war on the rocks

Attack! The Renaissance of the Air Force Tribe

June 23, 2017

 “Fighter pilots make movies, attack pilots make history.”

Navy A-6 community motto, made famous by Flight of the Intruder

“ATTACK!” A statement, written in all capital letters, topped with an exclamation point. A simple word with layers of meaning, it simultaneously exhorts leadership (Follow me!), resilience (Hang in there!), and support (Help is on the way!). It encapsulates both the will to fight and the momentum to break the enemy’s will. Those who have “been there and done that” already understand this. To the uninitiated, it is the community motto of the A-10 Warthog.

A Tribe

“ATTACK!” is more than a motto or a war cry — it’s a way of life; a covenant between those who fight on the ground and those who support them in the air, attack aviation encompasses two principle missions: combat search and rescue and close air support. These two commitments are unique among all U.S. Air Force missions in that their virtue is based on coming to the aid of friendly forces. These missions require a specific set of skills, mentality, and devotion that add up to an obsession to execute — and to execute well. That is the bedrock of both the entire attack community’s way of life and the emotional bond and trust between them and the ground forces. This bears explanation because, over the past few years, the Air Force seems to have forgotten this.

Today, the preponderance of official Air Force documentation no longer makes a distinction between attack and fighter aircraft. Somewhere along the way, the two presumably — and mistakenly — became synonymous. Today, in an ironic twist, A-10 squadrons are designated as fighter squadrons and MQ-9 remote piloted aircraft units are now called attack squadrons. Despite this, attack is not a title bestowed, and the name alone is meaningless. To be clear, the sole remaining attack tribe in the U.S. Air Force is the A-10 community.

Yes, a tribe. And there have been past efforts to relieve this tribe of their mounts and force a new order upon it — one where “shock and awe” supplants supporting “march and fight.” This is generally where the A-10 versus F-35 debate starts, and, unfortunately, frequently ends. But it was never about the horses. No tribe in history was ever famous solely for what they rode into battle: It was their spirit, culture, and how they fought. Put an attack pilot in a Cessna with an M-16 and he will find a way to do his job. This is what makes attack aviation a tribe, not a community. And it is the operators, maintenance, and support airmen that make this a tribe — their horse right now just so happens be an A-10.

The Turbulent Rise

“Whenever a people or an institution forgets its hard beginnings, it is beginning to decay.”

Carl Sandburg, 1963

The A-10 is symbolic of a commitment going back to the Key West Agreement in 1948, which identified the functions and interdependencies between the Army and Air Force — but is most famous for codifying the roles and responsibilities of close air support. Interestingly, the venerable A-10 is not only the most recent but in fact the only platform the Air Force has ever purpose-built for attack since the agreement was signed.

Officially named the Thunderbolt II, there are lessons to gleam from the A-10’s attack lineage, starting with namesake lineage — the brawny P-47 Thunderbolt. The stout World War II aircraft was loved for its durability, performance, and firepower. Over 15,500 P-47s were built during the war, but in just three years the Air Force let the P-47 go from hero to zero.

By the outbreak of the Korean War, only 213 remained active, and none were ever deployed to the conflict. Instead, P-51 Mustangs were haphazardly reassigned to an attack role, with disastrous results. One deployed unit historian reported:

A lot of pilots had seen vivid demonstrations of why the P-51 was not a ground-support fighter in the last war, and weren’t exactly intrigued by the thought of playing guinea pig to prove the same thing over again.

By 1953, only 13 flyable P-47 Thunderbolts remained, and they would be stricken shortly thereafter. Fueled by the jet age, a massive post-World War II drawdown, and the threat of air-delivered nuclear warfare, the Air Force had pivoted away from attack.

By the beginning of the Vietnam War, this blunder became obvious. In 1965, the entirety of Air Force attack aviation consisted of just 19 Korean War A-1E Skyraiders operated by Air Commandos — and even those were begrudgingly adopted from the Navy. But nobody puts Baby in the corner and, by 1975, the Air Force had built, wrung out, and retired a substantial fleet of Skyraiders. These were replaced with a stable of 547 attack aircraft: mainly the A-7D Corsair II and the A-37 Dragonfly. To put this in perspective, that’s triple the size of today’s F-22 Raptor fleet.

What made this even more impressive was that this growth in attack came during a large draw-down of the overall aircraft inventory. Over the same 10-year period, the Air Force shrank from 14,000 to 10,500 aircraft — thanks in large part to the retirement of 747 bombers and nearly 1,800 fighters. At the end of the Vietnam War, the Air Force sported a 5:1 ratio of fighter to attack aircraft (not counting several hundred O-2 and OV-10 observation planes). Clearly, the operating environment influenced the service’s force structure strategy and it adapted — just as it should.

But something interesting happened at the end of the Vietnam conflict. Despite a fleet of new A-10s rolling off the production line, the Air Force doubled down on the attack tribe and retained both the A-7 and A-37 stop-gap solutions. As a result, the attack fleet grew in every year between the end of the Vietnam War and the delivery of the last A-10 in 1984. Even though the Air Force inventory writ large shrunk year after year, from 1982 to 1990 the attack tribe’s stable numbered 1,000-plus horses. During this time, the fighter-to-attack aircraft ratio stabilized at 3:1, and attack aircraft comprised 20 percent of the combat air force (bombers, fighters, etc.). Once again, the threat that informed this force structure was clear — the Fulda Gap. The force was well-suited to win a major theater war where it would be required to support “march and fight.” At the same time, a new generation of multi-role F-15Es and F-16s were being introduced and showing great promise. But the world was about to change.

The Mishandled Fall

In 1991, Saddam Hussein was repulsed from Kuwait, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and the United States suddenly found itself without a clear and unifying national security threat. A strategy-driven budget became a budget-driven strategy — a junk bond paraded as a peace dividend. Within a year, the Air Force slashed 45 percent of its attack aircraft inventory — 184 A-10s were mothballed and both the A-7 and A-37 fleets were retired. The following year, the Bottom-Up Review drastically cut the fighter and bomber forces, along with even more cuts to attack aviation. By 1995, the Air Force inventory shrunk by 22 percent, with a 20 percent cut in fighters, a 30 percent cut in bombers, and a 56 percent cut to the attack tribe. This resulted in a 6:1 fighter-to-attack aircraft ratio.

More importantly, the attack tribe became wildly distanced from its customer — the Army — which had been reduced by 28 percent over the same period. The military was right-sized to conduct peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and cover the no-fly zones over Iraq, but arguably lacked coherent strategic vision that weaved together the service interdependences like the attack tribe and its derivative missions. The mandate of now-defunct Quadrennial Defense Reviews in 1997 was an effort to align the budget with national security strategy, but the damage from irreversible draw-downs and the aircraft procurement holiday had already been done.

When the Air Force returned to Iraq in 2003 for Operation Iraqi Freedom, it was a shell of its 1991 self — 1,000 fewer fighters, 100 fewer bombers, and 550 fewer attack aircraft. Even so diminished, the Air Force could still do the job — mostly because Iraq was also a shell of its former self. Had sanctions, no-fly zone enforcements, and years of targeted strikes not occurred, it would have played out much differently.

Through the next 14 years of conflict, the Air Force adapted to the war it was in, but forgot about what kind of war it was. Through a series of budgetary trades, the service ushered in an era of first “doing more with less” and eventually outright robbing Peter to pay Paul. The aircraft inventory became even smaller, deployments became longer, and mission burden-sharing became the strategy in play. Most notable was the 40 percent slash of the F-15C/F-22 air superiority fleet. But, as the wars escalated, the attack community continued to shrink. Multi-role fighters had to adapt to increasing roles for missions they were never designed to do and even B-1 and B-52 bombers were modified and pushed into air support roles. All of these cuts were used to fund the massive growth in manned and un-manned airborne surveillance designed to operate in a permissive environment — pred porn and kill TV.

During this time, the small A-10 tribe could only sustainably support less than 25 percent of theater air support missions — a statistic used without the above context in the failed attempt to retire it). In 2008, an effort to inject a light-attack platform to relieve the multi-role fighter burden-sharing was pitched, but fell flat. In 2013, it was reviewed again, but with no action. Strategic agility gave way to paralysis, and it seemed that with every passing year the Air Force was looking at limited troop surges and ground force draw-down projections and betting that war in the Middle East would end rather than working to adapt its force to the fight.

Of course, the waiting game failed. Readiness tanked, costs have soared while resources have fallen, and the threat has spread beyond Iraq and Afghanistan. With a counter-ISIL strategy that sub-contracts a ground force and relies more heavily on airpower than ever before, leadership now concedes the violent extremism campaign will last a generation or more.

The Attack Renaissance

By the Air Force’s own admission, the force today is under-sized and un-balanced in relation to the strategic threat environment it faces. In previous times, the two big chips to play would be time and money — and today we have neither. In a military where “critical” means months, “urgent” translates into years, and requirements span decades, there is still a way to break this paradigm.

Ironically, one of the best things that could have happened was the failed 2013 pitch to retire the A-10. Not only did it push close air support onto the center stage in Congress, it started an attack renaissance in academia, industry, and within the Air Force.

There is a viable way to exit the spin and gain altitude on the force-structure problem — starting with OA-X. This is an unconventional light attack approach that rapidly builds a larger attack aviation base. OA-X augments the A-10, not replaces it. Unfortunately, mass media conflates this as a replacement because they are both attack aircraft — and it’s been so long since we’ve had more than one attack platform that it’s forgivable. A more accurate statement is that OA-X reduces the burden that the fighter and bomber communities have had to absorb due to the shrinking attack tribe.

As the military has painfully and repeatedly learned, over-reliance on multi-role fighters at the expense of specialized communities of air superiority and attack dilutes the potency of airpower. Today, these multi-role fighters are doing the mission, but at higher direct and indirect costs. Besides the much higher operating costs associated with  fuel demands, time spent performing air support for months on end is time away from their many other missions. Rapidly fielding 300 OA-X light attack would relieve the pressure on these multi-role communities, which would then allow them to re-focus on other, atrophied mission areas. It would also create several unconventional options to rapidly correct pilot absorption issues and even relieve some airborne intelligence demand. Then even more attack derivative concepts could follow.

In the end, it doesn’t matter what platform provides air support as long as it can fulfill the covenant of support with immediate, aggressive, and precise violence toward those who wish our ground forces harm. However, this promise cannot continue to come at the expense of proficiency and currency in other mission areas the Air Force is also charged with — the dilemma of a service that has found itself with far more mission than Air Force.

It’s Not About the Horse

There is a truism regarding the time and energy the U.S. invests in building our partners’ capacity: You can’t surge trust. The same holds true between U.S. services: As long as our nation commits an 18-year old with a rifle, they must be whole-heartedly supported. Attack aviation is one of the unique phenomena where the needs of the Air Force come second to the needs of the ground force. This is the bond so important that we have entrusted it to a mission-obsessed tribe with a purpose-built steed for generations.

Embrace the attack renaissance, cherish the Air Force’s attack tribe, and remember its cause — coming to the aid of a soldier, sailor, airman, or marine on the worst day of his life. What if it was you?


Maj. Mike “Pako” Benitez is an F-15E Strike Eagle Weapons Systems Officer with over 250 combat missions spanning multiple deployments in the Air Force and Marine Corps. He is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and a former Defense Advanced Research Agency (DARPA) fellow. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.