Part 4: Origins of the A-X Program
(scroll down for links to Parts 1-3,5,6 and 'Sidebars)
In June of 1966, the AF Chief of Staff directed a study to determine if the AF was providing satisfactory support to the Army in Vietnam. By August the results were reported: The Army was generally satisfied with AF support, but in performing survey and decoding the results, the AF found that the Army, in the course of their ongoing experimentation and development of Air Assault and Air Mobility doctrines, were actually EXCLUDING the AF from certain missions and for 'fulfillment' by helicopters.
The survey also found that [due to the needs of the new Air Mobility concepts] the AF lacked the capabilities to 'perform helicopter escort and suppressive fire roles'. Thus, given the changes to Army operational doctrine, the finding meant that the multi-role platform approach (i.e. using aircraft such as A-7D for CAS when needed) wouldn't satisfy the perceived need for helicopter ‘escort’ and ‘fire support’ roles as the missions were then conceived and conducted.
Most remarkably, the 1966 discovery of the ‘exclusion’ of the Air Force from supporting Army missions was not even the first time it was ‘discovered’, nor was it the first time that the Air Force made an attempt to improve the situation. There is strong evidence that this schism between the services on CAS was driven by the Army’s aggressive ‘Airmobile’ aspirations appeared even long BEFORE the US began engaging in major ground combat in Vietnam.
According to “The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1961-1973” (Office of Air Force History, 1977) Army ‘Airmobile’ adherents were attempting to develop and expand their ‘Airmobile’ modus operandi without an AF fixed-wing aircraft support even before the Air Force (the American one anyway) was a major player in Vietnam:
Meanwhile, U.S. Army advisors were working to develop ARVN airborne helicopter assault tactics, using equipment of two U.S. Army companies which had arrived in Vietnam in late 1961. Almost at once a problem arose over fixed wing/air-ground coordination. According to directives issued by the newly organized U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (USMACV), all helicopter operations into areas where enemy opposition was expected were required to have fixed-wing tactical air cover. U.S. Army corps advisors who controlled helicopter usage, however, tended to ignore the requirement.Thus we see that as early as 1962(!), the Army was already pushing the Airmobile ‘way of war’ using ARVN operations as their laboratory, and the Air Force was already proactively seeking to support the ground forces in Vietnam as much as possible. Yet four years later the formal study findings showed that the Army was still pursuing a ‘go it alone’ Airmobile approach. It is therefore clear that a more reliable case can be made for the statement that the Army “did not want” Air Force CAS than there is for stating the Air Force “did not want to” perform the CAS mission.
In April 1962, during a visit to South Vietnam, General LeMay learned that Army advisors were not calling for fixed-wing air support, that only about 10 percent of ARVN heliborne operations were accompanied by VNAF aircraft, and that the Air Support Operations center at Ton Son Nhut frequently were not informed of such operations. Concerned about this situation, LeMay subsequently obtained permission to assign air liaison officers (ALO’s) to all ARVN corps and division headquarters and USAF forward air controllers to augment VNAF liaison squadrons…,(pp 16-17)
This exclusion of the Air Force from missions generated by Army planners must have created a mistaken impression concerning AF ‘interest’ in CAS for a far larger number of men completing the mission on the ground who were not involved in mission planning who might have wondered ‘where was the Air Force?’ when they really would have preferred to have the AF overhead. One wonders how this misperception of the Air Force interest and support might have been exacerbated even more by the limitations placed on Army escort and fire support helicopters as the Army-Air Force conflict deepened. The big question is:
How many times were the men on the ground on the ‘losing end’ of the CAS conflict because the Army "couldn’t" support while the Air Force "wasn’t even asked"?When this author began asking the question ‘why’ the Army excluded the Air Force from mission planning, there was a range of possibilities to consider. One rational explanation as to why the Army was excluding the Air Force from some force packages might have been that Army mission planners perceived the task of integrating the faster-moving AF assets with slower helicopter forces as ‘too difficult’. After researching the issue in some depth, I have to conclude that at the root of the problem, was Army Airmobile advocates wanting to prove their concepts as much as anything else. But this does not tell us exactly ‘why’ they wanted to prove them. Without knowing ‘why’ it was important to the Airmobile advocates to promote the self-escort and fire support to the detriment of Air Force support and cooperation, we can never know exactly the reason others within the Army chain of command did not solicit the Air Force for ideas on the subject, if indeed there really was a problem. It is difficult to believe that the men working CAS at the lower levels weren’t acutely aware of the ‘problem’ and easy to see that their frustration had to have been great.
To support the force packages (where the Air Force was being excluded) the Army was using armed helicopters for escort and suppressive fires, and decided the solution was to seek larger, more heavily armed helicopters as a solution to correct their shortfalls. It is anyone’s guess how an alternative history would have unfolded if the Army planners had chosen to seriously seek a joint solution by working with the Air Force instead of persistently planning the Air Force out of the solution. Some alternative histories are plausible based upon what the players were doing at the time. For instance, the Air Force was trying to field new precision capabilities at the time that could have benefitted the CAS mission and vice versa: such cooperation might have brought precision strike capabilities to fruition a decade or two earlier than it actually occurred. This is not to make the point that such a capability would have been developed, but that there were developments that could have been employed that did not require development of a new class of aircraft or possibly even weapons, ‘if only’ collaboration had been sought.
Part 1: The “Big Two” Close Air Support (CAS) Myths
Part 2: Those "not so good old days”
Part 3: Vietnam and the Rise of the “No-CAS Air Force” Myth
Part 5: Defining a New CAS Platform: the Evolution of the A-10
Part 6: A-10s 'Forever' ?
CAS Myths Sidebar: The A-10 and the 'Cult of the Gun'
CAS Myths Sidebar: Army-Air Force Views on CAS and Airpower