There has been a lot of noise in the ‘net about the future of the A-10 “Warthog”, probably the best CAS airplane ever, due to obsolescence of the project and for setting the stage for the new F-35. For the non-initiated, the acronym CAS stands for Close Air Support, where “close” means attacking a few meters from the ground in very hostile environments, in order to give a real support for the troops. The whole set of polemics touched moments of absolute estrangement from reality, until the will of the US armed forces has been made clear: the A-10 MUST stay, until something better will come under way. So our american friends will keep their fantastic tank-killer on duty for some more years, leaving the same old question for the European allies: what will you do to give any CAS to your troops?
There are a number of possible replies, some already available today. You can use drones, of course. A lot of UCAV are already at hand and all of them are able to carry two or more missiles or laser-guided bombs and there are other kind of weapons (i.e. 20mm cannons) that can adapted for the use with PODs. A good example is the MQ-9 “Reaper”, used in Afghanistan and in Iraq by the US forces. The main problems here are about flexibility of use, that became available only with a good number of such UCAV on theatre and an excellent array of communication facilities; plus, there’s the absence of an European UCAV suitable for such use.
The other choice already on the plate is about attack helicopters, like the A-129 “Mangusta” or the AH-64 “Apache”, that are quite capable to support troops on the ground. The limit of any helicopter is about its operative range, usually far under what’s needed in order to have a good operative flexibility. The European armed forces do not have enough attack helicopters to cover a good level of CAS, nor they have the needed facilities to operate said vehicles in operative theaters.
The CAS availability problem is European, not American. It requires an European response, within the budget limits and the resources available. That calls for an existent airplane that could be adapted for CAS roles without great efforts. It’s the Alenia Aermacchi M-346 “Master”, an excellent trainer aircraft that was already tested for a dual role in 2015 by the Italian Air Force.
It’s a small plane, useful for a concept of CAS far away from the role covered by the aforementioned A-10. It will not be about being a full-scale tank-buster nor it will be about having the same hardness manifested by the same plane. This kind of CAS is about having a faster plane, far more maneuverable, with electronics and on board systems up-to-date and a great flexibility of payload. It’s a good thing to remember that the “Master” is used for acrobatic shows by the PAN (the so-called “Frecce Tricolori“, so far the best acrobatic air patrol in existence). An enhanced version of the M-346, dubbed as Light Combat Aircraft, has been offered to Poland to replace their aged Su-22 in 2015.
It’s also interesting remember that the M-346 started its existence as a partnership program between Aermacchi and Yakovlev, back in 1993. The two partners parted way, due to geopolitical pressures, and the Russian project became the YAK-130 (Nato call sign Mitten), an airplane used for training and for CAS roles (the version is called YAK-131).
The unit cost for a M-346 is estimated at USD 20 millions and it’s a safe bet that the CAS version will cost more, maybe USD 22 millions for each unit. It’s a lot of money but the costs could be greatly reduced with the mass production (where “mass” is any number over the first 25 units, so to speak). The cost could be also reduced if the same plane could become an European standard for advanced training (no less than 80% of maintenance and crew instruction will be the same). Aside from the economical matters, it’s clear that the previous European experiences (Panavia “Tornado”, Eurofighter “Typhoon”) has been quite positive for the partners involved, opening ground for a better European integration and for major breakout for the export.
Europe has another golden opportunity here, a rare choice to achieve tactical and economic results. With operational theaters like Libya and Syria already open the time is short. Let’s hope that the bureaucrats in Bruxelles will not miss this shot.