Close Air Support in 2030: Moving Beyond the A-10/F-35 Debate


Editor’s note: This is the second part in a two-part article on the A-10, the F-35, and the challenges of providing close air support as battlefields evolve and the U.S. military faces difficult budgetary pressures. Read the first part here.


The A-10, the F-35, and the Future of Close Air Support: Part II

Fierce controversy surrounds the retirement of the A-10 Warthog. Built for the Cold War, the deadly close air support (CAS) meted out by the Warthog has saved many a pinned-down infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the battlefield is evolving. The notion that the U.S. military can always eliminate resistance, and create sanctuaries free from enemy fire is no longer realistic. As we discussed in the first part of this two-part article, threats are proliferating across a wide variety of hostile actors, in areas that challenge current CAS capabilities. Yet CAS requirements really haven’t changed: persistence and rapid response, precision, adaptability to a variety of environments, scalable firepower, and enhanced situational awareness.

As an Army infantry officer reminded us, “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!” If these criteria are the measure of success, how should the Joint Force be equipped to provide effective CAS in the emergent threat environment?

The current debate about the A-10 versus the F-35 misses the point. No legacy aircraft is suited to provide CAS in a contested environment that features widespread surface and air threats. Although the F-35 can survive in high threat environments, it cannot get the job done alone. The F-35 is central to the future of CAS, but not as a replacement to the A-10. Instead, the F-35 must be part of a system-wide transformation of the way that we do CAS.

The U.S. military must build on the tremendous capabilities of the aircraft as a sensor integrator, and develop the platform as a battle manager of unmanned surveillance and attack platforms. Among all U.S. aircraft, the F-35 is uniquely adapted to these tasks. The following fictional story illustrates how the F-35 might operate in concert with manned and unmanned systems to provide close air support on the modern battlefield.

When the United States announced its intention to deploy air and ground forces to the destabilizing country of Korijan in November 2030, the leaders of the Revolutionary Korihite Front (RKF) were unperturbed. Indeed, their pronouncements via social media celebrated the entry of the United States into their very nasty little war. The RKF made it clear that they had no intention of confronting the Americans directly in a conventional fight. They would follow a familiar script for frustrating and defeating the United States that had been used successfully by groups as diverse as the Taliban and the Islamic State decades before: don’t operate in open formations; remain close to the populations of the country’s two large cities; use criminal networks for supply lines and assassinations; exploit American aversion to military and civilian casualties; slowly bleed U.S. forces; inflict damage but do not seek decisive operational victories; and, above all, persist until the American public forgets why it was involved in the first place. Yes, the Americans would have air superiority, but to what end? The RKF would give them nothing to kill.

America’s problems were not limited to the RKF. They had no friendly government partner to work with either. While Korijan’s problems tilted the region towards an abyss of genocide and famine, the Korijan government continued to insist that the Korihite Front was an internal problem, and that Western involvement was unwelcome and unnecessary. As U.S. ground forces gathered in the region, the Korijan government publicly renewed its resistance to intervention, and warned that it would counter any infringements on its sovereignty with a military response.

Two weeks before the planned ground operation in Korijan, dozens of land and sea-based unmanned air and ground surveillance assets were discreetly dispatched above and within Korijan City. The broad array of sensors formed an integrated network to closely monitor the RKF’s suspected surface-to-air missile (SAM) caches, and to track the movement of the weapons throughout the city. The systems were also used to find and fix Korijan SAMs, just in case the Korijan government kept its promise to respond to U.S. military intervention. Pinpointing the exact location of SAMs within the megacity was difficult, but the automated processing and exploitation algorithms within the network smartly refined and narrowed the search areas so that once a SAM illuminated a target, it could be detected quickly and countered through jamming or a counter-strike. After a few weeks, a pattern of RKF weapon movements emerged, one that also suggested the distribution of the RKF itself, with strong indications that its leadership was operating from an industrial complex on the outskirts of Sankaville, one of Korijan City’s smaller, but denser slums.

Special Operations Forces in the vicinity of the city deployed bird-like aerial systems to conduct closer surveillance of the industrial complex. The bird systems perched on a nearby power line to siphon power and transmit images and audio back through the surveillance network. The ultra high-resolution photos and audio recordings were automatically processed through face recognition and automatic target correlation algorithms, and the results were compiled within seconds. Two key RKF leaders were clearly identified. Ground-based “Gecko” drones watched the movement of people and materiel at key points in the city, identifying safe houses, weapons caches, and other key RKF locations. Further audio and imagery analysis confirmed the findings.

Two days before the main ground operation commenced, U.S. Special Operations Forces converged on the Sankaville industrial complex. Under cover of darkness, they encircled the area and entered the complex. The team deployed lightweight unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) that dispersed to form a detailed night vision and infrared survey of the area. The imagery was fed back through the surveillance network, and used to coordinate and refine sensor search areas. A combined overhead picture with automatic target correlation was relayed to handheld displays carried by the SOF team, with additional target identification information overlaid directly into their night vision goggles. The view through the goggles was a virtual, three-dimensional, 360-degree depiction of the battlespace, seamlessly fused with night vision. It would be nearly impossible to ambush a team with this degree of situational awareness.

The industrial complex was cleared, and the five occupants, including the two RKF leaders, were quietly captured. With the area secured, the SOF team loaded RKF hard drives filled with documents onto an unmanned vertical-lift transport for extraction. To avoid highlighting the team’s presence, anything too large to remove would be destroyed in the follow-on air strikes as the team left the area.

The strike package consisted of manned tactical aircraft, and a wide variety of modular UASs. While the unmanned stealth platforms were similar in outward appearance, each had been specially equipped to fulfill different roles within the strike mission. UAS capabilities within the package ranged from aerial refueling, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), electronic attack, air-to-air, and air-to-ground. The air-to-ground UASs were equipped with several different load-outs, in the event targets required specific types of weapons. An additional UAS controlled the connectivity and information sharing within the package, so the players functioned from a common operating picture fused from all available sensors.

A flight of F-35s were the first air assets to enter Korijan airspace. Functioning as both strike and command ships, they worked in concert with air-to-ground and electronic attack UASs to jam and destroy active SAMs. Targeting information for the RKF industrial complex was fed to the F-35 through the same surveillance network that guided the SOF team, along with identification and weapon analysis. The F-35 pilot quickly tasked two appropriately armed air-to-ground UASs to destroy the targets, and moments later the weapons found their marks. RKF SAMs responded by destroying several of the UASs, including the connectivity and information sharing platform. The surveillance network blanked momentarily, but quickly healed itself as the F-35 assumed the data sharing responsibilities.

Now fully alerted by the air strike, RKF ground forces deployed their own array of surveillance UASs, and a large swarm of ground attack quadcopters with contact-detonating explosives. The RKF had not known of the presence of U.S. SOF forces, but they knew now. Within minutes the enemy UASs found the SOF team, and RKF ground forces sped towards the location in pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns, with auto-follow reconnaissance drones buzzing above and behind them. Still operating with the aid of the three-dimensional 360-degree depiction of the battlespace, the SOF team was alerted of the approaching ground forces, and took up a defensive position a few clicks short of their planned extraction site.

The RKF’s quadcopter swarm was an entirely different type of air threat. The F-35 alone was too high and fast to target a large number of small maneuvering targets. Its weapons were ill-suited to kill the swarm; like a wrecking ball against a housefly. The F-35 pilot tasked an air-to-ground UAS to enter a low and slow orbit in the vicinity of the SOF forces, in order to optimize its ability to find and fix the quadcopter swarms. After the UAS successfully located the swarm, it populated the network with tracks of each individual quadcopter. The SOF team then launched several portable drone countermeasures, which immediately networked with the UAS sensor feed. The countermeasures flew directly into the swarm of quadcopters, and exploded in a series of low-yield bursts, which disabled or destroyed the drones.

The F-35 pilot now shifted his attention to the RKF ground forces, and tasked two air-to-ground UASs to attack. Integrating with the SOF team’s blue force tracking systems, the platforms automatically correlated the distance between the friendly and enemy forces, and adjusted weapon selection and fusing to ensure the SOF team was unharmed. As the RKF insurgents sped toward the team’s position and aimed their mounted machine guns, the UASs switched to danger close mode. In this mode the platforms flew directly at the enemy targets to minimize slant range, and utilized their onboard gun systems to snipe the enemy combatants one by one. All threats to the SOF team were eliminated. After providing cover for the SOF team’s extraction, the strike package exited enemy airspace.

The entire operation lasted less than 30 minutes, but in that short time two key members of the RKF leadership were captured, the insurgency’s SAM capability was degraded, and its operating location destroyed — all at the cost of a few small unmanned assets. The F-35 — properly integrated with a fleet of modular multi-role networked UASs — provided rapid response time, precision, adaptability to a variety of combat environments, calibrated firepower, and enhanced ground force situational awareness. Most importantly, the simple criteria for successful CAS were fulfilled — the bad guys were killed quickly, and every American made it home safely that night.

The point of this fictional account is not to detail the exact capabilities that the U.S. military should develop. As the Art of War blog here at War on the Rocks and the Art of Future Warfare project at the Atlantic Council have shown us, fiction can be a useful device to explore strategy and concepts of operation. This story highlights how conflicts in the not-so-distant future may be different from the wars we are accustomed to fighting. Even if our current CAS platforms were able to make it to the fight, they would have been ineffective in this contested environment. Platforms and tactics that are dominant today may be effectively obsolete in the next decade. In this light, modernization is not a luxury; it is a necessity. But it will never be convenient; there will always be tension between recapitalization for today’s fight and modernization for tomorrow’s fight.

The Budget Control Act significantly amplifies this tension. How should the Air Force pay its $12.5 billion dollar annual sequestration bill? Why not just trim the fat, and stop funding excess trips and conferences? While these are good suggestions, they will only save millions of dollars per year, and by law, the Air Force must save billions. How about closing down a few bases? This is also a good idea, but Congress won’t support it. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh described the scope of these challenges:

The sequestration is the law and it’s time to start thinking about what that means to us. One of the things that I’ll tell you is it puts us in kind of a surreal position now, as we try and figure out the way ahead to meet the requirements of the law. I find myself arguing to get rid of things that I don’t want to get rid of to pay a bill we’ve been handed. And the people [that] tell me I can’t give up anything to pay it, are the people who gave us the bill. It’s a strange situation.

To reach savings numbers in the billions the Air Force must make cuts that hurt, as these types of savings are only achieved by cutting force structure (people), readiness (current fight), and modernization (future fight).

Does Air Force leadership disregard or misunderstand what ground forces really need? Although the Air Force may be focused on high-end threats, that focus has nothing to do with a lack of interest in supporting forces on the ground. Rather, it comes from a realization that the threat is evolving. Failing in the high-end missions, or failing to gain air superiority, places ground forces at much greater risk. In contrast, striking in depth at rear echelon forces degrades the enemy’s ability to fight long before our ground forces come under attack — and the CAS fight is much easier to manage, or avoided entirely. Let’s ask our comrades in the infantry some questions: Would you like the Air Force to kill the bad guys at range, long before they can shoot at you? Or would you prefer to wait until the enemy is in close contact?

General Welsh is a former A-10 pilot and the father of a Marine Corps infantry officer. Perhaps his modernization initiatives come not from a preoccupation with high-tech gadgets, but from his deep understanding of emerging threats, and his desire to protect the lives of every American war fighter, including his son.

If we fail to maintain a force that can handle the current fight, or if we fail to create a force that is ready for the next fight, ground forces will be at greater risk. Will the retirement of the A-10 increase that risk? It would be insincere to say that the Air Force will experience zero degradation in its ability to provide effective CAS if the A-10 is retired. There are scenarios, particularly against moving armored targets, where the A-10 is clearly superior. Yet we should not ignore the CAS capabilities of many other Air Force platforms like the B-1, B-52, AC-130, MQ-9, F-15E, and F-16. All of these aircraft are providing excellent CAS in today’s fight. If the Air Force’s CAS platforms were likened to an NFL football team, that team could still win the Super Bowl if it lost its star running back. Even the greatest running backs will retire — sometimes because they are too old to compete against younger and more athletic competitors, and sometimes because the game has changed. Each of our platforms will eventually need to be replaced regardless of budget challenges, and the timing of replacement will rarely be popular or convenient.

The F-35, is an example of how much U.S. Armed Forces and their allies can achieve when they work together. It is also an example of how much they cannot achieve when they work together. It is a flying contradiction that inspires and disappoints in the same breath. Yet, there is another narrative quietly emerging from the test community. Those that have actually flown the jet (including one of us) tell a different story. The sophisticated sensors that revolutionize pilot situational awareness and reduce cockpit workloads are actually working. There have been significant overhauls to mission systems software, which will allow greater flexibility for weapons and sensor expansion in the future. The aircraft has tremendous computing power to manage all of this. This flexibility and upgradeability are the keys to enabling the synergies between the manned and unmanned operations of the future, and the F-35 possesses the DNA to become much more than a simple stealth strike fighter. Indeed, its greatest potential lies in its ability to conduct the fight as a sensor and platform integrator — the maestro of a specialized, unmanned fleet of combat assets.

So where does this leave us? And where do we go from here?

The struggle over the future of the A-10 will continue over the next few years, and the aircraft will continue to support current fights. But with greatest respect to the A-10’s supporters, the most important debate is the one that we are not having — the debate about what kind of air power we need today and in the future.

If the plan is to do CAS exactly as we have done it in the past, and simply swap out the A-10 for an F-35, we will never be as good as we could be. We have an opportunity and an obligation to transform the way we do CAS — to provide support to ground forces far beyond what we’ve been able to achieve in the past, in all scenarios, including highly contested threat environments. We can be more lethal, we can be more precise, and we can strike down the enemy before he ever has a chance to harm our forces on the ground. To meet that challenge we will have to make hard choices. Politics, service rivalries, budget compromises, and — inevitably — emotions are fixtures on this landscape.

We must also be wary of trickle-down strategies that assume focusing on high-end threats automatically covers low-end threats. Many of our adversaries will not seek to challenge us on the high-end or establish air superiority. Their strategy is to avoid fighting us where we are strong, and make our dominance of a domain irrelevant. In our fictional account, U.S. air superiority was not challenged, yet enemy forces used air assets to attack American ground forces using an inexpensive swarm of lethal quadcopters. Against such a threat, a large force of F-35s and F-22s will be ineffective without complementary assets. Similarly, a fleet of low-end UASs is of limited use against a near-peer adversary with a 5th generation air force. The solution is a balanced high/low mix of manned and unmanned platforms. Finding (and affording) that balance will continue to be one of our greatest challenges, yet this strategy also presents the opportunity to invest in fewer “exquisite” platforms, as fleets of less costly unmanned assets augment aircraft like the F-35.

The traditional division of weapons development responsibility across the services will not achieve the level of air and ground coordination that we have described. The services must develop these capabilities together. No single service can achieve the integration necessary to fully harness the potential of manned and unmanned systems. Budget battles can drive the services to retreat back into their own domains, to the detriment of the Joint Force’s capability. Our success hinges on joint development and resourcing of systems that will provide the basis for future CAS capability. This is the path to a powerful future for the entire Joint Force — especially our ground forces — and that is a future worth fighting for.


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.


Photo credit: U.S. Air Force