Since the beginning of the Chilean Air Force (FACH) modernization process in the late 1990s, the use of Chilean air power has been guided in the context of large-scale major combat operations. In that type of fight, the current Chilean doctrine (a copy almost word by word of the U.S. Air Force doctrine) does an exceptional job of defining “traditional” roles that unfortunately do not necessarily apply to the realities of South America.
For instance, if Chile goes to war against one or more of its neighbors, traditional air-to-air combat operations will probably last 10 to 14 days. Two weeks -- that’s all. After hunting down every single jet fighter and bombing every operational enemy runway, the Chilean Air Force (FACH) will then realize that the current force design was not well suited for dealing with the new kind of irregular warfare (IW) in which modern air forces find themselves today.
As soon as the FACH realizes that there are no more integrated air defenses to penetrate, that there is no air threat to counter, and no traditional strategic targets left for air power to destroy, our air force generals will be tasked to quickly adapt by giving the best possible support to ground-combat elements. With their armies destroyed and their tanks and bases in flames, Chile's enemies will quickly throw away their uniforms and hide among the population and attempt to take control of certain strategic choke points in the Andes Mountains. As soon as the first guerrilla attacks start killing hundreds of soldiers, the FACH will be then required to counter asymmetric, irregular and hybrid threats for the rest of the campaign. So, and if that’s the most likely scenario for the FACH, then the new operational environment begs the question: To provide Close Air Support (CAS), but with what?
What’s the problem?
Current Chilean Air Force strike-fighter force design and development seems to be centered exclusively around expensive fourth-generation platforms such as the F-16 Block 50. Again, these aircraft are incredibly capable (and need to be in order to counter high-end threats) but they are not well suited for low-end conflict. So the question remains: What are we going to do after just two weeks of combat operations when there are no more enemy airplanes to shoot down? Switch to provide close air support with F-16s? Sure… but with a price tag of more than $1 million per attack (and with more than 100 calls for fire every day) shouldn’t it make more sense using large numbers of low-cost airplanes specifically designed to attack and destroy ground targets? Make no mistake here -- without a robust CAS capability the Chilean army will be forced to engage every single ambush, firefight and tactical engagement alone. Without close air support the rate of casualties will be at an alarming steady rate of between 30 to 40 men killed and more than 100 seriously injured every 24 hours. With more than 1,000 Chilean soldiers killed and more than 3,000 injured and mutilated every month, the mounting casualties will force the Chilean government to execute a tactical retreat in the middle of a humiliating operational defeat. Mark my words….
Since the arrival of the new fleet of F-16 fighters, FACH commanders have firmly (and comfortably) stationed themselves at very modern air force bases in Iquique and Antofagasta with the idea of providing a distant air power service in support of Chilean Army ground forces fighting in Peru and Bolivia. Although highly capable and effective, these F-16 aircraft must transit hundreds of miles and burn thousands of pounds of fuel (from Chilean Air Force tankers) to loiter in theater for a precious few minutes before flying all the way back to their bases for recovery and re-arming. Air power by its very nature is extremely flexible, yes, but its recent implementation in Chile has not been.
The Chilean Air Force must embrace a more soldier-focused, joint air-and-ground approach while simultaneously balancing requirements for the current needs of irregular warfare. This requires the expert use of measured air power in the form of timely close air support and precision strikes against everyday targets such as snipers, machine-gun nests and fortified positions inside urban areas. If we want to save lives we are not going to send 100 soldiers to kill a single sniper inside a building. A well coordinated Army-Air Force team will get a forward air controller on the net and ensure that within 4 to 12 minutes a laser-guided bomb is dropped inside that specific building. But when fighting inside an urban area we need to keep in mind that calls for CAS will be required at a rate of 1 every 10 minutes. Accordingly, we should not overlook the development of low-cost CAS platforms that fit the intensive requirements of Close Air Support (CAS) in a much more economical and effective way.
The Colombian Air Force approach:
Today the Colombian Air Force (FAC) is flying a small fleet of 25 Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano turboprops designed for light attack, counter insurgency (COIN) and pilot training missions. Incorporating modern avionics and weapons systems, these aircraft have the ability to provide a tough, survivable counterinsurgency platform with long loiter times and large ordnance loads. Then, thinking that Chilean warplanes might need to operate from forward operating bases or expeditionary airfields deep inside enemy territory, the Tucanos bring a robust weapon system -- with a long range and autonomy -- that is able to operate night and day, in any weather, and able to land on short airfields lacking advanced infrastructure. The Colombian Air Force pioneered the concept of irregular warfare direct support to soldiers on the ground by developing a new Latin American doctrine of operations, capabilities, tactics, and costs that are in fact smartly matching the mission they currently support. In 2008, the FAC used a Super Tucano armed with "Griffin laser guided bombs" inside Ecuadorian airspace during "Operation Phoenix," destroying a guerrilla cell, 20 FARC terrorists and killing the second-in-command, Raul Reyes. While the entire operation was conducted at night, not a single Colombian soldier was injured.
It truly makes no sense using high-tech, extremely expensive $70 million F-16 fighters to kill a four-man patrol of enemy infantry running away from an ambush site at night -- especially when you can employ lower-cost, lower-tech aircraft armed with rockets and machine guns and equipped with advanced night vision systems. The concept makes even more sense if Chile can deploy large quantities of these airplanes and allow them to be used by the Chilean Army -- on hundreds of missions every day -- to achieve total battlefield superiority. Before it is too late, the Chilean Air Force should immediately acquire, integrate and weaponize a small fleet of 60 to 80 modern light-attack and reconnaissance aircraft to provide ground attack capabilities similar to those lost after the purchase of the new fleet of F-16s. These "new" light attack aircraft should be capable of operating from austere locations (such as enemy highways or secondary roads) providing ISR and joint-fire support from a low-cost, highly reliable platform built to integrate seamlessly with current Chilean Army and Air Force command-and-control systems.
Their footprint must be small enough not to necessitate major infrastructure improvements or unduly burden existing logistics systems. For instance, and if we ignore these recommendations and we just simply decide to use our fleet of F-16 fighters to go after single enemy vehicles, infantry positions or small, isolated command posts, then the operational tempo will quickly exhaust expensive fighter and tanker life spans at an alarming rate. Within two weeks, there would be no F-16s available to fly in support missions. A less-expensive light-attack platform would dramatically reduce the operational strain on the fighter fleet by replacing the F-16s on tactical CAS missions or by augmenting existing air power assets as needed. For example, and from a logistical standpoint of cost and readiness, the fuel used by a single F-16 in one hour equals more than 40 hours of flight time in a single-engine light-attack/armed reconnaissance aircraft.
Normally, platform acquisition requires long lead times. But in the case of light-attack aircraft, no research-and-development or technology-based delays will slow down the acquisition process. These types of aircraft are already fielded by a number of commercial manufacturers and more than 50 of them are already in service with the Chilean Navy and Air Force in pilot-training roles. Finally, manufacturers are standing by for the call to produce badly needed light-attack aircraft. All of this makes a compelling case: This capability is what the Chilean Army-Air Force team needs to reshape air power for irregular warfare -- and on our next war, close air support will be the name of the game