sense in areas like Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which are uncontested air environments. This would solve two problems. One, it would increase the years of operation for America’s already aging fourth-generation fleet, and two, prop planes are less expensive. In Iraq and Afghanistan we have been performing armed-overwatch missions for years. Hawker Beechcraft tested the AT-6 on 24 mock sorties that resulted in using less fuel than an F-16 uses in one sortie.
Whether the military uses a Hawker Beechcraft or the Embraer Super Tucano turboprop used in Imminent Fury, the reprogramming rejection is devastating because it delays a sensible weapon for Afghanistan. Imminent Fury would have created the operations manual (called build tactics, techniques, and procedures) for the program, which would have been useful to the Air Force, regardless of the final platform, to move the program further along faster. With its cancellation, it seems to me Imminent Fury is headed into more bureaucracy rather than the battlefield where it could meet urgent demands.