On February 23, 1991, the night before the Operation Desert Storm ground assault officially began, the First and Second Marine Divisions were already inside occupied Kuwait, breaching the minefields that Iraqis had laid. A holdover from the war in Vietnam was with them. Above the advancing Marines, an OV-10D—a Bronco with upgraded engines and a night vision system—monitored the ground action. The lead battalion, new to combat and moving fast in the dark, called in air support that could have hit friendly positions nearby. Captain Kevin Trepa, the Bronco observer who had a more complete picture of the battlefield, intervened and almost certainly prevented fratricide.
After Desert Storm, the Marine Corps decided to retire the OV-10 because its slow speed made it vulnerable to anti-aircraft weapons. (Of the 20 deployed in Desert Storm, two were shot down, both A models.) A flurry of articles in the Marine Corps Gazette worried that no airplane remaining in the inventory could perform the same mission as well. The Air Force’s recent call for proposals seems to validate that belief, at least in those combat areas without sophisticated air defenses.
Mark Pierce is leading Boeing’s business development effort with the OV-10(X). “In theaters where the air defense threat has been peeled back,” he says, “this would be a perfect platform to do convoy support or light-attack/armed reconnaissance at a fraction of the cost of what the [services] have been doing through F/A-18s, F-16s, F-15s, and A-10s.” Though it would still be the same simple airframe, it would have a fully computerized cockpit, intelligence sensors, and a 30-mm gun in a centerline pod. It could also carry smart bombs and up to 16 Hellfire missiles.
Boeing is planning for a world market and hopes to sell upgrades to countries that have bought new and previously owned Broncos: Germany, Thailand, Venezuela, Indonesia, Colombia, and the Philippines. In the meantime, more than a few Bronco pilots and observers believe that if the U.S. Air Force needs a light-attack/armed reconnaissance aircraft, the one that performed the missions so successfully in Vietnam should report for duty.
William E. Burrows is an Air & Space contributing editor.