Slaying the Unicorn: The Army and Fixed-Wing Attack

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Consider another day under the hot sun as a four-man team in some distant land goes out on patrol on an “advise and assist” mission. This is hardly unusual — these missions are replicated globally thousands of times a year, in furtherance of building international partnership capacity to counter violent extremist organizations. Unfortunately, their adversaries have their own agenda and opportunities, and this routine patrol escalates to combat operations in the blink of an eye. Now the troops are in a fight for their lives, without air cover, against a numerically superior force. Tragically, a similar scenario resulted in the loss of four American soldiers, killed in Niger in 2017. While the Department of Defense highlighted the many mistakes that led up to this tragic result, the lack of airpower is addressed only in the context of what those forces had available, not what they could have had. With the expectation that the fight against violent extremists will continue for a generation, the United States continues to rely heavily on airpower to provide an asymmetric advantage. With ground forces far more distributed globally than air forces, the Army should clearly provide its own fixed-wing attack aircraft to support far-flung operations. Except that they can’t. Hamstrung by a misinterpretation of agreements dating back to 1948, the Department of Defense believes that the Army agreed not to procure fixed-wing combat aircraft and can’t arm those they do have. It turns out that’s not true — such an agreement was never codified in writing. What they did agree to was to not duplicate a function assigned to the Air Force. It’s long past time to slay this unicorn and erase a completely artificial line that hampers airpower options to the detriment of servicemen and women worldwide. The Army may be the best candidate for a light attack capability that is not an Air Force priority. Let the Army have an airpower capability appropriate to the mission.

Roles and Missions

Air cover, that coveted safety net that protects American soldiers in conflicts from Africa to the Middle East, is regrettably one of the most complicated instruments of U.S. national security, carrying with it the institutional baggage of service equities that dates from the end of World War II, over seventy years ago. Roles and missions are the coin of the realm inside the Department of Defense, as missions equal money from Congress and the Department of the Treasury. The battles over roles and missions predate the founding of the Air Force, but the modern allocations date from Secretary Forrestal’s 1948 note to the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Functions of the Armed Services and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (called the Key West Agreement), which was needed to mitigate inter-service rivalries and wasteful duplication. But this agreement (and its supplements, including the Pace-Finletter Memorandum of Understanding and McConnell-Johnson Agreement) are essentially the Department of Defense negotiating with itself — there is no codification of the roles and missions divisions within public law. Instead, there are long-held habits that don’t stand up to close examination in a modern conflict.



From 1997 to 2017, National Defense Authorization Acts instructed the Department of Defense to submit Quadrennial Defense Review reports, ostensibly to assess and recommend elimination of duplications of effort across the department. Unfortunately, these legislative mandates only forced a scrum where the services negotiated as sovereign entities the least painful or most palatable infringement by other services on their roles and missions — even if those divisions don’t make sense.

Recently, this dynamic was brought into such stark relief that a junior member of the House of Representatives, unhampered by pointless tradition, publicly commented that changing the status quo may be necessary. During separate Air Force Association Mitchell Institute panels, the U.S. Air Force promoted a future force structure vision to achieve the National Defense Strategy. At the same event, military veteran representatives questioned that vision’s apparent abandonment of low-cost airpower in a panel on light attack aircraft. The aforementioned Congressman, Representative Michael Waltz (R-FL), a former Army Green Beret, spoke passionately about the need to increase capacity in air cover, and his perception that the light attack aircraft program was key to fulfilling that objective economically. Waltz stated, “if we can’t move this program forward, then perhaps we need to explore if the Army needs that authority.” While his statement is heretical to many, recall that then-Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Merrill McPeak, offered a similar recommendation in 1994 to transfer the close air support mission to the Army and Marines, and retire the A-10 Warthog. And as I discovered writing this piece, the “agreement” that prevents the Army from having armed fixed-wing aircraft is a unicorn.

A Long, Long Time Ago…

In the early 1950s the Air Force and the Army desired to reconcile their opinions of what the 1948 Key West Agreement specifically meant by “Army organic aviation,” resulting in this language in Pace-Finletter document:

Army organic aviation will consist of aircraft primarily utilized by the Army within the Army combat zone as an integral part of its components for the purpose of expediting and improving ground combat and logistical procedures, subject, however, to the limitation that such aircraft will not duplicate the functions of the U.S. Air Force in providing the Army, by fixed-wing and rotary-wing type aircraft, close combat support, assault transport and other troop carrier airlift, aerial photography, tactical reconnaissance and interdiction of enemy land power and communications. Army organic aircraft are defined as fixed-wing utility or observation type aircraft with an empty weight of not to exceed 5000 pounds.

Agreeing that the Army would not duplicate Air Force functions did not settle the issue — Army aviation is still aviation, with aviation’s inherent flexibility. Drawing such a line is nigh impossible. Not that it hasn’t been tried.

In 1966, the Army and the Air Force remained in a conundrum. The Army was still operating fixed wing airlift aircraft, continuing an operation that had been ongoing since the 1920s. The Air Force was considering expanding its use of helicopters for combat. The interservice kerfuffle reached a boiling point in 1962, when an Army study group known as the Howze Board, formed at the direction of the Secretary of Defense, delivered a plan for the Army’s new airmobile brigades. This plan included a force of 656 AC-1 — the study designation for what was then the de Havilland Canada Caribou, later the C-7A. The report hadn’t been a paper study — it involved dozens of field tests using real aircraft and produced a report that was around two inches thick. And it landed like a hand grenade in the office of the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen Curtis LeMay. LeMay already felt that if it flew, it should belong to the Air Force — a position explicitly rejected by Robert MacNamara when the Air Force presented a countervailing study, the Disoway Board. To add insult to injury, the Disoway Board also rejected the idea of developing specific aircraft for Close Air Support, insisting that multirole aircraft were more flexible and practical. Backed by the Secretary of Defense, the Army forged ahead, forming the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) in 1963. Not only did the Army get another division, but it got the authorization to add 15000 soldiers to build it. Simultaneously, the Army pressured the Air Force to buy into the Navy’s A-7 Corsair, which the Air Force was reluctant to do — it was a Navy aircraft that couldn’t go supersonic. Disgruntled, the Army moved out on the attack helicopter, or an “aerial fire support” capability. In the eyes of Air Force leadership, the Army was rebuilding the Army Air Corps, at the Air Force’s expense. In the eyes of Army leadership, the Air Force was insufficiently committed to supporting ground forces. Both were arguably correct. Neither was being sensible.

Figure 1: The 1962 Howze Board and Army Combat Developments (RAND Corporation, MR-435)

Figure 2: South Vietnamese Air Force C-7 Caribou from Phu Cat Air Base taking off from a muddy airstrip after a supply run during the Vietnam War (U. S. Air Force)

The outbreak of the Vietnam War strengthened the Army’s position. In the first half of 1965, the number of close air support sorties flown by the Air Force tripled. The Air Force had the wrong tools available for the burgeoning fight in Vietnam, and lacked both the habit and capability of closely cooperating with the Army for the delivery of air support. Additionally, the Army’s C-7 was performing heroic airlift into airfields that the larger, heavier Air Force airlifters could not service. The visions of airpower differed — the Air Force banked on centralized command, increasing the efficiency of airpower and eschewing the idea of spreading airpower thin by providing small airpower “packets” that would directly support Army units. The Army wanted airpower that it could direct when and where it needed to support Army forces in the field. The pressures of Vietnam would drive rapid changes — on July 1, the nascent air assault division was renamed as the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile), and less than a month later, it was on its way to Vietnam. Secretary MacNamara directed the Air Force to buy the A-7, and an order was announced in November. But the fault lines still remained. The Army’s vision of air power was colliding with the Air Force’s vision.

By the end of 1965, there was an ongoing attempt to resolve the issues with both tactical airlift and combat aviation. Generals John McConnell and Howard K. Johnson, Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force and Army respectively, hammered out an agreement (now called the Johnson-McConnell Agreement) in April 1966. In it, the Army gave up the Caribou and the Air Force gave up rotary wing aircraft intended to support the Army. The wording is curious — both services agreed to “relinquish all claims” to aircraft of the type, as if airpower could be practically chopped up in this fashion. The Air Force also agreed to detach airlift as needed to Army forces (which never happened) and the Army agreed to limit its fixed wing capabilities for tactical airlift. It is commonly expressed that this agreement also prevented the Army from arming its fixed wing aircraft. This assumption is a bedrock tenet for decades of discussions around roles and missions (a recent example here), but it’s wrong. Nothing in the Key West Agreement, Pace-Finletter Memorandum, or Johnson-McConnell Agreement mentions prohibiting armed fixed-wing at all — the idea that the Army can’t arm its fixed-wing aircraft because of these agreements is a unicorn. An ugly unicorn.

As early as 1961 the Army was flying fixed-wing OV-1A Mohawks in Europe, and when committed to Vietnam, they were armed for “self-defense.” As low-level reconnaissance aircraft, Mohawks were used to perform reconnaissance in direct support of Army ground troops. They were capable of carrying rockets, guns and bombs up to 1000-lb in weight — and they did. The Army also tested guided missiles, and even the AIM-9B Sidewinder dogfight missile. The Air Force objected, of course, and officially the Army limited its combat loadout to gun pods and flares. In reality, the Army kept its fixed wing attack capability quiet, even going as far as to suppress a probable MiG-17 kill by Major Ken Lee — achieved with unguided rockets and guns.

Figure 3: OV-1A firing 2.75 inch rocket salvo on a training mission (U.S. Army)

Which Brings Us to Light Attack

Much to the author’s disappointment, the Air Force light attack experiment’s transition to a rapid procurement fizzled. Despite credible performance by two models of light attack aircraft and the availability of funding, the Air Force has declined to move ahead with fielding this capability. That doesn’t mean that the capability is unneeded, only that as in the early 1960s, the Air Force has other budget priorities and airpower preferences. If the U.S. Air Force doesn’t proceed with a light attack aircraft program, could the U.S. Army procure turboprop attack aircraft to augment its rotary attack capabilities? Is there any rationale that would prevent it? Waltz has already proposed it in Congress. It’s a practical idea that would normally be doomed to founder under the incorrect belief that it would infringe on the U. S. Air Force’s ownership of close air support and air interdiction missions. As Joint Publication 3.09-3 notes:

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.

The Air Force doesn’t own close air support. It conducts it. So do all of the other services. The Army uses helicopters and for decades they called it “close combat attack” to avoid waving a red cape in front of the Air Force bull. In 2015, the Army Field Manual FM 3-04, Army Aviation, deleted close combat attack as a term. And in April of this year, the joint doctrine also changed, deleting the term from the Joint Fire Support doctrine manual. The Marines, naturally, have long performed the mission with rotary wing aircraft, and they call it “close air support,” just like with F/A-18, AV-8B, and F-35B jets. The joint doctrine for close air support explicitly recognizes “fixed and rotary wing” aircraft. Each service conducts the mission with the air vehicles most appropriate to their needs. But if the Air Force thinks it doesn’t need light attack, that might very well open a path for somebody else.

Upon reflection, light attack aircraft might be better operated by the Army. The aircraft have a dirt field capability. They require no ground support equipment to start. The aircraft are fuel sippers that can be topped off from a pickup truck’s worth of fuel drums, making it possible to support them logistically at the end of thin supply lines. They employ some of the same ordnance that Army and Marine helicopters do, making it possible to fuel, reload, and rearm an AT-6 or A-29 at an Army or Marine Corps Forward Arming & Refueling Post. Indeed, during the light attack experiment the Air Force trained and certified the aircrew to load the guns and rocket pods themselves. Compared to attack helicopters, they arrive more quickly, stay longer, fly higher, require a lot less fuel and maintenance, and are more survivable.

From the first publication of the OA-X concept, the ability to operate from forward locations in support of the Army was specifically mentioned. The Army might even be able to own and operate the aircraft for less money than the Air Force. The backbone of Army aviation is its system of warrant officers, who have an intermediate pay scale about 15 percent lower than the Air Force’s all-officer pilot corps. The Army already has thousands of aviators who know how to employ forward-firing ordnance against an enemy — they just have to learn to do it in a dive.

If the Army wanted to deploy small packets of light attack aircraft forward, it could. If it wanted to use them purely to support Army forces, it could. Army combat aviation brigades already operate mixed aircraft types, so if the Army wanted to add light attack aircraft to its combat aviation brigades, it could. The Army could even maintain control of its organic aircraft — it already exempts its rotary wing aircraft from the (almost) all-encompassing air tasking order that the Air Force generates to control and coordinate air activity across a theater. The Army could follow the Marine Corps and exempt organic rotary and fixed-wing aircraft from the air tasking order, ensuring that the aircraft were under Army control when needed.

Notably, the Army might actually be better positioned to interface and train foreign military forces with light attack capabilities. The Army, not the Air Force, bears the greatest burden of “advise and assist” missions worldwide, and Army aviators have been hip deep in expanding partner nation aviation capabilities for decades. The Army even created its 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade, followed it with two more, and still plans to add another three.

Erase the Line

It’s interesting to note that the services practice what district attorneys call prosecutorial discretion, rattling sabers over some sovereign challenges while ignoring others, e.g. the armed OV-1s. The proliferation of unmanned air systems further altered the status quo. The Army started arming its RQ-5 Hunter unmanned system with precision weapons more than ten years ago, deploying armed aircraft to Iraq even before they completed testing in 2007. It followed with the same GBU-44 Viper Strike weapons on the newer RQ-7 Shadow, and then added AGM-114 Hellfire to their MQ-1C Grey Eagles. The Air Force never said a word. The mythical “can’t arm Army fixed wing” unicorn has been wounded. To object to arming aircraft to improve their mission capability in the combat zone would have been nonsense — just like it was nonsense 50 years ago.

In effect, the Air Force has already acquiesced to the unthinkable Army armed fixed-wing aircraft, because it just makes sense. It’s not a duplication of missions — it is a shared mission, one of many, accomplished differently by the services. The Air Force certainly hasn’t surrendered the close air support mission, re-winging the dwindled total force A-10C Warthog fleet and intimating future attack variants of the T-7A Red Hawk jet trainer. Neither has the Army relinquished close combat attack. But service visions make a difference in employment — it is unlikely that the U.S. Air Force would ever provide small packets of attack aircraft that dramatically increase the aviation capability of a small Army unit. It would be reasonable then, to have the Army utilize their own light attack aircraft, supporting small detachments where there is little or no Air Force presence.

Traditionally, U.S. Air Force — just as other services — mans, trains, and equips for the highest threat level they can afford, and then struggles with the capability/capacity/cost calculus that such a high-end force structure means for low-end missions. It’s apparent the U.S. Air Force leadership desires to be an all-jet service. For two decades, this has entailed dealing with the low threat level missions with aircraft that increase the cost of regional campaigns and impart operational agility constraints in the need for longer prepared runways and infrastructure. That’s part of the service vision. But it need not be the entirety of the nation’s vision for airpower.

Conclusion: Getting Comfortable with Army Light Attack Capabilities

The bipartisan support for a light attack aircraft program is a clear example of attempts to be frugal stewards of the taxpayer’s dollars — and introduce a lower-cost capability that can be used for a generation without breaking the jet fleet. While giving light attack to the Army is likely to result in knee-jerk opposition (the author is as guilty as anyone on that front), it makes sense financially, operationally, and strategically. A light attack aircraft program makes too much sense in terms of capability, capacity, cost, and utility for it to fade in the face of Air Force disinterest. We cannot afford (and should not need) to utilize high-end jets for operations against violent extremist organizations, threats that have metastasized globally and show no sign of receding ignominiously into history. American forces at the tip of the spear need low cost, flexible airpower options that can be supported on a logistical shoestring — and they will need it for decades. If the Army is prepared to fill that role — let it.



Col. Mike “Starbaby” Pietrucha was an instructor electronic warfare officer in the F-4G Wild Weasel and the F-15E Strike Eagle, amassing 156 combat missions over Iraq and the Former Yugoslavia during 10 combat deployments. As an irregular warfare operations officer, Col. Pietrucha has two additional combat deployments in the company of U.S. Army infantry, combat engineer, and military police units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is currently assigned to Air Combat Command and is staring retirement in the face.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.

Image: An OV-1 Mohawk in South Vietnam; note the rocket and gun pods on the outboard hardpoints (U.S. Army)