An examination of the course of Close Air Support, future Airpower,
and the Applicability to “Fly, Fight, and Win”
by Bruce Benyshek, LtCol. Retired
“When Pigs Fly:” an American folk-saying used as a retort to show the improbability of the previous statement being–or becoming–true.
“Fly, Fight, and Win…” part of the mission-statement for the US Air Force.
“Integrity First.” An Air Force Core Value.
As battles and atrocities rage in the deserts of Syria and Iraq, a bitter battle of a far-different nature rages in the Pentagon and halls of the Capitol.
The Air Force is answering pointed questions from Congress about the F-35; the most expensive weapons program in history. They are trying to assuage critics’ charges that the aircraft is an under-performer, despite huge cost overruns and delays. In the same breath, they are championing the F-35 as the replacement for the A-10, fondly called the “Warthog” or “Hawg” by her crews, and the troops on the ground it supports, as a cost-saving measure. The A-10 does its primary mission—Close Air Support—extremely well; arguably better than any other aircraft. But the realities of Close Air Support seem to belie the F-35 premise and promise. What is Close Air Support, or CAS, and why the controversy?
Per the Joint Publication on Close Air Support, “CAS is air action by fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces, and requires detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of those forces.” (JP 3-09.3, Close Air Support, 25 November 2014, xi). Simply put, CAS is the use of airpower to kill an enemy that is so close to friendly troops, that use of these weapons entails some risk. Only certain aircraft do CAS, and their crews are trained for the unique nature of it. Special teams of Air Force controllers called Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTACs, are embedded with ground-force units, and act as the ‘translators’ who take combat-troops requirements and give it to the pilots in a format that the aircraft can be safely employed.
OK…so why wouldn’t the newest, highest-tech fighter—the F-35—be the best for the job?
Public and Congressional perception of CAS and weaponeering is probably a mixture of news-clips, home-gaming computers, and action-movies. Terms such as “Laser-guided,” “smartbomb,” or “GPS” imply supreme accuracy in combat. But “accuracy” and effectiveness may need explaining.
Bombs are useful against buildings, hardened bunkers, caves, or non/slow-moving vehicles and troops in the open. They have a “kill radius” which, depending on the weapon type, and how employed, may range from 400-1000 feet, although “weapons effects” (ie, being wounded or “knocked silly”) may extend to 1500 feet or more. Generally, the bigger the bomb, the greater its effective radius. A typical GPS-bomb can weigh 500, 1000, or 2000 lbs, and may guide to within a few feet of its intended aimpoint…but the variability in blast-pattern effects mean some friendlies within up to a quarter-mile from that point may suffer incapacitation, if they are out in the open without shelter. Finally, while bomb-explosions may look impressive on TV, in reality, missing a hardened target such as a tank, bunker, or cave by even a few feet may mean there is no meaningful effect on the enemy.
The explosive effect of a bomb or missile can be categorized as one of two types; a general-purpose warhead, where the explosive force (and weapons fragments) are directed equally in all directions. They cover the widest area, but are also the least concentrated. Shaped charges are designed so the majority of the explosive force is focused in one direction. It maximizes the destructive power along that axis…but also means if the weapon is slightly off-target, very little damage may be done to the enemy.
Missiles are Hollywooded to be “death rays” that never miss their target, pursue with Terminator-like vengeance, and destroy entire towns. But the reality is that air-ground missiles have relatively small warheads, or explosive charges; usually of the shaped-charge variety. They tend to be very precise in going where they are aimed, but usually require the pilot—and missile—to be able to SEE the target. Clouds, fog, fires, smoke, or dust from movement in battle can prevent their use. They are best used on pinpoint targets: trucks, tanks, or small buildings; one type (Hellfire) is useful against troops. The lethal radius of missiles is smaller than bombs, but still can not generally be used within 4-600 feet of friendly troops….largely due to the possibility of the missile veering away from the target during flight.
Guns are the most historic weapon in military aircraft. They are generally useful against “soft skinned” targets, such as troops or vehicles. “Live” targets are targets that can move: vehicles, and troops. GPS coordinates for bombs are nearly useless if the target is moving more than walking-speed. Fast-moving heavy armor, such as tanks, is best dealt with guns…and at that, guns of high-caliber. Some types of bullets are useful against armor; some will create fire upon impact (incendiary), and some explode. Bullets will go very close to where they are aimed, varying only in what is called “dispersion.” High-explosive bullets have a lethal radius of about 50-100 feet, and have been used in combat down to that range, when the situation is desperate. Normal safe range is about 300 ft.
The Air Force says the F-35 can do CAS. But how effectively?
Army and A-10 communities are rife with anecdotal stories of bravery, valor, and heroism for CAS. CAS is a demanding job skill that requires a mix of Army and Air Force linguistic proficiency, accurate and clear communications, and quick wittedness. The truly harrowing stories are with the enemy less than a few hundred feet away. I personally know of a story where the enemy was throwing hand grenades. No matter how accurately aimed, bombs and missiles cannot be used in such a scenario.
In that story, there were two F-16s overhead, armed with bombs and a 20mm cannon. Due to weather conditions and geometry of the hillside where the battle was waged, they could not drop, and their gun was not accurate enough due to dispersion and the speed of the F-16. There was a Predator MQ-1C drone, armed with Hellfire missiles. It could not be used either.
But two A-10s were there. They could use their 30mm cannon, which has less dispersion and more accuracy…and is FAR more deadly. In the course of a fight lasting more than an hour, they used over 2200 rounds of ammunition, and when the enemy started to retreat, they employed bombs and rockets.
EVERY American—60—survived. The same could not be said for at least 18 Taliban.
But despite a myriad of stories like this one, the Air Staff says the A-10 is old, expensive, and needs to retire to “save” $4.5 Billion over the next five years. And they say they need this money for the F-35 program.
Their justification is twofold. First, they say the A-10 is a single-mission aircraft, and they can’t afford it…all aircraft need to be multi-role. And, they say that single role—CAS—can only be done by the Hawg in low-threat environments. That is, it couldn’t survive in a war with China or Russia. In contrast, they say the F-35 is multi-role, stealthy, and a sensor-integrating platform: it will be sharing its information with all other so-equipped aircraft in-theater through a “combat-iCloud,” and in so doing, will allow the pilot to make better targeting and employment decisions.
Perhaps. But there are some glaring holes in their logic.
First, while true that the A-10 is a purpose-built weapon for CAS in a low-threat war (one with poor anti-aircraft defenses), it was designed to perform CAS in a HIGH-threat scenario! The A-10 was intended to balance the field for a World-War III scenario in Central Europe that never happened….a war where Warsaw Pact tanks outnumbered NATO six to one. Soviet air defenses were considered some of the most formidable in the world then, and still are, but no one questioned the A-10’s ability to support the NATO fight. As to the argument that low-threat war is the exception, one can argue that the wars of the last 17 years have all been exactly that. The trouble spots of the world tend to be failed states, hosts of terrorism, or general unrest. These locales usually are devoid of high-tech Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) or fighters. They tend to have anti-aircraft guns (AAA), and shoulder-launched SAMs.
The A-10 thrives in such an environment.
As to high-threat war: The Air Force says that A-10s aren’t viable or survivable because they aren’t a “Night-One strike asset” (meaning attacking before enemy air defenses are neutralized), but neither are the B-1Bs, F-16s or F-15Es against the latest SAMs. That doesn’t mean they are not valuable in a high threat or “contested” environment. It just means they need tactics to counter the threat, appropriate use of drones and cruise missiles, employment of on-board defensive systems, and Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) support. Finally, “fast-movers” have more maneuvering energy to try and defeat missiles. Whether that would make them more survivable than a slower A-10, that can hug the ground so low that even guns cannot be lowered enough to shoot at them, is debatable.
As another example, what about helicopters? No one is saying Apaches won’t be useful against China, Russia, or for that matter, ISIS. The Army is not talking about retiring its helicopters because they are slow and non-stealthy, nor is the Air Force going to cease helicopter Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) in a contested environment. So why is the A-10 suddenly the only non-stealth, slow-moving asset that is not viable?
In reality, the very nature of the CAS mission makes it inherently non-stealthy. If the F-35 is truly going to do CAS, i.e. with a gun, down low, visually acquiring troops, it will be MUCH less survivable than an A-10, because stealth doesn’t matter during a gun-run. The enemy just has to see him and shoot with a gun. On the other hand, the A-10 has built-in armor for gun protection; the most famous being the titanium “bath tub” for the pilot. Meanwhile, self-sealing fuel tanks and hydraulic fuses for the F-35 have not been installed in order to reduce the weight of the aircraft to meet mission specifications…and made it much more prone to battle-damage. During recent Congressional testimony, the A-10 was portrayed as vulnerable to AAA and MANPADs (man-portable air defenses), because news clips are plentiful showing A-10s in the 1991 and 2003 Iraq wars with gaping holes; no equivalent exists for F-16s and F-15Es. One pundit quipped: that is because F-15 and F-16 aircraft so-hit were lost; the A-10 was tough enough to still make it home. True that.
If the F-35 is to counter the small-arms fire/MANPAD threat and stay up high and do “CAS” by taking advantage of its stealth in a contested environment by dropping GPS-bombs, why have it at all? Why not just use stealth drones?
The second flaw in the “replacement” strategy: the wars of the last two decades have not been large force-on-force engagements. They are usually small bands on the run, using hit-and-run tactics.
This requires endurance or loiter time until the enemy is located. The A-10 is superb at this, and with the lowest cost per flying hour of any tactical aircraft, is also the cheapest. The F-35 does not have the loiter capability of the A-10, and will be the second-highest cost per hour at $67,000 an hour, second only to the F-22. Again, from recent testimony, the A-10 was criticized as having a low “dash-speed” to traverse the battle area, to rapidly go from one battle to another. The F-35 was seen as having the advantage. However, since the F-35 will have limited endurance and loiter ability, not to mention a limited weapons load (see below), that speed advantage (which in most cases would only save 10-20 minutes) would be negated if the F-35 arrived with no weapons, or the wrong weapons. He would be little more than a high-speed cheerleader.
An enemy on the run makes GPS coordinates and GPS Bombs moot. JDAM is a GPS guidance-package for use with general purpose bombs. Battle experience led to recognizing this limitation, a “Terminal Guidance” laser package is now available for JDAM, which can assist during the last few seconds of flight. Laser Guided Bombs (LGB) are great when the weather is clear, and a clean avenue exists for lighting the target with the laser…for the entire time of flight. This can be done by a JTAC…if he is available. JTAC manning is only 50% of desired due to manning issues. Geometry of the battle may make use of his laser impossible, too. In hilly, wooded, or other cluttered battlefields, if the target is moving, any object between the JTAC and the target that interrupts the beam will become the new target. Lasing can be done by the dropping aircraft, or a wingman, but requires being able to see the target for the entire time of bomb-fall. The F-35 is projected to be able to self-lase, but it will have a small field of view, and no Infrared Pointer…a cockpit cue to show the pilot where the laser is pointed. Lastly, LGBs need several seconds Time Of Fall (TOF) to work. Without going into classified material, suffice to say they generally cannot be used when working under a low ceiling of clouds. One CAS pilot told me during a recent battle, he considered jettisoning four LGBs, because he couldn’t employ them…and they were dragging him down, wasting his fuel, when he needed to stay as long as possible….to use the gun.
Hellfire missiles, mostly laser-guided, are useful against troops, with the same limitations as above. It is the primary weapon of Predator and Reaper drones. Drones have a small window to the world, and generally cannot fly in narrow valleys of mountainous areas, because it takes a pilot in a manned aircraft to assess where he can go, and where he cannot. This means they usually have to stay higher, which may put them in weather. Predators’ employment of their weapons may be limited by what they can see through the TV satellite-feed from the targeting pod/camera.
The Hellfire and the AGM-65 Maverick missile is useful against hardened targets…but the F-35 cannot carry either as of this writing. Rather, in a fluid, rapidly changing battle, a gun is often the optimum weapon. In recent major exercise, one aircraft—the A-10—was shown as superior in prosecuting the fluid, moving fight. And the weapon that made it so was the 30mm cannon. It has superior range, accuracy, and devastating firepower that can punch through heavily armored tanks. The 20mm in other fighters is limited against such armor.
The Air Force says the F-35 can do CAS.
But they do not like to say the F-35 can only carry two Small Diameter Bombs (SDB; 250 lb), two air-air missiles, and no gun. The SDB is being developed for all fighter aircraft, since conventional fighters can carry vast quantities of them externally, they are GPS and laser-guided, have some standoff capability (they glide a little, not just fall), and with shaped charges, are considered better for point-targets with lower collateral damage to friendlies, neutrals, or structures. It is essential to the F-35 program, since its weapons-carriage is internal, and means there is limited room for bombs. As it stands, in 2015, the Lightning can carry a mere two bombs per CAS sortie.
IF the F-35 gets a gun, it will not be for another 5-10 years. At that, it will carry less than 190 bullets: a 2-second burst. And it will be 25mm: better than 20mm, but not as good as 30mm. The Naval and Marine variants will not even have an internal gun; it would only be carried “as needed” in a “stealth gun pod.”
In response to criticism of the F-35, the Air Force chaired a CAS Conference the last week of February 2015. All the significant and important players were there: JTACs, the Marines, Army, Navy, Air Force CAS pilots.
From statements and other leaks, their conclusion: the F-35 is not ready to do CAS, and the corporate-knowledge of CAS-specialties must be retained—not allowed to wither and die. On Capitol Hill on Mar 19, 2015, the Air Force testified that the F-35 will be fully operational in 2021 and they “suspect it will contain all the capabilities that currently reside in the CAS force requirements for the Combatant Commanders.”
For a $1.4-trillion dollar program, one would have hoped for more certainty than “suspect” regarding capabilities.
So, as an interim solution, the Air Force plans to have some F-15E and F-16C squadrons devoted to CAS. Both of these aircraft are broadly capable and carry the entire array of weapons used in CAS, except for the 30mm cannon. Still, there are several flaws in this solution, as well.
First: most fighter units have several Direct Operating Capability Statements, or DOC Statements. Air to Air, Air-to-Ground in an interdiction role (well removed from friendlies), Defense Suppression (destroying radars), Nuclear Strike, or CAS, to name a few. Daily training missions involve practicing to be proficient in all of the applicable DOCs.
If the solution is to have dedicated CAS squadrons, it implies that CAS is demanding-enough a mission that it requires more emphasis than the other missions.
That would seem to say that these squadrons would become single-mission, or at the least, give up a DOC or two…or more.
I’m confused: isn’t one of the reasons for killing the A-10 being “single-role?”
Secondly, since these aircraft cost more per hour than the A-10, it would seem it wouldn’t save money…it would cost money. But it wouldn’t be a one-for-one swap: since the A-10 has 11 weapons stations and 1174 rounds for the cannon, to get a similar weapons load overhead and similar loiter times, it would take TWO to FOUR Strike Eagles or Falcons. Costs go up accordingly.
Thirdly, while both the F-16 and F-15 have a 20mm cannon, it is smaller than the A-10’s 30mm, and carries fewer bullets; 510, respectively, versus the A-10’s 1174. 20m bullets would have to hit an enemy to kill him; the A-10’s High-Explosive Incendiary (HEI) just has to get within a few feet (“soft targets). All guns have “dispersion,” or variables in differences between bullets fired at the same aimpoint. The 20mm in the F-15E and F-16C has a slightly wider dispersion than the A-10’s 30mm, but the biggest difficulty in engaging the target: the speed involved. The F-15 and F-16 are faster, and this gives the pilot less time to acquire the target, aim and shoot. This also is a major factor when weather requires working under low clouds: many times an A-10 can work under a ceiling that is impossible for fast-movers.
Correspondingly, and perhaps the most important: the most fearsome weapon in the A-10’s arsenal is the 30mm cannon. It is accurate, reliable, carries a huge magazine of shells, can be used closer to friendlies than any other weapon, and is devastatingly deadly to those on the receiving end. No other fighter aircraft can carry this weapon. YouTube videos abound that show combat footage from Afghanistan where A-10s employing the cannon quickly silenced the foes of America.
Finally: it’s been tried before. In 1989-91, the Air Force had a short-lived “A-16” program, wherein they tried using F-16s in the CAS role. Aircraft were painted with green camouflage, given Army-compatible radios, Pave Penny targeting pods, and an attempt to carry the A-10’s 30mm cannon in an external pod. The New York Air National Guard had 24 aircraft so configured in Desert Storm.
The 30mm cannon caused such vibration that the aircraft was deemed “barely controllable,” and the gun was un-aimable as a result. After a few attempts in the opening days of the Gulf War, the guns were removed, and these airplanes were used in a more traditional manner.
So why is the F-35 so limited, if it is the peak of technology?
Because it was designed to be stealthy, with a low radar signature. Stealth was promoted as highly effective in the Gulf War, and the F-35 is an end-result of that effort. (Critical post-war analysis shows it may have not been as effective as claimed). Unfortunately, aircraft design is always about compromise. Stealth causes serious design compromises, especially when bombs must be carried internally…..and they must be for stealth. Bombs are big, and take up a lot of space, making a wider fuselage, which limits the aircraft’s performance. In an effort to make the aircraft less expensive, three versions were developed: one for the Air Force, Navy, and Marines. This plan backfired, and made the development slower, more expensive and the aircraft less capable.
End result? An aircraft that costs $120-200 million per plane (USAF $120; Navy $190 and USMC $200 Million), with mediocre maneuvering performance, and a very small weapons load. It costs up to twice as much per hour to operate as any other fighter aircraft; three and a half times that of an A-10. (A-10 $19k an hour; F-35, $67k, 2014 GAO report).
Interestingly, in the last two months, scientific studies have been released that stealth as the “end-all; be-all” of combat may have been over-rated…or undermined by new technology. China has fielded a new portable radar system that works in a new radar-frequency range….a range which may have reduced any so-called advantage the F-35 touted. In that case, it might be better to just have more aircraft, to overwhelm an enemy’s defenses. As one writer put it: “Quantity has a quality all its own,” meaning that it may be advantageous to have MORE aircraft, of slightly lesser “stealth quality.”
CAS isn’t glamorous. Since World War I, we have glorified and idolized the “Fighter Ace,” who excels in air-to-air combat. No glory for the “mud-movers.” As a nation, we are fascinated with new technology, and assume that newer always means “better.” With the exception of the A-10, CAS-capable aircraft have been after-thought aircraft that could do it as a side mission. It wasn’t seen as the “primary mission.” And therein may be the root of the problem.
The Air Force seems to have forgotten that their branch started as a component of the Army, and through WWII, were the Army Air Corps, and then Army Air Forces. The reason these forces existed in the first place was to support the soldier; the man with “boots on the ground.”
It is no less true today. Air power is a pyramid, where all aircraft, from the transport and tanker, to the fighter and bomber, contribute to control of the air—air dominance— so the Strike or CAS/attack aircraft can support the soldier on the ground.
In many an A-10 squadron bar during the Cold War, there was a banner which read:
“You can shoot down all the MiGs you want, but when you land, and a Russian tank and Ivan are sitting in your bar, buddy, you lost the ******* war.”
Indeed. You don’t win wars because you can do barrel-rolls and air-shows over the enemy’s capitol. You win because the enemy puts their hands up and says “We won’t fight any more.” That takes an army. Air power just helped get GI Joe there.
The F-35 abandons that credo and ethos.
Perhaps most shockingly of all: the Air Force fields approximately 1530 fighter aircraft which can perform CAS. The A-10, at 315 or so aircraft, is nearly 18% of that capability. On a “weapons-station” basis (places on the aircraft that can carry weapons), we could call it 36% of that capability.
The Air Force budget for 2015 and 2016 is approximately $136 Billion. Retiring the A-10 is forecast to “save” $900 million a year.
This means the Air Force is willing to sacrifice 18% of their CAS fleet; arguably the most-capable portion, for a 0.66% reduction in budget. That’s right: not even 1%.
The Air Force says the F-35 can do CAS.
If the Air Force core-value of integrity is to be upheld, then the mission of “winning” must be extrapolated and acknowledged to mean that the entire combat force, sans strategic nuclear, exists to support ground forces.
One thing we can be certain of: in war, there will nearly always be troops fighting at close range—necessitating CAS. Stealth, speed, and high-tech gimmickry in fighters or bombers doesn’t insure CAS performed well-enough to keep your sons and daughters alive on the battlefield.
A common colloquialism amongst pilots for a plane that under-performs is “It’s a pig.”
In the CAS debate, there is a flying pig, and a revered (and feared) wild boar. There is only one member of the Porcine family which has proven its worth in supporting the American or allied troop on the ground.
Fly, Fight, and Win.
The author is a retired Air Force fighter pilot and Forward Air Controller, with 238 combat sorties in the Middle East, more than 31 years of service, and in the shadow of John Boyd, would rather “do,” than “be.”