NATO seems to be realizing that a one size fits all, high-end only, fast jet inventory makes air campaigns that last months VERY EXPENSIVE. The dollars add up not just in operational costs but also when it comes to the flight time that gets racked up on such valuable fast jet airframes.
Why do you need a super high-tech fighter, optimized to battling other advanced fighters in the air as well as attacking highly defended key targets on the ground, to fly around for hours looking for a $5,000 rocket launcher or a group of enemy fighters? Sure UAVs can fill in with some of these duties but their soda straw view of the world cannot replace a pilot in a cockpit. For the US, a high-low mix (minus the F-35) looks something like the AT-6B at the bottom along with Reaper drones, then A-10s and F-16s in the middle, leaving the F-22 at the top. So it’s a 3 tier, very low, medium, high mix. But there are other exciting options looming on the horizon for smaller air arms that simply cannot afford prolonged high-end only attack operations.
New advanced jet trainers like the KAI FA-50 Golden Eagle or Aeromacci M346 Master would be able to not only operate as an advanced fast jet trainers during normal operations, but could also be used as an attack fighter optimized for low intensity conflicts, or any conflict once the greatest enemy air defense threats have been eleminated. Basically they could accomplish 90% of same missions that the Rafale or Typhoon can do once these aircraft have “kicked down the door,” all at a fraction of the cost. Further, these advanced fighter training aircraft seat two people, which is ideal for SCAR (Strike Coordination Attack and Recon) and related missions. They also possess an effective air to air capability and could defend themselves against a low density fighter threat without having to rely on fighter CAPs for protection. By procuring a weaponized M346 to FA-50 advanced jet trainers European nations could kill two birds with one stone and would allow them to preserve their $75,000,000 advanced fighters for the missions where they are needed most. Manpower wise this makes sense as well. Large training squadrons could have “associate” front line squadrons that share the aircraft between one another in a similar fashion as the American F-22 Air National Guard associate squadrons share active duty unit’s F-22s. Europe, or even the US should look at this option in great detail as these same aircraft could also provide adversary and target training during peacetime. You DO NOT need a EF2000 or Rafale to fight an insurgency war in Afghanistan or to search the Libyan deserts for a few Toyota trucks with rocket launchres welded onto their beds. It’s a gross misuse of highly valued assets and it needs to change if NATO wants to be prepared for future contingency operations. Finally, this capability may be able to be embedded into the collective international training programs which many NATO countries are now a part of.
The business case for deployable, combat capable advanced jet trainers comes down to numbers. If the standard T-50 costs $19,000,000 per copy, and the upgraded and fully combat capable FA-50 with a small AESA radar costs $25,000,000 why would you NOT purchase the latter? The procurement of these jets could also help fill the gap left by falling procurement numbers of F-35s. These aircraft could also be utilized for the alert air sovereignty missions at a fraction of the cost of their much more complex cousins. The other option would be to procure a very light attack turboprop equipped aircraft like the AT-6B, Tucano, or OV-10, but with the distances and reaction times involved in possible future operations this may not make any sense at all.