Counterinsurgency (COIN) aircraft are a type of light attack, reconnaissance or utility aircraft which are specifically designed for the prosecution of irregular warfare. Historically, COIN aircraft come in a variety of sizes and configurations. This class of warplane is diverse and unique. The unifying characteristic of COIN aircraft, however, is based solely on their usefulness in the context of counterinsurgency operations. In addition, The US Department of Defense is reportedly considering downscaling its drone program by decommissioning the RQ-4 Global Hawk program as well as the MQ-9 Reaper [source]. As the war between nation-states becomes less prevalent, and localized insurgencies become more problematic and difficult to manage, COIN aircraft will play a large role in mitigating and limiting the scope of insurgent operations in the future.
The US Department of Defense initiated the Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) program in 2009 in response to a growing need by the allied nations for light and easily manned aircraft [source]. The program was cancelled in 2020 [source]. However, this did not kill the concept of modern COIN aircraft entirely. Special Operations Command is pressing ahead with the ‘Armed Overwatch’ program which is built on the developments of LAAR [source]. ‘Armed Overwatch’ is still an ongoing effort to develop new COIN aircraft.
Special Operations Command selected the Air Tractor AT-802 to fulfil a $3 billion contract by 2029 [source]. In order to fulfil the growing industry of modern COIN aircraft, IOMAX partnered with LH3 to produce the Archangel Strike Platform [source]. The ASR was sold to the United Arab Emirates and used in service over Egypt, Yemen and Libya. The UAE donated a number of Archangels to Jordan and Egypt [source].
The Turkish-made Tusas Hurkus will be delivered to Niger in the coming months with follow-up orders expected. Chad is also seeking to purchase Turkish-made aircraft for its air force [source]. The Hurkus has seven external hardpoints and can bear up to 1500 kg or armaments for day and nighttime operations [source]. Moreover, the Nigerian Air Force received 12 A-29 Super Tucano turboprop aircraft in August of 2021 [source]. Alternatively, UAV swarms of small autonomous drones may be the future of COIN air operations [source], [source].
History of COIN Aircraft:
Since its inception at the turn of the last century, air power is widely considered the indispensable dimension of any war. To quote the father of air theory, General Giulio Douhet:
The Italo-Turkish War of 1911 was a conflict of great significance to the development of COIN aircraft and the history of areal warfare in general. When the Kingdom of Italy invaded Ottoman possessions in north Africa, the Regio Esercito encountered fierce resistance from local Libyan tribesmen. The insurgents prevented the main body of the Italian invasion force from advancing beyond its coastal toehold.
Between October 1911 and November 1912, the Arab insurgents exacted nearly 4,000 Italian casualties, despite being outnumbered and outmatched in terms of mechanization. As the Italian invasion force was haemorrhaging men, materiel and finance at an extraordinary rate, the Ottomans were spending negligible amounts of money on the guerrilla campaign. The Libyan insurgents provided cheap albeit unreliable leverage for their Ottoman overlords [source].
The Italians and Ottomans both made history in Libya. Italy became the first country to conduct reconnaissance flights and aerial bombardment. In turn, the Ottomans became the first country to successfully shoot down an enemy aircraft [source].
Less often stated by military historians, the Italians became the first country to use aircraft in the context of counterinsurgency operations. By extension, they also became the first country to realize that air power meant very little against disorganized bands of insurgents.
The aircraft used by the Italians, Blériot XI2s and French-made monoplanes, would not necessarily be considered COIN aircraft by our modern standards [source]. These aircraft were neither made for the explicit purpose of counterinsurgency operations nor were they particularly successful in turning the tide of the campaign.
The Italians only managed to conquer Libya after deliberately sparking the First Balkan War, forcing the Ottoman regulars to redeploy elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. Nevertheless, the proverbial Pandora’s Box was opened. Areal warfare would be refined, and all manner of aircraft would be developed for the prosecution of war from above.
Counterinsurgency in the Post-Colonial Period
The post-colonial wars in Malaysia, Algeria and Indochina gave birth to the concept of COIN aircraft as its own separate category of a warplane. In 1962, the US Air Force’s Special Air Warfare Center began assessing various light aircraft for COIN roles in Vietnam [source]. The Americans learned invaluable lessons from the French experience in Algerian COIN operations against guerrilla positions on inaccessibly high mountain ranges [source], [source]. Initial candidates for COIN aircraft were provided by:
- North American Aviation
- Swiss manufacturer Pilatus
The Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos and Cambodia relied heavily on the development of these new light attack aircraft [source].
For example, Operation Water Pump was an effort to provide and train the Royal Lao and Royal Thai Air Forces with the North American T-28 Trojan [source]. Between 1964 and 1973, the CIA rendered assistance and covert air operations through the program in conjunction with an adjacent clandestine enterprise known as ‘Air America’. Most COIN aircraft, including the ones still in service today, are a product of the Vietnam War.
Declassified documents from the CIA show that the agency was still in the process of evaluating COIN aircraft candidates as late as 1971 [source]. A memorandum dated 11 August 1971 illustrates in clear terms the desired qualities of COIN aircraft. Signed by George Carver, the Special Assistant for Vietnamese Affairs, the memorandum reads:
“The overall objective of our PAVE COIN program is to identify and evaluate relatively simple, low cost counterinsurgency aircraft which could be used by our allies in Southeast Asia”.
The CIA was particularly interested in the PC-6 Peacemaker and the H-550A Stallion, both of which were short-takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft. The Pilatus Porter was used as a utility aircraft in Laos and Vietnam but never armed with cannon or ordnance [source]. The memo leaves out a raft of other viable aircraft which were verifiably in operational use at the time.
Soviet Produced COIN Aircraft
As the Cold War progressed and sporadically threatened to erupt into thermonuclear annihilation, COIN aircraft were correspondingly relegated behind air superiority jet fighters and strategic bombers in terms of relative importance [source]. Little progress was made in the field of American COIN aircraft between 1979 and 2000 beyond initial developments in Vietnam. Eventually, the Soviet Union became a major producer of COIN aircraft in the wake of America’s retreat from Vietnam.
The CIA accordingly kept a detailed itemization of the inventory of the Sandinista Air Force after Nicaragua acquired AN-2s, AN-26s and AN-30s. The CIA credited the Sandinista’s counterinsurgency capabilities to the introduction of light Soviet attack and transport aircraft. The AN-2 in particular afforded the Sandinistas “greater flexibility in prosecuting the war” as the AN-2 was capable of landing on short, improvised runways [source]. These Soviet aircraft required little maintenance should any components become damaged or worn down.
General Configuration of COIN Aircraft:
Thus far, the United States is the only country with a published doctrine for COIN aircraft [source]. Based on the CIA’s own criteria, there are certain characteristics and roles which COIN aircraft traditionally fulfil. COIN aircraft must be durable. They must be capable of enduring long stints without servicing the engine or avionics. They must also be durable enough to survive rough landings on difficult, unpaved terrain.
COIN aircraft must be simple enough to operate. Simple operational procedures consequently make the training of pilots a far easier and quicker task. Moreover, the simplicity of operation makes aircraft maintenance a relatively straightforward procedure.
COIN aircraft must be cost-effective. Major military powers will spend millions, even billions on developing highly advanced jet fighters. Additional millions are spent on training pilots and ground crews, refuelling the aircraft and re-arming it between sorties. If this sum of wealth is spent to kill one or even a dozen lightly armed insurgents, the war will become unsustainable very quickly. In order to beat insurgencies, major military powers must match the insurgent’s level of cost-effectiveness.
COIN aircraft enhances the air mobility of infantry forces. The ability to access remote areas rapidly while also supporting troops with additional reinforcements and supplies greatly enhances the prospects of any fighting force [source].
The Role of COIN Aircraft
COIN aircraft fulfil a number of roles. While this is not an extensive list, it is a brief overview of the confirmed operations in which COIN aircraft have been deployed in over the last century. Despite their technical simplicity, COIN aircraft perform a wide variety of operations.
- Logistics, utility, and transportation to remote areas within a theatre of operations. During the Malayan Emergency, ‘deep penetration patrols’ conducted by the SAS directly contributed to the eventual defeat of communist insurgents. In effect, these patrols were made possible only by the extensive use of light fixed and rotor wing aircraft [source].
- Casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) is the most common form used for both rotor and fixed-wing COIN aircraft. During El Salvador’s civil war, the country’s medical helicopter unit was deemed “the most effective single air unit in the war” [source].
- Reconnaissance can be conducted against insurgencies provided the insurgents lack anti-air capabilities. This technique was used against Huk insurgents in the Philippines [source]. Moreover, COIN aircraft can be utilized “to accelerate HUMINT activities by infiltrating ground reconnaissance and surveillance teams into areas not readily accessible via surface transportation” [source].
- Psychological operations (PSYOPS) are particularly reliant on COIN aircraft. The distribution of counterpropaganda can be done from light aircraft equipped with loudspeakers or leaflets [source]. For the same reason, intelligence gathering is a task often assigned to COIN aircraft.
- Aerial bombardment, forward air control (FAC) and close air support (CAS) against insurgent positions are more cost-effective when performed with light attack aircraft, as opposed to heavy strategic bombers or multirole fighter jets [source].
Notable Examples of COIN Aircraft:
The following is a list of notable COIN aircraft. This is not an exhaustive list of all aircraft used in COIN operations, but rather a small glimpse of the type of aircraft which has been historically deployed by major military powers.
Fairchild AU-23 Peacemaker:
- Crew: 3 (pilots and gunner) – 6 (occupants)
- Dimensions: 11x15x3 meters
- Propulsion System: (1) TBD Garrett TPE331-1-101F at 650 hp
- Speed (Max): 280 knots
- Range: 420 NM
- Endurance: 4.8 hours
- (1) XM-197 20mm side-firing cannon and/or (1) XM 93 7.62mm minigun
- XM 59 .50-cal
- Upwards of 1925 lbs. of external pylon fixed ordnance (payload varies from SUU-11 gun pods to CBU-55 500 lbs. cluster bomb units, as well as propaganda leaflet carriers)
Operators: United States Air Force (former), Royal Thai Air Force (current)
The AU-23 was seldom used in combat. It flew less than 200 missions and severe structural issues were discovered upon further testing. It was particularly vulnerable to small arms fire given its unimpressive airspeed. The United States transferred its inventory to Thailand following the end of the Vietnam War, where it is used for border patrol operations [source]. More recently, a Thai AU-23 was lost after engine failure with no fatalities reported [source].
Helio AU-24 Stallion:
- Crew: 2-9 (depending on configuration and payload)
- Dimensions: 12×12.5×2 meters
- Propulsion System: (1) TV United Aircraft PT6A-27 at 680 hp
- Speed (Max): 190 knots
- Range: 386 NM
- Endurance: estimated equivalent to AU-23 based off fuel capacity and engine type
- (1) 20 mm M197 gun with capacity for 500 cartridges
- 5 external pylons with 873 kg capacity
- CBU-14A cluster bombs or lightweight ordnance in the weight range of 230 kg
Operators: the United States, Republic of South Vietnam Air Force (proposed, cancelled due to stability issues in flight), Khmer Air Force
The USAF encountered major stability issues when testing the AU-24. It was never used by its original manufacturer and was delivered to the Khmer Air Force in 1972. Cambodia used the AU-24 to fight the Khmer Rouge although these aircraft were flown to Thailand after the war turned in the favor of the communists [source].
Cessna O-1 Bird Dog
- Crew: 1-2
- Dimensions: 7x11x2 meters
- Propulsion System: (1) Continental O-470-11 at 213 hp
- Speed (Max): 100 knots
- Range: 460 NM
- Endurance: N/A
Operators: Australia, Austria, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Laos, Malta, DPRK, ROK, Norway, Khmer Air Force, Pakistan, Philippines, South Vietnam, Spain, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, United States
The Cessna O-1 Bird Dog has a long and eventful career as a military reconnaissance aircraft. It was used as a forward air control platform as well. It was the aircraft of choice for the Ravens and for MEDEVAC missions. USAF Capt. Hilliard Almond Wilbanks used an O-1 Bird Dog to halt a Viet Cong ambush on a patrol of US Army rangers in Vietnam’s central highlands. Recognizing that the Rangers would be overrun before air support could reach their positions, Capt. Wilbanks jettisoned white phosphorus rockets at the advancing insurgents. Even when he ran out of ordnance, he used his M-16 to strafe the enemy line, flying dangerously low over the treetops to attract their fire away from the Rangers. Capt. Wilbanks was shot and subsequently crashed into the jungle. He died en route to a field hospital [source].
Cessna O-2 Skymaster
- Crew: 1-2
- Dimensions: 8.8×11.5×2.7 meters
- Propulsion System: (1) Continental 10-360s at 210 hp
- Speed (Max): 170 knots
- Range: 921 NM
- Endurance: N/A
- PSYOPS and FAC
- 7.62mm mini-gun pods
Botswana, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Ivory Coast, Imperial Iranian Air Force, Namibia, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, United States, Zimbabwe
The O-2 Skymaster had an unusual engine configuration with both a forward and rear propeller. The O-2 was used extensively to drop PSYOP material over Vietnam. Leaflets and loudspeakers were attached underneath the aircraft [source].
FMA IA 58 Pucara
- Crew: 2
- Dimensions:14x14x5 meters
- Propulsion System: (2) Turbomeca Astazou XVIG
- Speed (Max): 270 knots
- Range: 190 NM
- Mk13 Torpedoes (Falklands War)
- (2) 20 mm Hispano-Suiza HS.804 Autocannons
- (4) FN Browning 7.76 mm Machine guns
Argentina, Colombia, Sri Lanka, Uruguay
The Pucara was used extensively during the Falklands War. It became the first aircraft to be shot down by a Stinger SAM [source]. The only time Argentina scored an air victory during the entire war was with a Pucara [source]. There are reported instances where Pucaras outmanoeuvred British Harrier jets. The Pucara was also used during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Both aircraft of the Sri Lankan Air Force were either heavily damaged or lost to ground fire [source].
Grumman OV-1 Mohawk
- Crew: 2
- Dimensions: 12x12x3 meters
- Propulsion System: (2) Lycoming T53-L-7
- Speed (Max): 267 knots
- Range: 383 NM
- IR imagery sensors
- Electronic warfare suite
Argentina, Israel, United States
The United States developed the OV-1 Mohawk as a versatile counterinsurgency aircraft. The Marines and Army both used the aircraft when the US Air Force was otherwise preoccupied. One variant of the OV-1 carried a SLAR unit, a ‘side looking airborne radar’ capable of penetrating dense foliage and mapping the terrain below. The OV-1 provided the US Army with its only air-to-air kill of the Vietnam War. Capt. Ken Lee was piloting an OV-1 along with his wingman near the border of Laos when they came under attack by a North Vietnamese MiG-17. The MiG-17 pilot attempted to flank both OV-1s, inadvertently putting himself in line with Capt. Lee’s XM14 .50 calibre gun pods. Several well-placed rounds and two unguided M159 rockets sent the MiG crashing into the valley below [source]. The OV-1 was retired after participating in Operation Desert Storm [source].
North American Rockwell OV-10 Bronco
- Crew: 2
- Dimensions: 12x13x4 meters
- Propulsion System: (2) Garrett T76-G-410/412 at 750 hp each
- Speed (Max): 244 knots
- Range: 198 NM
- 70 mm rocket pods
- 20 mm M197 Cannon
- 7 hardpoints for AIM-9, FFARs and 500 lb bombs
- Or (4) 7.62×51 mm MC60 machine guns depending on variants
United States, NASA, Colombia, Indonesia, Morocco, Philippines, Thailand, Venezuela, Germany
The OV-10 Bronco was used extensively by almost all branches of the United States Armed Forces with the exception of the US Coast Guard and Army. It had a long service life, was able to withstand rugged terrain, had a versatile array of weapons and could be adapted for carrier-borne operations. The last American OV-10 Bronco to be shot down in combat was in Operation Desert Storm. An Iraqi SAM impacted the aircraft, causing a loss of control. The OV-10 crashed, killing the observer, Capt. David Spellacy. The pilot, Maj. Joseph Small survived the crash but was captured by Iraqi forces. The OV-10 was subsequently retired [source].
Douglas AC-47 Spooky
- Crew: 8
- Dimensions: 19x25x5 meters
- Propulsion System: (2) Pratt & Whitney R-1830 at 1,200 hp each
- Speed (Max): 202 knots
- Range: 6,482 NM
- (3) 7.62mm General Electric GAU-2/M134 Miniguns
- (3) MXU-470/A Miniguns
- (10) 0.30 calibre Browning Machine Guns
- Illumination Flares
Cambodia, Colombia, El Salvador, Indonesia, Laos, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, United States, Vietnam
The AC-47 was a precursor to the modern AC-130 gunship [source]. The aircraft earned several nicknames such as “Spooky”. It was more affectionally known by the ground troops as “Puff, the Magic Dragon”. The AC-47 would release glowing red emissions as it flew night-time operations, leading to the tongue-in-cheek nicknames [source]. The AC-47 proved its worth during its first combat mission in December of 1968. The Tran Yenh Special Forces outpost had come under attack by Vietcong insurgents. Arriving just over 30 minutes later, the AC-47 saturated the area with 4,500 rounds of cannon. In a matter of minutes, the assault was over [source].
Fairchild AC-119 Stinger/Shadow
- Crew: 6
- Dimensions: 26x31x8 meters
- Propulsion System: (2) Wright R-3350-85 “Duplex Cyclone” at 3,500 hp each
- Speed (Max): 181 knots
- Range: 5,741 NM
- AC-119G could carry (4) 7.62mm GAU-2/A mini guns with over 60 Mk24 flares
- AC-119K was similarly equipped but with an additional (2) 20mm Vulcan six-barreled cannons
United States, Vietnam
The AC-119 originally was known as the C-119 Flying Boxcar. It had a bizarre shape yet it made up for reliability and endurance for what it lacked in aesthetics. The USAF converted several C-119s into the first AC-119G Shadow. The Shadow would go on to serve in Vietnam with the 17th Special Operations Squadron [source]. The AC-119K Stinger was virtually identical to the Shadow, yet was fitted with more powerful J85 turboprop engines as well as two additional M61 20mm Vulcan cannons. The Stinger also had a vastly more sophisticated electronic warfare suite and several radar compliments which allowed it to strike targets under the dense jungle foliage [source].
- Crew: 2
- Dimensions: 12x18x4 meters
- Propulsion System: (1) Shvetsov ASh-62IR at 1,000 hp
- Speed (Max): 139 knots
- Range: 1,565 NM
- NATO Reporting Name: ‘Colt’
Armament: Variable and dependent on the mission profile. CAS missions were equipped with machine guns and light bombs. Primarily used as a troop transport
former Warsaw Pact members, as well as Syria, Sudan, Cambodia, China, Yemen, South Korea, North Korea, Tanzania, Turkey, Tunisia, Mali and Laos.
The An-2 was a durable bi-plane mass-produced by the USSR for military and civilian use. First put into flight in 1947 by the OKB-153 Design Bureau, the aircraft was affectionally known as Anushka in post-Soviet countries [source]. In 2015, North Korea revealed a new camouflage coating for its An-2s. North Korean special forces use the An-2 to insert paratroopers over the DMZ, flying so low and at such minimal airspeeds, that the plane is virtually undetectable over the radar. It can fly at such low airspeeds that bringing the plane into a headwind will create a hovering effect. This is a favourite manoeuvre of An-2 pilots at airshows [source].
AMB 314/A-29 Super Tucano
- Crew: 2
- Dimensions: 11x11x3 meters
- Propulsion System: (1) Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-68C turboprop at 1,600 hp
- Speed (Max): 319 knots
- Range: 5,287 NM
- (1) 20mm cannon
- (2) 12.7mm FN Herstal M3P Heavy Machine Guns
- Air to Air configurations can carry up to (2) AIM-9s, (2) MAA-1, and (2) Mk3 or Mk4 missiles
- (4) 70mm rocket launcher pods
- Conventional guided bombs
Global reach post-2003
The Super Tucano is perhaps the most well-known COIN aircraft to modern audiences. The Tucano was used by Brazil and a number of other South American countries to target narco-traffickers in the sparely populated jungles of Brazil and Colombia. Targets were selected using drones. The Tucanos then conducted bombing runs on the targets such as illegal airstrips used to traffic drugs [source]. More recently, the Taliban captured a number of A-29s after taking Mazar-i-Sharif. The Taliban likely does not have much use for the aircraft and it is not yet clear if they have the ability to operate them [source]. The US transferred a number of A-29s to Lebanon in 2018 [source].
Cessna A-37 Dragonfly
- Crew: 2
- Dimensions: 8.5x11x2 meters
- Propulsion System: (2) GE J85-17A Turbojets at 12.7 nK of thrust each
- Speed (Max): 441 knots
- Range: 400 NM
- (1) 7.62 mm GAU-2B/A minigun
- LAU-3/A rocket pods
- (8) external hard points for various unguided and guided munition
- BLU-32B Fire Bomb or CBU-12
- 22 and 24 cluster bombs
Honduras, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, South Korea, Thailand, United States, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia
The A-37 Dragonfly has the distinction of being the only jet-powered COIN aircraft with the execution of the BAC Strikemaster. This made it stand out from its propeller-driven peers. The Dragonfly was originally known as the Super Tweet but was adapted for use in Vietnam by the United States. The A-37 was used for CAS missions by American pilots. Endurance was extended by deliberately shutting down one of the engines and operating on one alone. USAF Capt. Hank Hoffman recounts how A-37 pilots were fond of the ‘Shake and Bake’ method of CAS. The pilots would begin their runs by dropping two Mark 82 unguided bombs and follow up with two 500 lbs cans of napalm [source].
Future of COIN Aircraft
As mentioned previously, the future of COIN aircraft may be in small, unmanned drones. For example, the Norwegian-made micro-drone, the Black Hornet Nano, saw service with British troops in Afghanistan [source]. While the Black Hornet Nano is now retired, other countries such as India use the drone for surveillance [source]. Nonetheless, even as impressive drone technology is further developed, traditional aircraft will remain in the counterinsurgency arsenal.
The AT-6 Wolverine was successfully tested during a 2015 NATO exercise in the Czech Republic. The US Air Force signed a $70 million contract with the manufacturer to provide the aircraft and train pilots. The AT-6 was a prime candidate to replace the A-10 Thunderbolt as a CAS platform [source]. However, the Special Operations Command recently ordered a ‘weaponized crop-duster’ from L3Harris Technologies, the AT-806 Sky Warden [source]. The selection of the AT-802 does not preclude the Air Force from proceeding with its contract with Textron. Textron believes that the AT-6E’s military-type certification from the US Air Force will drive an increase in sales [source]. Kenya has announced its intention to purchase a $418 million weapons package which would include the AT-802 [source].
Countries such as Chad and Niger have already invested in Turkish-made COIN aircraft to meet their counterinsurgency needs. A major advantage of COIN aircraft is their invulnerability to ground fire, and according to at least one retired US Air Force Colonel, the rate of attrition for modern COIN aircraft is surprisingly low [source]. In summary, by reducing the astronomical cost of air operations, major and smaller militaries can take advantage of COIN aircraft and enhance their counterinsurgency capabilities.