SOCOM Commander: Special Ops Needs Light Attack Aircraft

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An A-29 Super Tucano pitch to land in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)
An A-29 Super Tucano pitch to land in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 28, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.)

Army Gen. Richard Clarke, the new head of Special Operations Command (SOCOM), has put a priority on acquiring light attack aircraft to back his forces on the ground.

"Light attack aircraft is a need for our SOCOM, and I think it's a need for our nation," Clarke said in testimony Tuesday at a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

"It will help our special operators on the ground" with close-air support and in identifying friendly forces and protecting partnered forces from enemy attack, he added.

Clarke, who assumed SOCOM command from the retiring Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III last month, also noted that many allies are developing their own light attack aircraft, so it would aid in training with partners for the U.S. to have its own.

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He said he would work with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on possibilities for the "timing and mix" of acquiring light attack aircraft "and where we go forward with that."

"So you have my commitment to do that," Clarke said in response to questions from Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, a retired Air Force brigadier general.

Bacon also stressed the need for SOCOM to have light attack aircraft. He said that fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and F-22 Raptors "are high end. We need something in a permissive environment that's cheaper to operate, or more efficient to operate."

In his testimony, Mark Mitchell, principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, said the National Defense Strategy developed last year under then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis "calls on us to have a more cost-effective" counter-terrorism plan.

Many allies "simply don't have the resources to put into fifth-generation fighters," Clarke said. "So we see a real important need for a light attack [aircraft] going forward."

Last month, Goldfein told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that the Air Force intends to buy a small fleet of turboprop aircraft as part of its light attack effort, putting some at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and some with Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Florida.

"What you'll see in this [2020] budget [request] is money we are going to use to procure a small number of aircraft," Goldfein said. The plan is to purchase three each of Textron Aviation's AT-6 Wolverine and Sierra Nevada/Embraer's A-29 Super Tucano, he said.

"We're going to place a detachment with those at Nellis Air Force Base ... where we do conventional training, and a detachment with those that do special operations at Hurlburt," Goldfein said.

The funding details for the full program ae expected to be included in the 2022-2024 budget cycles, he added.

-- Oriana Pawlyk contributed to this story.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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