The effect of a leading-edge vortex (LEV) on the lift, thrust and moment of a two-dimensional heaving and pitching thin airfoil is analysed within the unsteady linear potential theory. First, general expressions that take into account the effect of any set of unsteady point vortices interacting with the oscillating foil and unsteady wake are derived. Then, a simplified analysis, based on the Brown–Michael model, of the initial stages of the growing LEV from the sharp leading edge during each half-stroke is used to obtain simple expressions for its main contribution to the unsteady lift, thrust and moment. It is found that the LEV contributes to the aerodynamic forces and moment provided that a pitching motion exists, while its effect is negligible, in the present approximation, for a pure heaving motion, and for some combined pitching and heaving motions with large phase shifts which are also characterized in the present work. In particular, the effect of the LEV is found to decrease with the distance of the pivot point from the trailing edge. Further, the time-averaged lift and moment are not modified by the growing LEVs in the present approximation, and only the time-averaged thrust force is corrected, decreasing slightly in most cases in relation to the linear potential results by an amount proportional to
is the reduced frequency and
is the pitching amplitude. The time-averaged input power is also modified by the LEV in the present approximation, so that the propulsion efficiency changes by both the thrust and the power, these corrections being relevant only for pivot locations behind the midchord point. Finally, the potential results modified by the LEV are compared with available experimental data.