Part 6: A-10s 'Forever' ?
(scroll down for links to Parts 1-5 and 'Sidebars)
As noted previously, the A-10 design was from the very start designed to be operated in a ‘permissive environment’. This limitation had been a concern of AF planners since the A-10’s inception, and its vulnerability to weapons larger than those it was designed to encounter became more of a concern with the advent and proliferation of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADs) such as the SA-7 (and successors) as well as increases in numbers and types of larger mobile systems that filled the gap between short range low-altitude MANPADs and longer-range high-altitude fixed site systems (SA-2/3s and successors). Before the A-10 was even out of flight test, evidence that the battlefield was getting a lot nastier was seen in the 1973 Arab-Israeli ‘October War’:
Egyptian SAMs (SA-2s, SA-3s, and SA-6s) along with 23-mm ZSU23-4 antiaircraft cannons destroyed some 40 Israeli aircraft in the first 48 hours of the war, or 14 percent of the frontline strength of the IAF.3 In contrast, only five Israeli aircraft were destroyed in air-to-air combat during the entire conflict. Coupled with the high number of aircraft lost to ground-based air defenses in Vietnam, the results of the October War prompted some analysts to ask whether tactical aircraft had outlived their usefulness on the modern battlefield.(link)Air planners saw the world’s Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADs) evolving at an alarming rate and anticipated that flying low-and-slow would soon be a poor survival strategy.
Other developments were also occurring that would influence AF attitudes and decisions concerning future CAS capabilities:
1. Israeli successes with the F-16 in the Osirak Reactor Strike (air-to-ground) and the Bekaa Valley (air-to-air) “reenergized proponents of fast multi-role fighters”.
2. The emergence of the Army’s Air-Land Battle doctrine which “envisioned a faster and freer-flowing battlespace without a traditional battle line”. This was a doctrine that clearly favored use of a faster aircraft and operations that were less reliant on air-ground coordination.
3. The discovery that the A-10’s structural design life was significantly less-than-specified, and that would require remedy either via an extensive and expensive modification program and/or replacement of much of the A-10’s structure or the development of a replacement aircraft far earlier than anticipated.
All these factors contributed to the Air Force considering an A-10 replacement that was a ‘fast mover’ and viewing an F-16 variant as a good candidate for that replacement. Making aspersions that the Air Force ‘doesn’t want to do Close Air Support’ because it has sought (and seeks) to perform the mission using resources more survivable than a relatively ‘low and slow’ platform such as the A-10 says more about the ignorance of what is necessary in performing the CAS mission by those making such accusations than anything else.
If one were to make a list of all the things that the A-10 brings to the battlefield that make it a good CAS platform, none of them are directly dependent upon the ability to fly ‘low and slow’ : its ability to fly low and slow enables it to provide timely and effective CAS in many cases...in a highly permissive environment, but timely and effective CAS can be provided in any number of different combinations of weapon systems and tactics See here and here for examples.
General Chuck Horner, the 'Air Boss' in Desert Storm, gets to have the last word on whether the A-10 or an A-10 'like' platform qualifies as the 'best' CAS tool in the future (LINK):
Q: Did the war have any effect on the Air Force's view of the A-10?
A: No. People misread that. People were saying that airplanes are too sophisticated and that they wouldn't work in the desert, that you didn't need all this high technology, that simple and reliable was better, and all that.
Well, first of all, complex does not mean unreliable. We're finding that out. For example, you have a watch that uses transistors rather than a spring. It's infinitely more reliable than the windup watch that you had years ago. That's what we're finding in the airplanes.
Those people . . . were always championing the A-10. As the A-10 reaches the end of its life cycle-- and it's approaching that now--it's time to replace it, just like we replace every airplane, including, right now, some early versions of the F-16.
Since the line was discontinued, [the A-10's champions] want to build another A-10 of some kind. The point we were making was that we have F-16s that do the same job.
Then you come to people who have their own reasons-good reasons to them, but they don't necessarily compute to me-who want to hang onto the A-10 because of the gun. Well, the gun's an excellent weapon, but you'll find that most of the tank kills by the A-10 were done with Mavericks and bombs. So the idea that the gun is the absolute wonder of the world is not true.
Q: This conflict has shown that?
A: It shows that the gun has a lot of utility, which we always knew, but it isn't the principal tank-killer on the A-10. The [Imaging Infrared] Maverick is the big hero there. That was used by the A-10s and the F-16s very, very effectively in places like Khafji.
The other problem is that the A-10 is vulnerable to hits because its speed is limited. It's a function of thrust, it's not a function of anything else. We had a lot of A-10s take a lot of ground fire hits. Quite frankly, we pulled the A-10s back from going up around the Republican Guard and kept them on Iraq's [less formidable] front-line units. That's line [sic] if you have a force that allows you to do that. In this case, we had F-16s to go after the Republican Guard.
Q: At what point did you do that?The Air Force Tried to Give the A-10 to the Army?
A: I think I had fourteen airplanes sitting on the ramp having battle damage repaired, and I lost two A- 10s in one day [February 15], and I said, "I've had enough of this." ....
One of the most recent episodes fueling the “Air Force Doesn’t like CAS” myth often pops up in real and virtual discussions on the subject as a form of 'proof' or evidence is the simplistic claim that “the AF tried to give the A-10 to the Army”. This argument has its roots in a singular event after Desert Storm, when General Merrill McPeak, shortly before his retirement as Air Force Chief of Staff, proposed a radical change in DoD and Service responsibilities based upon his particular view of “roles and missions”. The A-10 ramifications were collateral damage in the scheme of things. It was McPeak's view that such a restructuring would reduce redundancy and exploit each Service’s strengths to the most effective level.
Per 'Learning Large Lessons' (p.197), McPeak asserted:
In my view, modern land warfare can be seen as containing four “battles”—the rear battle, which includes all the base and supporting elements; the close battle, in which the main opposing ground forces engage one another; the deep battle, which includes hostile territory well beyond the line of contact; and the high battle, the arena of air and space combat. . . . The rear and close battles should be the responsibility of a ground forces commander, an Army or a Marine Corps officer. His forces should be capable of relatively autonomous operations—they should be capable of engaging the enemy in the friendly rear and immediately in front of them, without a lot of outside help. True, the ground commander has a deep and abiding interest in what goes on overhead in the high battle or over the horizon in the deep battle and he may even have some capability to get into these fights. But, his forces are not the most effective for the high or deep battle. Air assets provide the best, most often the only capability to operate in these parts of the battlefield. . . . [T]his approach to dividing battle space provides a logical starting point for identifying unnecessary overlap and duplication. If you accept the scheme I just laid out, it follows that the commander with responsibility for the close battle does not require systems or capabilities that reach across the boundaries into the deep and high battles. If there are such systems in the field or on the drawing board, they might be good candidates for retirement or transfer to another service. Alternatively, the commander with responsibility for the deep battle does not need forces that are configured for direct support of close combat operations. If there are any, they too could be transferred out.McPeak called for the Army to give up the ‘deep battle’, the Air Force to give up ‘close battle’, and called for, among other things, the other services to get out of ‘space’ operations. His proposal (thankfully) went nowhere with the other services nor anyone else in the Air Force. Thus, the ‘give CAS to the Army’ was the idea of one man – now long gone and most definitely ‘not missed’, as part of a complete realignment of service roles and missions, essentially dictated by geography of the battlespace.
Updated and expanded references 7/28: Some excellent papers on differing Airpower-as-manever-or-support views (large .pdf files at links):
Thus we have found:
1. The Air Force supports the CAS mission better now than when it was part of the Army.
2. The Army was the primary antagonist in creating inter-service friction over CAS post-WWII and in it's Army-Centric way of war it continues to generate friction to this day.
3. CAS is a mission NOT a platform.
There were a lot of sub-topics we could have pursued and I was/am tempted to further explore the effects of organizational culture and tendencies of the services on the CAS debate, but I fear that will drive the discussion down a ‘rabbit hole’ from which there may be no return. There are also some interesting dynamics now changing the Army’s way of fighting that could lessen the perceived friction between the services, but I am content to simply monitor them for the present time. I could have also expanded greatly on what makes up 'Effectiveness' for a CAS mission. Finally, the Marines insistence on being the primary provider of CAS as an organic USMC function is another topic for another time.
Update 7/27/11@~19:45hrs: Added part of a response that Gen Horner made in the Q&A above that had been dropped in copying the file from a word document to Blogger.(Now the answer makes sense.)
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 4: Origins of the A-X Program
Part 5: Defining a New CAS Platform: the Evolution of the A-10
CAS Myths Sidebar: The A-10 and the 'Cult of the Gun'
CAS Myths Sidebar: Army-Air Force Views on CAS and Airpower
Part 7: Sourcing AF Hates A-10 Nonsense
Part 8: The AF 'Had To" Buy a CAS Plane?