USAF Turboprop Strike Fighter?

US Air Force planners want irreguar warfare wing

Stephen Trimble at Flight International:

US Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) planners have called for the stand-up of a new “irregular warfare” wing dedicated to fighting insurgents and terrorists with an aircraft fleet numbering 44 airlifters, 20 helicopters and 20 turboprop strike fighters.

AFSOC’s proposal, which is described in a recent internal White Paper obtained by Flight International, would dramatically increase the air force’s assets dedicated to the counter-insurgency mission, which now includes a single squadron equipped with two Bell Helicopter UH-1N utility helicopters. [emphasis Murdoc’s]

This is something I’ve supported for quite some time. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t mind large numbers of cheaper close air support planes in the hands of the Army and Marines, but if the only way to get them into the field is with AFSOC, so be it. Maybe this could prove (or disprove once and for all) the utility of light turboprops over today’s battlefields and possibly open the door for more of the same in the regular forces.

The Air Force wanted for so long to ditch the A-10. Now it’s seeing that getting down and dirty is a new way to get into the game and they suddenly want some turboprops. Should have seen that ten years ago, but better late than never, I guess.

The article mentions the Beechcraft AT-6B and the Embraer Tucano and Super Tucano. It also notes that the Douglas A-1 Skyraider played a similar role in Vietnam.

I pointed out that planners were looking at this sort of COIN aircraft for the new Iraqi air force, and I’ve pointed out that such a plane would be handy on our side, as well.

However, be afraid, be very afraid, of any major modification requirements to these planes. The whole point is to get simple and cheap. A program that finally (maybe) delivers a bazillion dollar turboprop ten years from now is not what we need.

A pro to the concept: The planes will be so cheap that they won’t interfere with F-22 and F-35 budgets.

A con to the concept: The planes will make many wonder why we need so many F-22s and F-35s.


  1. FINALLY! As an AF Officer myself, I’ve always felt the A-10 is our most valuable weapon system since the end of the Cold War. F-22 is overkill/overspent. We may need a few squadrons of them for ‘deterrence’, but we NEED close-support/COIN aircraft for the real fighting and to support our ground-pounding buddies.

  2. That AT-6 and the Embraer Tucano aren’t good options for this role. They only carry 2000 lbs of ordinance and could be shot down with a bb gun. The old A-1 carried about 7000 lbs into battle and the A-10 probably carries over 10,000 lbs. Plus, an unducted prop is pretty damn noisy, and no faster than a prop plane flies, you’re giving the enemy a lot of advanced notice of your arrival. That’s not a good survival tactic. Since the wing would be flying C-130s, they should build an attack airplane around the A2100 turboprop engine.

  3. Heh, Two words: Cavalier Mustang. But I’m just a softy for that old gal. Still and all, it’s ironinc to see the folks who denigrated it now think that the concept is worth pursuing. Dfens has a very good point, however. Perhaps the Allison T-56 series of turboprop engine could be used to desing a plane around. It’s the same engine used by both the C-130 and the P-3 Orion. It’s a DAMN fine engine, and there are thousands of them available, so spare parts would be a cinch. It’s also incredibly reliable and easy to maintain, with amazing power. The big advantage of a constant-speed turine with a variable pitch propeller, is that you get instant acceleration. There’s no lag waiting for the jet to spool up . You push the power levers forward, and you instantly bite off more air and are gone. There were times on the P-3’s where we accelerated so fast guys nearly spilled their coffee… You always had to keep one hand on the overhead rail as a stabilizer when walking up or down the tube. Man, a new-design turbo prop with a big set of blades like the P-3 uses, a strong wing to load ordnance and a GAU type gun system would be wicked cool. Seriously, with that type of power, you could have CAS platform with a top end of over 400kts and also have a long range and excellent fuel economy. Time to go sit and sketch and daydream… heh. Respects,

  4. Why not an osprey based platform? Take the Bell/Agusta civvie model, beef it up, and use it as a gun/missle platform. Its got the turboprop speed, and the versitility and rough field capability/VTOL of an Apache. Imagine a VSTOL A10.

  5. Leave it to an old P-3 guy to have a proper appreciation for the T-56. Do they still make the T-56? I thought the A2100 had replaced it. The 2100 has all the great features of the T-56 plus it is a dual spool design, so the thrust comes on even faster. Although lately some of my C-130 buddies have told me the 2100 has been somewhat problematic as has the Dowty prop. They say GE has an engine in that class that turns an 8 bladed Hamilton Standard prop which is a nice combination. I don’t know if that’s what they’re putting on the new E-2s or not. The last time I saw one, it sported a pair of 8 bladed props. It looked good.

  6. The V-22? Talk about a bird that can be brought down with a bb. You’re right about the VTOL being nice for an attack plane, though.

  7. Dfens, yeah, I’ve got some 4500 hours in P-3’s and 500 in other types. Those T-56 engines brought my crew back safe and sound on many an occasion, even with one out during a thunderstorm, and two out in a january snow system in Maine. I can hear one of those overhead and know instictivly what turbine is making that sound :) Regardless, Rolls Royce bought out Allison, and has a web page on the T-56 series here: Lots of pdf data as well. I really do believe that such a motor could make for an interesting single, or even dual engine strike fighter. Respects,

  8. coolhand, Now you’re thinking of the tilt-rotor attack birds that save the day in the ‘The War in 2020′. ‘Cept they have railguns.

  9. Wow, that 4th generation T-56 makes over 5,000 shaft hp. Makes me want to fire up my CAD computer and get to work. Not that it would do any good…

  10. Dfens, To take it one step further, could you imagine making a modern version of the P-38 w/a pair of those T-56’s? Theoretically, you could make both a single and a dual-seat version, depending upon the mission. You could even make a 2-seat version as an elint bird, or a small-scale awacs or combat controller version nd assign one to each squadron, etc. W/2 T-56 engines, there would be enough HP for some serious ordnance and duel capacity. Ordnance and loiter time are the two big things in CAS, along, of course, with accuracy and survivability. I need to dig out the P-3 schenatice and do some PSP work.. heh

  11. That would be a hell of a big P-38, but it would probably have lots of room for a railgun in the fuselage and the T-56 has plenty of hp to turn the required generators. Sounds like a good zombie killer to me.

  12. Actually I just remebered a BETTER idea. How about ressurecting the old Vought XF5U Flying Pancake? Its a lifing body, extremely sturdy, the engines are protected in the fuselage/wing, and with the prop wash going over the airframe, its develops lift just sitting still with the props running. Gets rid of the problematic ‘engine gimbals’ from the tilt rotor, and due to the ‘stand still lift’ is STOL aircraft with such a low stall speed it might as well be a helicopter. I think it had a pretty good lift/weight ratio since 90% of the aircraft was a lift generating surface. IIRC the ‘jet age’ was one of the only reasons the aircraft ‘died on the vine’. Of course now you get the flying saucer comments…oh well. Oh, and you could still mount railguns on it Geeklethal…

  13. How about an updated P-38? Tough, long-legs, decent capacity for armament and ordinance – and it looks cool.

  14. You wouldn’t want to keep the reciprocating engines. Too much trouble. The main reason the turbine replaced the recip was because of the vast increase in engine life and reliability the turbine provided. You also get a lot of hp out of a turbine for its size. 5000 hp out of a T-56 and it’s not much bigger than a Merlin producing 1500 hp.

  15. Damn – I should refresh the page before pasting in my post. Apparently, I’m not the only who liked the P-38.

  16. I am sure that the Air Force specifications for their new turboprop strike airplane will require that it have all aspect stealth and supercruise and a phased array radar and … hey wait, why are we talking about turboprops when everyone knows that the F-22 is the best aircraft for COIN missions.

  17. The Flying Pancake was basically a P-38 with all the ‘empty space’ filled in by lifting body and the the props moved further outboard and IIRC run by a pair of turbines instead of Reciprocating engines. It had a much lower stall speed than the P38 and didn’t have the issue with ‘flip over’ if one of the engines quit because the props were cross linked like the Osprey props are. One engine quits, both props run on one engine instead of one quitting and flipping your bird during your landing approach. It had huge variable pitch props too, which would be reminicent of the osprey because of their sized compaired to the crossection of the airframe. Sorry, I just always thought the design had promise, especially since it was a stable platform, which is perfect for CAS.

  18. The more things change the more they stay the same. The USAF had an ‘Air Commando’ wing back during the Vietnam war that had A-37s, A-1Hs, T-28s and just about every other strange combination under the sun. I doubt they will do it however…makes too much sense.

  19. Re. the XF5U-1, the aircraft suffered grievously from prop induced vibrations to such a degree that it affected the prop shafts, gearboxes, engines and airframe. Possibly better mastered with today’s composite materials and digital control, but brings up questions of battle damage effects. Re. the T-56 – still being used in E-2C and will equip the E-2D, so the infrastructure will be around for at least the next 40-50 years. As for the noise of props, this might change your mind as I’ve noticed with the new props Hummers are markedly quieter in the break and other areas where they’ve been traditionally loud. Recall, though, that we’ve had experience with twin engine turbo-prop COIN aircraft – the OV-1 Mohawk and OV-10 Bronco with varying degrees of success. -SJS

  20. I have a feeling that the shaft and prop arangement was more to blame than the aircraft itself. I was also wrong. Seems it had a piston engine after all, just like its predicessor, the V-173. Curious to note that in the case of the 173, they had to make an emergency landing on a beach and because of some sun bathers the pilot slammed on the breaks and fliped the bird. The Airframe was strong enough that it was undamaged and the pilot was uninjured as well. IIRC they solved the vibration problems with the 173 but never had time to work out the bugs in the XF5U-1. It was also not fitted with the variable pitch props that were originally intended for it. Perhaps mounting the V-22 derived props and engines outboard, where the vibration prone gearbox and shaft arangement was originally located would solve the problem. There were also issues with the gearbox being partially made of silver which made the aircraft expensive. The only shaft and gearbox arangement involved in this case would be cross connecting the engines so as to avoid roll over in the event of a single engine failure. I think the design has promise, but then again, I am not an aeronautical engineer, I am just a draftsman.

  21. That old flying pancake was an interesting design. It used the twist put in the air from the props to counter the tip vortex produced by the lifting body, which made it very efficient. One thing it seems to lack is great visibility for the pilot. Maybe if you put a smaller diameter pair of 8 bladed props on it and extended the cockpit forward it would work pretty well. A modified V-22 gearbox would probably do the trick.

  22. Whats the horsepower rating on the V-22s engines? The P&W R-200-7s on the XF5u-1 were rated at 1350 hp each. Oh, and the only reason I am focusing on the V-22 engines is that it seems a shame to let all the R&D that went into those cross connected turboprops go to waste.

  23. Actually seeing the Air Force float a proposal for this almost makes me want to smile. Count on the fighter generals at ACC to avoid this like a genital rash, but if anyone could buy a passel of Pucaras, of course it’d be AFSOC.

  24. 6000 shaft hp. It shares a common core with the AE 2100 that’s in the C-130J. The main difference between the T-56 and AE 2100 is the dual spool core. The first 2 stages of the turbine power the compressor, and the second 2 provide power to the output shaft for the propeller. The dual spool design allows the core section to wind up very quickly to increase mass flow rate and thus power output.