Inside the Air Force’s Close Air Support Conference

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The Air Force is currently conducting something called a “Close Air Support (CAS) Innovation Conference” at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Billed as a forward-looking effort, the event is ostensibly about outlining the future of an important air service mission. The subtext, however, is all about controversial decisions to divest proven, specialized CAS weapon systems — most prominently the A-10 — before the budget-busting F-35 has proven itself threshold capable in the CAS mission set.

According to sources inside the conference, it’s not about innovation so much as problem-solving. Now that the USAF (and to a lesser extent, the USMC) are “pot committed” to a weapon demonstrably less capable in CAS than those it will succeed (a point recently stipulated by Generals Mark Welsh and Hawk Carlisle), how do they make it work?

The lucid answer suggested by evidence and prudence would be “they don’t.” This would lead to a re-examination of the basic assumptions of the future CAS debate — assumptions about relative levels of investment in different weapon systems, the weight lent to different “flavors” or “modes” of CAS, and the right tradeoffs between high-end technology and low-cost persistence. 

The conference isn’t asking these questions. In fact, early indications denote an effort to actively swerve any talk about underlying assumptions, instead skipping straight to the task of finding ways to explain how the F-35 will step into the CAS role, even if we know from the facts already available that it will never fit the bill.

One way we know assumptions are off-limits is by looking at the conference roster. No Army or Marine ground troops are scheduled to speak at the conference. The Air Force’s Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) community is not being given the opportunity to interact with industry in identifying future requirements. Likewise, no Army or Marine infantry partners have been invited to do so. The speakers are all colonels and above — those entrusted to stick to the authorized talking points (which we recently exposed here).

At the last “CAS Summit” held earlier this year, senior officials floated the idea that a specialized attack follow-on might be fielded as an alternative to replacing the A-10 with the generalist F-35. At the time, veterans of the debate theorized that this was a pro forma gesture — an effort to ease Congressional concerns about the obvious narrowness and intellectual paucity of the CAS debate.

This latest conference has abandoned that gambit altogether, focusing intently on how to hammer the square F-35 into a round mission set.

To that end, a USMC speaker detailed his service’s future concept of CAS operations, explaining that the Marines plan to leverage the F-35’s stealth and high-end survivability on “Day One” of a given fight before turning it into a bomb truck for the rest of the war. In other words, the stealth and sensors that make the F-35 “special” are only relevant until enemy air defenses have been defied and degraded in the initial stages of a conflict.

After that point — when bombs and a targeting pod are externally affixed to the F-35, rendering its stealth capability nonexistent in addition to it being irrelevant — the single-engine, short-legged fighter becomes a CAS platform incapable of standing in the shadow of the legacy platforms it will succeed. It’ll have a sharply lower payload, diminished loiter time, a puny combat radius, reduced survivability, less power, and disadvantaged low-speed maneuverability as contrasted with legacy aircraft.

All that for around $150M per copy, and all that assuming it actually fulfills performance projections through 2021. Oh by the way, that exorbitant cost doesn’t include the roughly $3M required for each full CAS payload, assuming the current $239,000 price tag of the second-generation Small Diameter Bomb drops to $200,000 as projected.

Perhaps sensing the absurdity of its concept, the Marines have reportedly moved to extend sustainment and modernization for the F-18 and AV-8B through 2025. That speaks volumes about the level of confidence within the Corps about the F-35B’s readiness to support Marines on the ground.

Enter the intrepid Air Force, whose colonel spokesman took the floor not flanked by CAS experts ready to debate competing future visions … not equipped with a lucid if problematic concept to guide discussion  … but armed with a single talking point:

the USAF is dedicated to the CAS mission.” 

Well, one would certainly hope so. In fact, it speaks volumes that it would need to be made explicit, much less litigated in “get off my lawn” tones by the Chief of Staff (see 30:25 to 39:00). But maybe it needs to be said, given that JTAC manpower and budget levels have languished for years, JTACs can’t currently get the training they need to stay proficient, and there is no plan for how this will be accomplished after the A-10 is retired.

Whatever this talking point is worth, it’s the Air Force’s sole contribution to its own CAS skull session thus far. More updates as we get them.

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