The news that the Pentagon was sending a pair of refurbished and highly-upgraded Vietnam-era OV-10 Broncos to Iraq to take on ISIS raised a lot of eyebrows. It was a new twist in a decade and a half of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States has never used a light air support and surveillance aircraft. For many, the OV-10’s appearance in Iraq had been very long overdue.
Now, The War Zone reveals details of what the pair of OV-10G+ Broncos were doing in Iraq, and how they went about it with impeccable results.
The Broncos were used to find, fix and finish the enemy. In the past, this process was largely accomplished by at least two very different aircraft and platform communities, both of which usually had their own unique command and control structures. By condensing all the required capabilities into a single platform—the OV-10—the kill chain could be drastically compressed and save gobs of money in the process.
The truth is, OV-10s weren’t really close air support aircraft in the traditional sense at all—they were manhunters.
The Bronco’s weapon of choice for this unique mission set was the relatively new but highly promising Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or the APKWS, a 70 mm rocket with a laser seeker and control section attached. Just like standard unguided 70 mm “Hydra” rockets, APKWS's can be carried in bulk on various US and allied aircraft, with 7- and 19-count rocket pods commonly used. This bulk capability means a dramatic increase in precision firepower on everything from light helicopters to A-10 warthogs. The Bronco is far from a one trick pony.
Laser-guided rockets can be fired either very close or miles away from their target, and at different angles, so aircrews can use creative tactics to achieve “unique” effects on the battlefield. In the right hands, these smart rockets can take out enemy personnel and destroy lightly armored vehicles under circumstances that no other guided munition could touch—at least not without causing significant collateral damage.
Not only was APKWS adequate, but when paired with the upgraded OV-10 Broncos it seems to have been a match made in heaven, or hell depending on which side you’re on.
In some ways the Broncos wrote a new book on APKWS tactics during their tour in Iraq. When key officials were briefed on what the Broncos did during their time there, and hours of footage of the APKWS slinging OV-10s in action was shown, those officials were flabbergasted with what they saw.
The Bronco’s "match grade" MX-15HD FLIR turret and big high-def display in the cockpit make the aircraft among the most accurate precision strike platforms on the planet. Night after night, the OV-10s put this capability to work. Instead of blowing up buildings or convoys, Bronco crews were killing ISIS fighters standing in dark windows, or in a single truck surrounded by others.
As far as just how precise the OV-10 crews could be with their laser-guided rockets and high-end targeting sensors, the Bronco’s prowess in this department was almost freakish. It wasn't just taking out bad guys in windows—they were doing the same with fighters hiding under eaves, overhangs, dense cover and in doorways. Essentially, the Broncos were flying snipers for special operations forces hunting ISIS in Iraq. They could observe with great clarity from on high, collect intelligence and stalk the enemy. They could also kill that enemy with incredible accuracy. Instead of using a sniper’s bullet, the Broncos used the Pentagon’s guided munition equivalent, laser-guided rockets.
One shot, one kill, even under the most demanding of combat conditions.
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The OV-10s were packed with intelligence gathering electronics, an armada of communications systems and data-links (including multiple sat-com systems), defensive countermeasures, Scorpion helmet-mounted displays for both crew, and a centerline fuel tank. This extra gas helped the Broncos complete an average mission time between three and four hours—a sweet-spot duration for the types of special operations sorties they were regularly tasked with supporting.
The human element that took the Broncos back to war was equally as impressive. The small cadre of Navy pilots were handpicked and were among the very best the service had to offer. All were weapons school instructors. The Weapon System Officers were from the Tomcat and Super Hornet communities, and had been embedded as special operations Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (forward air controllers) with SEAL units operating on the ground in the world’s most notorious hellholes.
These senior-ranking and highly experienced officers had incredible insight into how SEALs operated on the ground and how to properly apply air power where necessary to achieve very specific effects on the battlefield. The experience and dedication of the Broncos aircrews were huge factors in making its experimental tour in Iraq so successful.
The OV-10’s maintenance needs were also unique. The souped-up Broncos required just a single maintainer per aircraft, with the aircrews assisting in maintenance and support. It was an almost laughably affordable support footprint for an aircraft capable of identifying, hunting and killing the enemy entirely on its own.
This barebones infrastructure also meant that the twin-turboprop powered aircraft were highly flexible when it came to basing. Crews could just load their gear in the OV-10’s cargo hold along with the maintainers, if needed, and self-deploy basically anywhere including austere and improvised airfields.
Central Command has been the driving force behind the OV-10 program and is pushing for it to evolve. Now that there is a load of data pointing to cost-effective success in Iraq, the hope is that Special Operations Command will invest into expanding the program significantly. Such a move is long overdue but better late than never.
Why were the Broncos picked for this proof-of-concept deployment in the first place? In the mid to late 2000s, the Navy tested a similar special operations air support and counter-insurgency light aircraft concept stateside under the Imminent Fury and Combat Dragon programs. During Imminent Fury, the Brazilian-built Embraer Super Tucano was successfully proven to be a flexible special operations close air support and surveillance platform, but it was clear that moving that aircraft into an operational role would be a major hurdle.
The Combat Dragon II package was originally developed for the Super Tucano, and this Navy Special Warfare program led to USAF interest. Yet the fact that the Super Tucano was a foreign import raised flags for established US aircraft manufacturers—namely Hawker-Beechcraft, which was developing the smaller AT-6. That aircraft was an armed light attack and surveillance version of the T-6 Texan II primary trainer that the Pentagon already owned hundreds of. The nimble team leading the program was able to bypass big defense procurement politics by taking advantage of a pair of available OV-10 Broncos, which had been used by Department of State Air Wing in Columbia.
This same small and enterprising team remains at the helm of the current OV-10G+ program today.
Interestingly, the Pentagon ended up procuring the A-29 Super Tucano, though only after a long procurement battle between Embraer-Sierra Nevada Corp and Hawker-Beechcraft. The USAF is currently flying the type today in small numbers to train and equip Afghani aircrews. These aircrews are now putting the type to use over Afghanistan to provide precision close air support and surveillance. Think of them as a manned, more dynamic, but shorter-ranged MQ-9 Reaper—on the cheap.
With the A-29 now in the Pentagon’s inventory, and its capacity to be upgraded with similar gear as the OV-10G+s have that are flying with today, it's possible the Bronco could pass the torch to a modified A-29 if the program is allowed to expand. Will the OV-10 go back into production? If the recent past is any indication, not unless SOCOM decides to go big and fund large fleet of Combat Dragon II derived aircraft. The idea was floated in the late 2000s and Boeing supposedly wanted a commitment of at least 100 aircraft to make it happen.
Then again, in the world of special operations, anything is seemingly possible I guess. I mean the fact that OV-10s were put to use fighting ISIS decades after their official retirement is just proof of that.
Contact Tyler at firstname.lastname@example.org
A special thank to John Lequerica for his Bronco image featured at the top of this article, see more of his work here, and also thanks to our good friend Nick Thomas for his imagery used in this article, you can see more of his work here.