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A-4’s Forever!

August 5, 2009
Israeli A-4 Skyhawk, via Wikimedia Commons.

Israeli A-4 Skyhawk, via Wikimedia Commons.

Earlier we posted on a proposal by Eric Palmer to substitute some Joint Strike Fighter missions for the South Korean T-50 Light Attack Trainer pictured below. Well, there is some interest in the T-50 by Israel, as an A-4 Skyhawk replacement, according to China View:

A delegation of three Israeli Air Force (IAF) officers will leave for South Korea this week to examine the T-50 Golden Eagle, a candidate to replace the IAF’s veteran Skyhawk jets, local daily Ha’aretz reported Sunday… 
    The T-50, produced by Korean Airspace in partnership with the U.S. company Lockheed Martin, took its maiden flight in 2002 and is used in the South Korean air force as a light attack jet and for training purposes, according to Ha’aretz…The Skyhawk, set to be replaced by the new purchase, first arrived in Israel in 1968, marking the beginning of the American era for IAF, which used mostly French jets at the time. Currently, several dozen Skyhawks still serve in the 102 squadron and in the pilot training school.

We like the idea of these light-weight snub fighters, the Italian/Brazil AMX is another of the type as well as the British Hawk family, which can perform many roles and carry many of the same weapons as the higher performance jets. If it wasn’t for the increasing capabilities of the UAV, we would be a prime advocate for such jets for the USA.

T-50 Golden Eagle, courtesy of Kobus.
T-50 Golden Eagle, courtesy of Kobus.

The use of such short range, low cost light fighters and UAVs in warfare might answer some questions that’s been puzzling yours truly in recent years. Concerning modern airpower:

  • Why do we need long range fighters and tankers?
  • Why deploy jets with very expensive radar such as AESA, and AWACS and Hawkeye command and control planes which serve the same purpose, only better?
  • Why have large planes with heavy payloads and vastly more accurate new smart bombs, which promise “one bomb, one hit”?
  • Why have high performance, high maneuverability jets, and high performance, highly maneuverable missiles?

We see then in modern air strategies over-engineering on a grand scale. With so many planes duplicating each other’s functions, we are assured of drastically shrinking force structures coinciding with prices rising astronomically. Such an attitude endangers us in future wars by limiting the numbers of planes available for combat, as we see by the USAF’s F-22 Raptor, so sophisticated we can’t even sell it to our allies. Replacing these super-jets with lower cost, common light fighters and unmanned aerial vehicles, backing them up with “aerial motherships” like AWACS and tanker planes would save billions. It would also restore numbers (and youth!) to our air fleets, with planes that are easy to replace, and ready to support the troops when we need them, not for some future obscure conflict down the road.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 6, 2009 7:31 pm

    ” “cheaper is not better, better is better”.

    he might also have said “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. We expect so much perfection from weapons these days, they are often obsolete when they enter service, and riddled with bugs when they finally do.

  2. michael Mac permalink
    August 6, 2009 6:50 pm

    t-50 is useless for a power like the USA. We rely on air dominance and deep strike capacity- neither can be done with a light fighter like the t-50- its role is usurped by uav/tucanos/copters in the US system of airpower. We are an expeditionary power, the t-50 can only be used in contiguous situations. Its role is in light strike (not air to air) in permissive environments without significant air defenses- the uav role in current US plans. This smacks of the 1980s Gary Hart thinking- it was wrong then, it is wrong now. As one astute general remarked at a congressional hearing- “cheaper is not better, better is better”. Smaller and cheaper are not a priori better- particularly not for an expeditionary power- our expense tail & logistics is in fact a major source of our strength- it is not a weakness- altho we need to keep the point of the spear in mind.

  3. August 5, 2009 8:01 pm

    The scenario of the report has too many unrealistic assumptions and it’s really only about the air war.

    The Taiwanese army is much more relevant in the case of an invasion than the USAF.

    A war between Taiwan and PRC is highly unlikely anyway because Taiwan is steadily outsourcing its production base into Southern China. Both countries are extremely connected today.

    I doubt that China would make such a major move as an invasion before securing its position in other major concerns, like the relation with Russia.

    Mike, you should really look into the price of a Global Hawk UAV sometime.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 5, 2009 6:14 pm

    Undergrad. I heard about that report and think I will read some of it since you posted the link. Seems we lose in a war over Taiwan even with the F-22!

    Thanks everyone for your comments. Though i don’t expect the A-4 and its kin to come back at least for larger powers, i do think this is why the UAVs have been so successful in recent wars, because they are a back to basics in aerial warfare, at least in their performance. I don’t share the doubts some have over them when they have to face heavy SAM defenses in some future peer or Hybrid conflict. I think it just makes sense you would want to send in the drones first in such an environment, rather than losing a $100 million fighter or its aircrew. So I expect them to continue their usefulness and even expand on the lessons learned to become more essential in our future wars.

  5. UndergradProgressive permalink
    August 5, 2009 5:30 pm

    Though the likelihood of a China/US air war is quite, quite limited, this was interesting:

    Some small, quality fighters that bulk up the size of our AF could certainly provide useful support for the F-22s and F-35s, though I’m surprised that this study came out like this (China gets air superiority over Taiwan through attrition), considering that the F-15s and even the F-16s are likely superior platforms (and better flown) than PLAAF fighters.


  6. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 5, 2009 3:01 pm

    The Air National Guard want to fly a plane the Air Force is Flying, but perhaps they should look at the FA-18, plus the Air Force needs EW aircraft, F/A-18G looks like the only game in town.

    Perhaps transfer legacy F/A=18 C/D to ANG, buy more E/Fs for the Navy until the F-35Cs come out, then pass the E/Fs to ANG.

  7. west_rhino permalink
    August 5, 2009 2:21 pm

    1 long range fighters and tankers… will you have sufficient air superiority for tankers survival?

    2 as with tankers, AWACS and Hawkeye survivability… pop a barrage of long range (like the Phoenix) BVR AAMs at your eyes in the sky, bells and whistles depend on defensable sanctuary for these assets

    3 cause ARCLIGHT strikes scare the crap out of the opposition… else I see you point on using “the semi trailer to deliver a pizza, breadsticks and a 2 liter Coke”

    4 Missiles don’t wow the crowds at AirExpo 2010, also you don’t have the unlimited supply of missiles and going to guns OR dodging unsuppressed enemy air defences (perish the thought), could happen. Also just how hardened to EMP are systems? The less solid state electronics, the less handicapped a system.

  8. Defiant permalink
    August 5, 2009 12:56 pm

    Military stuff is politcs.
    If you have to integrate political points into your planning.
    If you choose foreign parts you may have to cancel a proposal because this foreign nation is in the competition as well. The swedes used an american engine and the U.S can now block any export of the gripen. You also cannot build fighters nationally anymore if you want an adequate production run, this results mafacturing location redundancy(I thik the redundance is just an excuse to share jobs between states/countries. Requirements creep is only normal for something with more than 15 years developement, the world changes, systems thought to be effective are proven ineffective… .
    Fixed cost contracts are also troublesome in reality. The product needs 15 years of developement and has to be usful for 30 more years. The consequence is that nearly every system will be a new developement as well. If one subsystem is not according to specs the result will be an avalanche in cost increase.
    Furthermore, in a democracy, every defense procurement needs to be financed and to get the political opposition in the boat you have to pay (with jobs in a state governed by them usually).
    The solution always seems easy but effective defense procurement is only possible in a non corrupt dictatorship. luckily most dictatorships nowadays are very corrupt.
    I can’t really think of a good solution for cost overruns and if i’d be a minister i don’t think i’d let some company like boeing or airbus go bankrupt because of cost overrun. For one i’d have an ability gap and theres simply no competitor in my country to compete.
    And future vehicles/ships/planes will be even more pricey, you can’T change that.
    As for the ship analogy, not every ship needs to be able to perform area defense. Without that capability you can create cheaper and smaller vessels. A destroyer is not any better in ASuW than a (ASuW)corvette/small frigate.

  9. elgatoso permalink
    August 5, 2009 12:20 pm

    the ANG was looking for new aircraft.I think a t-50 could fill the roll.

  10. August 5, 2009 11:11 am

    “Sven, we used these same type planes, F-5s and A-4s, to train our supposedly better superiority fighters in Top Gun school. Then there were the Soviet light fighters that gave America a hard time over Vietnam. In my view an “inferior” plane in the hands of a superior pilot evens the score.”

    I know about history, but the example isn’t applicable. F-5 and F-4 (and F-16) were used to train dogfight. Fighters like F-14 were dumbed down to dogfight them, instead of using their real strengths.
    That had its roots in the 60’s when the AIM-7 and AIM-9 (and some ROE) sucked. Their most serious deficiencies were addressed in the 70’s already. A MiG-17 is just a live target nowadays, just like simple fighters and simple bombers cannot stand against the evolved threats of today.

    You can follow the Swiss route and build a “light” aircraft like Gripen, but that’s a class above the AMX, A-4 and others.

    Military aircraft of today are defined by their avionics. The fuselage weight, wing weight and engines are neither the critical cost drivers nor do they define what mission can be flown (except range).
    You can save some money by following this light route, but not much. A 60’s Phantom II costed twice as much as a 60’s Mirage III and three times as much as a Freedom Fighter. Maintenance requirements ratios were similar. That was roughly proportional to “heaviness”.

    That’s not applicable any more. A Mirage 2000 would need the same avionics as a F-15E to fly the same mission, and avionics make up about half of the aircraft cost. There’s no way how ceteris paribus a Mirage 2000 could cost half as much as a F-15E with comparable avionics (or similar FB-22 proposal vs. F-35).

    There are some potentials for making combat aircraft less costly, but “heavy” vs. “light” isn’t nearly as powerful a factor as it once was.
    I know you don’t want to see it, but this applies to ships as well.

    How to make a combat aircraft affordable:
    – adequate production run (overall and per year)
    – no manufacturing location redundancy
    – fixed cost contract
    – no gold-plating beyond the initial specs (no requirements creep)
    – no political (fiscally motivated) delays
    – competent (management and engineers) bureaucracy
    – subcontractors selected for efficiency (performance, cost) instead of for politics
    – use some OTS components
    – no hidden subventions (like for Boeing to compete easier with Airbus)
    – make it attractive for export, so the company doesn’t need to make much profit on your budget

    Or short: Ask the Swedes and copy them.

  11. B.Smitty permalink
    August 5, 2009 10:37 am


    We don’t want the score to be even. Superior planes in the hands of superior pilots gives us a major advantage (e.g. Hellcats vs Zeros, F-15s vs all comers), assuming we have reasonable numbers.

  12. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 5, 2009 9:40 am

    Sven, we used these same type planes, F-5s and A-4s, to train our supposedly better superiority fighters in Top Gun school. Then there were the Soviet light fighters that gave America a hard time over Vietnam. In my view an “inferior” plane in the hands of a superior pilot evens the score.

  13. Axure permalink
    August 5, 2009 9:21 am


    Of course, missiles have evolved! But countermeasures are evolving too, especially electronic warfare (EW). I really wonder what good would an AMRAAM be in a BVR engagement with air buzzing with radar jamming.

    So when I say “remember Vietnam”, I don’t mean the problems with missiles are the same as in Vietnam. I mean, we might underestimate the new problems just as the U.S. did in the past.

  14. August 5, 2009 7:33 am

    The utility of light bombers like AMX is very limited – it’s very much limited to the scale of 1860’s fighter bombers.

    It needed upgrades to enable the use of today’s precision munitions, it has no secondary fighter capability (against modern fighters) and its survivability is based on staying away, chaff and flares only.
    AMX is also underpowered (thrust) and it was underpowered from the beginning.

    Their only advantage is in their numbers, and they need large numbers to make up a bit for their deficiencies.

    Overall it’s not really a path of superior efficiency. It’s an aircraft category that would be great for Third World countries if there were no armed jet trainers like Hawk.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 5, 2009 7:30 am

    “That’s the Vietnam lesson, remember from “Top Gun”?”

    No offense Axure but missiles have come a loooooong way since Vietnam, and they were even better toward the end of that Conflict. I would also point to Beqaa Valley 1982 and the Falklands for more relevant air to air lessons, where missiles ruled!

  16. Axure permalink
    August 5, 2009 7:02 am

    Answers to your questions:

    1) Even fighters with the longest range can’t reach far enough in many scenarios. There’s only so much fuel a fighter can take, especially when it’s supposed to carry tons of ordnance. Even over Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. has quite a few bases all around the place, tankers are in constant use. Now fire up Google Earth and see what distances you’d need to cover if the U.S. were ever to have a skirmish with China.

    2) a) You can’t always assume you’ll have an AWACS behind you, there are only so many of those. b) AWACS will always stay waaay behind the strike force because of its vulnerability, so those going in the front line could really use some long-range radars of their own. c) That doesn’t mean AWACS is useless, because you still need someone to provide a 360-deg picture, as well as keep good situational awareness of the whole theater, and also provide cues to forces.

    3) Because sometimes you need to use ordnance other than small, smart bombs; like cruise missiles, bunker-busters, or just a lot of dumb bombs to obliterate, say, the premises of an entire factory complex, as opposed to just disabling two or three shops that can be swiftly repaired. Not to mention, you might want to attack a lot of targets (like the whole of south-eastern Chinese industrial base), so you’ll be sending like one or two bombers over a big target (say, a factory town), so you really want to put a lot of stuff into that one bomber.

    4) Because you can’t put all your trust in missiles. That’s the Vietnam lesson, remember from “Top Gun”? ;) Missiles sometimes fail and when you get in a dogfight, physical performance still counts (whatever fans of helmet-mounted sights and HOBS missiles would tell you).

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