The Department of Defense requires a cost-effective and responsive method to protect U.S. forces called upon to contain the violent extremist threat while America confronts the reemergence of long-term strategic competition with China and Russia.
Yet, despite this essential and ongoing need, a viable, affordable capability to counter the terrorism threat has repeatedly stalled.
Post 9/11, the U.S. military developed an effective but expensive methodology for conducting counterterrorism operations by relying on multisource intelligence collection and exploitation, protracted target development, highly mobile strike forces, and the accompanying massed air power necessary to support them.
This stacked approach is no longer viable or affordable.
Fortunately, there is another, cheaper way — one that has been tested and validated but not yet aggressively pursued.
In 2013 and 2015, U.S. Central Command ran a light-attack air experiment called Combat Dragon II. Dubbed “the Phoenix” by program managers, given the number of times leadership from military departments and the Joint Staff tried to kill the program, the purpose of CD II was to validate the hypothesis that a properly equipped turboprop aircraft with find, fix and finish capabilities acting in expeditionary direct support could improve interaction and cooperation between air and ground combat forces.
This would result in expanded capacity and increased effectiveness of air power in a counterinsurgency or irregular warfare environment, while reducing costs and saving high-end aviation resources currently performing these tasks for other missions.
The CD II experiment was validated by using two 1960s-era OV-10s (twin turboprop light-attack and observation aircraft, known as Broncos) and a blended approach of old and new concepts. Experiments conducted in the United States and as part of combat operations against ISIS in Iraq demonstrated the effectiveness of an open-architecture construct utilizing existing and repurposed communications, sensors, displays and weapons in existing turboprop aircraft.
The experiment concluded that rather than employing expensive, high-end, scarce assets to confront the ongoing threat from extremists, an inexpensive, simple, rugged, proliferated and exportable multirole platform could do a better job at a fraction of the cost.
Consistent with the National Defense Strategy emphasis on cost-informed and resource-sustainable irregular warfare capabilities, the Defense Department finally supported the CD II follow-on light-attack air experiment, or LAA, in the fiscal 2019 Air Force budget submission as “a viable cost effective capability to counter the violent extremist threat freeing 4th and 5th generation aircraft to face emerging threats.”
A year later, the Air Force further explained in its FY20 budget justification that “LAA squadrons will provide a deployable and sustainable multirole attack capability, capable of performing a diverse array of attack missions, including but not limited to, Close Air Support, Armed Reconnaissance, Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance (SCAR), Airborne Forward Air control (FAC-A), and interdiction.”
Despite the justification in the budget submissions, the program languished and the opportunity to save money, while providing an improved capability to U.S. forces performing counterterrorism missions, was squandered.
Affirming again that the U.S. continues to engage in low-intensity conflicts in austere environments, and equip partners who face similar threats, the FY21 Defense Department budget proposed moving the program, as “Armed Overwatch,” to U.S. Special Operations Command in a new effort to pull it out of its perpetually stalled predicament. But the program has run into yet another delay.
In their respective versions of the FY21 defense appropriations and authorization bills, House and Senate defense committees cut funding and imposed additional obstacles for Armed Overwatch.
The new administration and Congress should reject the bureaucratic inertia that has stalled a cost-effective solution to provide a find, fix and finish capability to general-purpose and special operations forces.
U.S. forces need Congress and the Defense Department to work together to aggressively acquire this effective and affordable approach to the counterterrorism mission.
Elaine McCusker is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. She is a former acting undersecretary of defense (comptroller).