Operation Destroy CAS Update: Air Force “Steers” the Summit Message

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This article is a product of the Arizona Daily Independent, and is re-printed here with permission.

Last Friday, the Air Force launched an all-out media blitz to reveal the findings of their Close Air Support Summit. No less than five news outlets reported the findings of the summit which can be summed up by the phrase, “we have a plan”. The timeliness of the media barrage, despite USAF General “Hawk” Carlisle’s comments in Reuters that “the meetings were part of the Air Force’s regular reviews of key missions, not a response to the ongoing fight with Congress about retiring the A-10 fleet” are highly suspect. The last USAF summit on CAS was conducted quietly in 2009 with no media fanfare.

If the summit was a sham, why? As mentioned in the Arizona Daily Independent article “Operation Destroy Close Air Support (CAS) Holds Campaign Rally” if this was a true attempt to identify gaps associated with divestment of specific airframes, this summit would have taken place prior to making the final decision on which aircraft to cut. This is the first time the Air Force has looked to any CAS experts for advice on their decision. In addition to this travesty, the joint service senior leaders, the true stakeholders, did not get invited into this process until the Air Force had completed their “sanitizing” phase to ensure a very specific and targeted message was revealed to the U.S. Army or Marine Corps senior leadership. The guidance provided by the Air Force leadership to those attending the summit was two-fold. First, keeping the A-10 fleet was not an option, and second, assume the F-35 will be a fully CAS capable platform by 2021. When a summit to identify specific needs is based upon a notion that the best CAS platform in the USAF is already gone, and bury those impacts from their chief customers, one has no choice but deem it reckless and irresponsible.

One can only surmise the expert warfighters involved in this fiasco had honorable intentions. They were ordered to identify gaps associated with imminent A-10 divestment and how to mitigate those shortfalls. What they failed to recognize is the USAF was using them and their inherent credibility in an attempt to repair the damage to the USAF’s corporate trustworthiness. With the “official” summit results in hand, the AF can now say, “look, we assembled the best and brightest of our CAS experts and this is the direction they have provided.” Unfortunately, the loud and clear message “if the A-10 is divested, the bar of performance for CAS will forever be lowered” was never delivered to the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. While editing context on slides briefed to general officers is a normal course of action, the content on the slides was carefully “steered” to remove all mention of risks identified by the summit attendees. The most heinous of these was the removal of the bottom line, which stated “In spite of instituting this mitigation plan, the Air Force will have significant gaps in the CAS mission for the next 10-12 years”. The removal of these risks and critical message is an act of heinous negligence on the part of senior USAF officials, and a clear indicator they will sacrifice their integrity to protect their sacred cows (F-15E, F-16, and B-1) rather than provide world-class support for our Ground Troops.

According to the Air Force Times, the solution to the A-10 divestment problems is to circle back to prior failures. The USAF is advocating for A-10 units converting to the F-16 or F-15E be labeled “predominately” CAS centric. We have seen this rodeo once before at the New York Air National Guard. The infamous “Boys from Syracuse,” which previously flew the A-10, transitioned to the F/A-16 in 1988. Touted as the ultimate CAS platform by the USAF, the F/A-16 combat debut in Operation Desert Storm was disastrous and, ultimately, ineffective. The “A” was forever dropped, and the unit was tasked towards other missions better suited for the “F”-16, like Air Interdiction. Why? The A-16 was a Formula One car competing at a monster truck event. The aircraft speed, limited loiter ability, and borderline inept bolt-on gun system was totally ill-suited for CAS, despite many former A-10 pilots flying it. Would today’s technology fix the F/A-16? This is unlikely, given the fact that CAS is not conducted looking through a soda-straw (sensor). The same characteristics of limited firepower, lack of presence, and no continuous pressure on the battlefield would yield the same result – substandard CAS and more needless deaths on the battlefield.

What did the USAF neglect to tell the U.S. Army and Marine Corps?

  • First, they didn’t tell them the legacy multi-role fighters can only effectively execute the simplest of missions – bomb on coordinates (BOC). This straightforward form of employment makes two very BIG assumptions 1) the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), between maneuvering and engaging the enemy with direct fire from the ground, can obtain accurate coordinates down to a meter and 2) Combat is taking place in a battle space that allows the free use of GPS and /or sensor aided weapons. If GPS jamming is present, or atmospheric conditions prevent the use of sensors, this entire family of guided weapons are unusable. If either of these two likely scenarios happen, bombing on the correct location will not be possible.
  • Second, the other legacy fighters and bombers have very limited ability to operate under a 3000 foot (or lower) weather deck to execute the more complex Bomb On Target (BOT) type of CAS. This type of CAS requires the pilot to visually acquire the target, with eyeballs, before he or she attacks. Low altitude, coupled with higher airspeed, make it impractical to use the “soda-straw” sensors to search, find, and identify dynamic targets. The higher airspeeds also require a lot more area to turn the aircraft around, making it difficult to keep “eyes on the target” during the visual acquisition and engagement phase of the attack.
  • Third, battlefield situations are fluid and can include instances when friendly forces are within close proximity (300 meters or less) to the enemy. The dynamic nature of these situations require eyeballs on both the friendlies and targets to quickly identify their locations. This facilitates precise and deadly weapons employment, and the ability to reattack quickly. The compromise fighters the USAF are proposing are, by design, unable to fulfill this tasking.
  • Fourth, the legacy fighters have extremely limited capability to kill armor or hardened vehicles. The only aircraft with any capability to destroy moving armor is the F-16 with the AGM-65 Maverick missile. While a proven weapon, an F-16 can only carry two of these missiles, a far cry from the armor killing capacity of the A-10 using the GAU-8/A cannon (1150 bullets) and up to six of the same AGM-65 missiles.
  • Fifth, the legacy fighters, due to limited loiter and firepower, will require 4-8 times the number of aircraft to match the capabilities of a single A-10.
  • Sixth, the legacy fighters will require extensive modernization programs to provide them with the equipment to conduct CAS more effectively; upgrades the A-10 has possessed for a decade. However, these upgrades take time and a lot of money and will not overcome all the deficiencies in aircraft design that make these platforms unsuitable for CAS.
  • Seventh, if the USAF proceeds with A-10 divestment, a 10-12 year capability gap (minimum) will exist before a replacement fighter will possess reasonable CAS aptitude. This time estimate is entirely dependent upon how much priority the USAF places on restoring lost CAS capability within the F-35 software tape development.

By hiding these shortfalls created by A-10 divestment, the U.S. Army customer cannot properly assess if their ground maneuver, rotary wing, air defense, and artillery tactics are still valid. They have come to depend on proven A-10 capabilities for the past 25 years and have structured their tactics accordingly. These “gaps” also raise questions such as how the USAF is going to shift a large number of air interdiction aircraft to CAS at the expense of their core deep strike mission? If they did not have enough aircraft to fulfill combatant commander requirements for CAS and Combat Search and Rescue before A-10 divestment, how are they going to do it afterwards? How are they going to make up for the shortfalls in credible CAS training for our Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) Heroes on the ground? 70% of all JTAC training in 2014 and 50% in each of the past five years were conducted by A-10s. Why are they just now trying to develop a plan to address these shortfalls when A-10 divestment has been in the works since 2013? Shouldn’t this summit have occurred prior to committing to the retirement of the A-10?

The most likely USAF response to these issues will involve the development of a “paper tiger” CAS force to hide the true risks to the Ground Troops and pacify those responsible for civilian oversight. Unfortunately, they seem to be ready and willing to sacrifice the integrity of the entire Air Force for an indefensible position. This shameless act of hiding the warfighter identified risks, serves once again show the “true colors” of the USAF leadership — prioritize the insatiable need for high tech weapons and shiny aircraft over the lives of our Sons and Daughters.   

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