As the Trump administration’s budget plans come into sharper focus, it is increasingly clear that the Pentagon will not be getting enough money to recover from the depressed investment levels of the Obama years. Trump’s proposed defense spending level for next year is only 3% above what Obama planned, and there is no guarantee that Congress will repeal budget caps precluding robust investment in new weapons. With readiness for near-term conflict the military’s top priority, America’s arsenal will continue to age.
Against that backdrop, the Air Force has decided to push ahead on an oddly ill-timed initiative to experiment with using light fighters against low-end threats like ISIS. The Air Force doesn’t have any light fighters today, so developing such a plane would require squeezing another new program into an already over-subscribed modernization agenda. That agenda currently includes plans to field a new high-end fighter, a new bomber, a new tanker, a new radar plane and a new trainer. And that’s before we even get to its plans for space.
The basic idea behind the light fighter, also known as a light-attack plane, is that a lot of money would be saved if propeller-driven planes could be used in place of jets when fighting enemies with no air forces or air defenses. This concept first surfaced during the Iraq war, and keeps bubbling up as the service struggles to make ends meet in a rapidly shrinking and aging fighter force. One of the original authors of the concept described it this way in a January essay for on-line journal War on the Rocks:
We wanted a turboprop powerplant because they are easier to maintain than the alternative, highly resistant to foreign object damage, staggeringly fuel-efficient compared to a jet engine, and precisely the proper propulsion for an aircraft that would operate from the surface to 25,000 feet. We wanted guns because they are responsive and accurate in a dynamic environment and had proved their value over and over in Iraq and Afghanistan. We wanted optical sensors and precision munitions capability like the existing fighter/attack fleet… And it was pretty clear by then  that we were going to need the ability to operate from short and rough fields on a logistical shoestring to free light attack from the basing constraints of the jet aircraft.
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