The A-10, the F-35, and the Future of Close Air Support
Bullets pelted the armored plating of the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle as insurgents surrounded the small convoy. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) ravaged the lead vehicle, forcing the occupants to dive for cover from the flames and shrapnel. The convoy was outgunned and outnumbered by the well-coordinated insurgent attack. A Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) sprang from his vehicle and scrambled behind a nearby boulder. Over the commotion of the firefight, he relayed the convoy’s position with a request for close air support (CAS). Minutes later the unmistakable sounds of two low-flying A-10 Warthogs caused the insurgents to pause and look warily to the skies. With the help of the JTAC, the A-10s began a series of devastating strafe attacks on the insurgents. The guttural sound of the A-10’s 30mm GAU-8 Avenger Gatling gun was a source of great comfort to the pinned-down soldiers, and a cause for alarm to the assailants. In less than 30 minutes from the moment the JTAC requested air support, the battle was over, and the few surviving insurgents fled the scene.
Scenes similar to this have played out throughout the A-10’s 40-plus years in service. The Warthog is a formidable weapon; however, the Air Force is faced with the difficult challenge of modernizing its fleet in a period of constrained budgets. Retiring the A-10 will save the Air Force $4.2 billion over 5 years. Such savings can then be invested into the next generation of Air Force platforms and help pay the service’s $12.5 billion annual sequestration bill.
Despite the fiscal incentives for this decision, the Air Force’s rationale for retiring the A-10 has been a target for criticism. The F-35, scheduled to replace the A-10 and several other legacy fighters, is over budget, behind schedule, and currently lacks many of the A-10’s capabilities. Some argue that the F-35 is a leap backwards in terms of CAS — simply another example of the Air Force’s obsession with expensive and sophisticated toys, regardless of their utility to the military. In this view, the Air Force sees close air support as a distraction from the high-end missions that it really wants to execute, and oversimplifies CAS with its argument for “trickle-down” capabilities (i.e., if it can do the high-end, it can do the low-end). The F-35, with its impressive 5th generation capabilities, can operate in high-threat environments that would render the A-10 and other legacy platforms ineffective. Amidst this often emotional discussion, it can be difficult to distinguish fact from opinion. This article is an attempt to elevate the debate, to weigh the evidence, and offer a way forward for the future of close air support and the Joint Force.
The A-10 is an undeniably lethal attack aircraft. While there are certainly other highly capable CAS aircraft in the Air Force inventory, the men and women who fly the Warthog pride themselves as CAS experts, and they are extremely proficient at the mission. A-10 pilots frequently refer to CAS as “doing the Lord’s work” — a sentiment that reflects their deep commitment to protecting ground forces. It is entirely understandable for those that have flown, or have been supported by the A-10, to defend the aircraft.
During the Cold War, the U.S. military built and trained itself for large, conventional force-on-force ground campaigns and armored battles. The A-10 was designed for that environment — to find, fix, and kill enemy tanks, armored vehicles, and any other hostile target. The Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States did not go hot, but the Warthog demonstrated its worth over Iraq in the closing battles of Operation Desert Storm. Despite its conventional warfare origins, the Warthog’s precision attack capabilities have also made it an effective weapon in the unconventional fights of the post-9/11 era, especially in Afghanistan.
Yet warfare is competitive and adaptive. Past performance is no guarantee of future success. As Air Force Chief of Staff General Welsh has said, “[O]ur job is to fight and win the nation’s wars. If that’s your job description, you’ll never be good enough at it, and you should never pat yourself on the back. We’ve got to get better every day.” No matter how successful a platform or tactic has been in the past, as our adversaries adapt and evolve, we too must relentlessly adapt and evolve.
If our objective is to continue to provide the best possible support to ground forces now and in the future, we must understand the operating environment, and examine the evolving capabilities and tactics of our current and potential adversaries — the focus of this article. We must also explore the capabilities and tactics that we need to develop to counter these emerging threats (a topic that we will address in Part II).
Close air support through the eyes of ground forces
An Army infantry officer said it best when we asked him about the A-10/F-35 debate: “Look, I don’t care how you do it, or what you do it with — I just need you to find the bad guys that are shooting at me, kill them quickly, don’t hurt or kill me, and help me find more bad guys before they shoot at me!”
Building on his description, any close air support platform should be assessed based on five characteristics. First, CAS should actually be close, or if it is not close, it should be able to arrive quickly. Ideally, close means that air support is persistent, or “always on,” with little or no delay in response. Second, it means CAS aircraft must be able to precisely and rapidly employ weapons in close proximity to friendly forces, killing hostiles while avoiding fratricide or non-combatant casualties. Third, CAS aircraft should have the ability to operate in a variety of different contexts, ranging from highly contested to permissive threat environments, in jungle, forest, desert, and urban landscapes, and against conventional and unconventional adversaries. Fourth, CAS aircraft should have flexible weapons loads with scalable firepower. Some scenarios call for massive firepower, while others require a surgical sniper-like attack. Finally, CAS should provide enhanced situational awareness to ground forces, functioning as a force extension, or another pair of sophisticated eyes. The information CAS aircraft gather over the battlefield must be relayed in a way that is immediately useful for ground forces.
The challenges of keeping the skies empty
The conflicts of the past two decades showcased the U.S. military’s ability to rapidly deploy to a contested environment, and to transform it from a hostile environment to a permissive one. In Operation Allied Force and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Joint Force efficiently deployed to bases or seas conveniently located near the combat zones. While the integrated air defense systems and air forces of both Belgrade and Baghdad initially posed significant threats, the skies of Yugoslavia and Iraq were soon emptied of enemy aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. Likewise, U.S. and Coalition ground forces toppled Baghdad’s military defenses in three weeks. These types of campaigns create an expectation that the U.S. military can always eliminate resistance and create sanctuaries of operation free from any credible threats of enemy fire. However, with the spread of anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities, this expectation may no longer be realistic.
The Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), formerly known as Air Sea Battle, further defines the problems posed by emerging A2/AD threats, and describes how to integrate and equip the services to reduce risk and maintain U.S. freedom of action in contested and degraded environments. Throughout the history of conflict, the balance of power in war has shifted back and forth between the offense and the defense. The advances in precision, electronic warfare, and stealth of the revolution in military affairs empowered the offensive, especially offensive airpower. However, the emerging A2/AD threat suggests that the balance is shifting back; the notion of an uncontested environment may become a quaint memory.
Throughout the post-9/11 era, the U.S. military fought adversaries with limited reach and anti-air capabilities, enabling air assets like tankers and Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), naval vessels such as aircraft carriers, and ground-based support facilities to be placed wherever we needed them. In a contested A2/AD environment, this is no longer the case. Aircraft basing (both land and sea) must either be located further from the fight, or face increased risk. Likewise, non-stealth support aircraft like tankers and AWACS will be forced to operate at greater ranges to reduce their threat exposure. Let’s take a closer look at emerging threats.
The next generation of cruise, ballistic, air-to-air, and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) can be employed at much greater ranges, and they are dramatically more accurate and lethal than their predecessors. SAM systems are highly mobile, with the ability to fire and quickly relocate, making them extremely difficult to target. They can also be operated from ships. Even with the best SAM suppression or electronic attack support, legacy aircraft are highly vulnerable to these threats. With the proliferation of the systems, modern SAMs are now in the hands of relatively unsophisticated adversaries, and CAS aircraft may not have the luxury of operating free of enemy surface-to-air threats while supporting ground forces.
The problem is most pronounced in conflicts with a near-peer adversary such as China, which possesses fully integrated air defenses and a 5th generation air threat. Against an advanced military, air superiority will take longer to achieve, and it may only be localized and temporary. It may be impractical or impossible to eradicate the enemy’s air force before friendly ground forces move forward. Thus, CAS aircraft may also have to contend with an air threat.
Finally, unmanned technology is proliferating and changing the nature of air operations, offering reconnaissance and attack capabilities at a very low cost. Likewise, the pervasiveness of computer technology creates the opportunity and the means for a hostile actor to disrupt information networks, which enable the vast majority of U.S. military operations — from deployment to tactical execution.
Capabilities that have been associated with near-peer competitors are proliferating to a wider variety of actors. Clearly, A2/AD capabilities will “challenge and threaten the ability of U.S. and allied forces to both get to the fight and to fight effectively once there.” This spread of A2/AD threats will fundamentally alter the way that the U.S. military and its international partners operate.
Close air support just got a lot harder
In this contested battle space, our approach to CAS must change. What capabilities and platforms will meet the needs that our Army infantry officer outlined?
Persistence of CAS becomes particularly important when enemies do not operate in the open in large formations (an increasingly likely scenario). To counter America’s considerable precision strike capabilities, enemies will often concentrate forces at the time of assault and melt away afterwards. Methodical and persistent sensor coverage is imperative to find, fix, and kill an elusive enemy (and prevent the type of ambush described in the opening vignette). However, persistence and loiter time will be a challenge for all of our current CAS-capable aircraft.
As tankers or land bases are pushed further from the fight, CAS aircraft will also be pushed back. This will delay their arrival, and reduce the amount of time they can support ground forces. Aircraft with greater fuel capacity like the A-10 or AC-130 will have longer endurance than other aircraft, but their slower speed will delay their arrival. An F-16 may reach the fight faster, but its loiter time will be limited. In both cases, there may be delays or gaps in close air support, and even a few minutes can make all the difference for ground forces in a firefight.
The surface to air threat further compounds the problem. Once aircraft reach the fight, operating within the weapon engagement zone or threat rings of modern SAMs in anything other than a stealth aircraft is extremely risky. Thus, our ability to provide persistent CAS will be constrained by aircraft fuel, speed, and the threat environment. The F-35 isn’t immune to these challenges. It may reach the fight faster, and it will be capable of operating within SAM threat rings; however, its loiter time will also be limited, especially with tankers operating at greater distances.
What about precision? The attack capabilities of current CAS platforms, from laser- or GPS-guided munitions to strafe (particularly the A-10’s 30mm cannon) have been well-suited to support ground troops in close proximity to enemy combatants operating in open areas and away from non-combatants. However, in future urban environments, the U.S. military’s advantage in precision may be indecisive, because it is not precise enough.
Urban areas are attractive operating environments to adversaries seeking to offset U.S. precision strike capabilities, and more and more of the world’s population resides in large cities. The United States cannot rely on all of its opponents to be as strategically obtuse as Saddam Hussein. The United States has (appropriately) become more sensitive to collateral damage and non-combatant casualties. An operational victory can become a strategic defeat when our adversaries use traditional and emerging media to spread images of innocent victims. A tactical mistake can have significant strategic impacts. The narrative matters, and every civilian casualty is an opportunity for our opponents to offer an alternative one.
We already operate in an environment where “precise” does not mean what it once did. Hitting the right building used to be enough. We now have to hit the right person. CAS platforms also must be prepared to operate in megacities — an environment where bombs and explosive strafe rounds may be prohibitively destructive. Large buildings complicate tracking and targeting in the urban environment. Thus, the ability to provide support and situational awareness to ground forces in cities is significantly challenged.
Neither the A-10 nor the F-35 alone has the ability to provide the combination of persistence, precision, and augmented situational awareness that will be necessary in the emergent threat environment. Returning to our Army infantry officer’s CAS requirements — “find the bad guys that are shooting at me, kill them quickly, don’t hurt or kill me, and help me find more bad guys before they shoot at me” — our current CAS platforms fail to measure up in several key areas. How exactly should the Joint Force be equipped to succeed? That is the question we will tackle in Part II.
Lt. Col. Derek O’Malley is a resident student at the U.S. Army War College and a member of the Carlisle Scholars Program. He is an Air Force F-16 and F-35 pilot, and former USAF Weapons School instructor. Prior to attending the Army War College, he commanded the 59th Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada, where he led operational test efforts for the F-16, F-15C, F-15E, A-10, F-22, and F-35. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Andrew Hill is the Director of the Carlisle Scholars Program and Professor of Organization Studies at the U.S. Army War College. He joined the War College after studying under influential innovation theorist Clayton Christensen. He has a Doctorate in Business Administration from Harvard Business School, and a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.