Previously, we have talked about ersatz combat vehicles at length. While 300 angry people, armed with 200 machetes, 100 rifles and 50 rounds of ammunition made a respectable revolution as late as the mid-1990’s, the proliferation cheap, reliable and effect modern combat rifles around the world have shifted insurgent capabilities and tactics, there has been little movement in the other realms of physical combat, outside of the land environment.
Where any group armed with modern automatic weapons can turn themselves into “motorized cavalry” by seizing a used car and truck dealership and a tanker truck of fuel, there have been few examples of groups organizing actual combat ships on water, using what are essentially armed civilian pleasure craft – it happens, but infrequently.
Likewise, the use of equally ersatz militarized drones has been on the rise, for surveillance, assassination and combat. This theater of use has been accelerated in recent years, as many drones with significant capabilities, from a military perspective, are available “off the shelf” for well under US$200, with many retailing at under US$100. Expanding the capabilities of such devices requires little investment for a group able to recruit young and tech-savvy teens and early-20’s with an interest in gaming and computer mods.
Far more rare, are instances of “guerrilla air forces.” Appearing in significant numbers only twice since WW2, civilian aircraft being used as “armed combatant craft” usually appear in one’s and two’s, used by small states and groups who can only afford (or receive through donations) the kind of small, single-engine aircraft that are normally used for leisure flying or primary flight instruction for trainee pilots.
The question at hand, then, is this: Can an insurgent force create their own air force? That is what we will examine in this article.
The first questions to answer are, Where is the insurgent force getting its aircraft?, and What kind of aircraft can they easily acquire?
The first thing to understand, is that our hypothetical guerrilla force is not (probably) going to be buying craft like the AT-6B Wolverine, A-29 Super Tucano, AT-802L Longsword. These aircraft are being developed by defense contractors for established governments; for an insurgent group to obtain dedicated craft like this would require major-nation support. What we are discussing here, is the insurgent force acquiring specifically civilian craft, and using them as an “air force.”
The insurgent force will be limited, first, by its financial levels – aircraft, even small craft like a Piper or an immortal Cessna 172 (go ahead – reflect on the irony…Moving on…) or 208 Caravan are expensive, for a small group, with a Cessna 172 coming in at around US$40-50,000 for a used model, each. Obviously, this is a major impediment, unless a group is very well funded.
On the other hand, these small aircraft can be effectively armed; can land on almost any flat patch of ground or blacktop road long enough; require no overly complicated tools or equipment to maintain, and have cheap and readily available spare parts and maintenance manuals available on the open market. These aircraft can – and are – be hidden in rural barns and warehouses very effectively, only requiring a door large enough for their wings.
Given the above, then, the next question is, Where can the prospective insurgent air force get its pilot?
The one major downside to an insurgent force using aircraft is the need for competent training. While learning to fly a basic aircraft such as a Piper or a Cessna is not actually difficult for most people with a decent high school education to learn, teaching one to fly requires a pilot with at least 250 flight hours to begin training for such a rating as an Instructor Pilot (IP). However, there are plenty of IP’s out there who could be recruited to train pilots for an insurgent force.
Ground maintenance on these common civilian airframes, as previously stated, is not difficult, and spares are common enough to not present major issues. That brings us to weapons: what can you arm these airplanes with?
Simply placing one or two people armed with rifles in the back seats of these kinds of aircraft, and having them shoot at enemies on the ground is not complicated. Likewise, hanging machine guns out of a side door is also relatively uncomplicated to set up.
Salvage and theft of opposition government aircraft – as well as weapons bought on the black market – is another important source of ground-to-air capability. In like manner to recovered helicopter rocket pods being used as ground-to-ground multiple rocket launchers since the civil wars in Libya, the same pods could be mounted to civilian airframes.
This is especially true for smaller pods, such as the venerable Hydra-70 rocket pods. In fact, the prevalence of mounting the ex-Soviet SA-5 rocket system, fired by UB-16 and UB-32 launchers to “technical vehicles” in both Libya and Syria have begun to inspire Western firms to begin cashing on the market, with such “drop-in kits” as the new V.A.M.P.I.R.E. system, which is a drop-in kit for a conventional civilian pickup truck, giving it the ability to fire four Hydra-70 rockets at a time in the ground-to-ground role.
As well, should the guerrilla force come into possession of anti-aircraft weapons such as the Stinger missile, that force could conceivably mount such weapons to a civilian airframe, which would be a very nasty surprise to any opposing aircraft that did not know about them.
Note that the foregoing applies to helicopters, as well, although rotary-wing craft are generally more expensive than their comparable brethren.
So…Is it possible for a guerrilla/insurgent force to create and operate an actual “air force” on the cheap? The answer, clearly, is a solid Yes, albeit with caveats concerning the perennial problem of money. Such a force would clearly be no match against a First World air force, but it likely won’t need to, at least initially.
Never become complacent inside your box…because someone is always outside, thinking about how to get in.