The close air support fighter of the 1990s is still stuck in
the bureaucratic bogs of Washington.
The Air Force has spent some $27 million already to evaluate
twenty-eight different aircraft for the close air support mission. The findings
point to the A-16, a variant of the F-16 multirole fighter, as by far the best
In the opinion of Air Force leaders, further studies would
only belabor the obvious.
Despite the hefty accumulation of data, doubters in Congress
and in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) aren't satisfied. In December,
the Defense Department set aside money to conduct more studies.
There is also to be a competitive flyoff, ordered by
Congress, between the A-16, the A-7F, the AV-8B Harrier, and the
"A-10C," alone airplane reengined for the purposes of the flyoff.
Underlying all of this, of course, is a dispute about the
basic characteristics required in a close air support airplane. The faction
that disagrees most with the Air Force consists of advocates of the "Mudfighter"—a
notional airplane that would be relatively stow and simple, but heavily
armored, loitering above clusters of ground troops in contact with the enemy.
The Air Force says that the Mud-fighter would not survive on
the battlefield of the future. Moreover, it would not provide the kind of air
support the Army needs and says it wants.
The AirLand fighter needs to be fast, both to pass quickly
through the lethal zones of enemy air defenses and to keep up with a composite
strike force consisting of fast US and allied aircraft. Maneuverability will
also be important to the AirLand fighter's survivability.
The battle, as foreseen by the Army and the Air Force, will
require the attack fighter of the future to operate at increased depth—not
only near the FLOT (Forward Line of Own Troops) but also beyond it and behind
it. In fact, there will probably be multiple FLOTs. It will be difficult, and
perhaps academic, to say exactly when close air support ends and battlefield
air interdiction begins.
At an AFA symposium in Orlando, Fla., January 26-27, Gen.
Larry D. Welch, USAF Chief of Staff, said that the Air Force has provided the
data from all of its studies to the factions that have put the program on hold.
What, then, is delaying the decision?
"Very simple," General Welch said. "The data
does not say 'Mudfighter.' No matter how you slice it, the data says 'A-16.' "
Those who want a different answer are demanding more
The AirLand Battle
The story begins in 1982, when the US Army introduced the
AirLand Battle doctrine, its new concept of how the Air Force and the Army
would meet a major enemy on a modern battlefield. After some initial wariness,
the Air Force signed up to the AirLand Battle doctrine a year later, and since
then has supported it vigorously.
Previous concepts of war imagined the combatant forces
facing each other across a fairly clear dividing line, with most of the actual
fighting done in the general vicinity of a Forward Edge of the Battle Area
A corollary to the AirLand Battle doctrine, called the
Follow-on Forces Attack (FOFA), would seek to destroy or disrupt enemy forces
in rear echelons before they can be brought to bear in the conflict. Tactical
airpower is the prime instrument of FOFA. It must also respond to a
breakthrough by operational maneuver groups and be prepared to fight in
These changes have had a significant impact on Air Force
tactical requirements. Old distinctions between close air support and battlefield
air interdiction have become blurred. The A-10, currently USAF's primary close
air support aircraft, will be too slow and otherwise inadequate for the
AirLand Battle era.
The Air Force began looking for a replacement in 1985, Lt.
Gen. Michael J. Dugan—DCS/Plans & Operations, and soon to be Commander
in Chief of US Air Forces in Europe—recalled for the symposium audience. In
1986, the Air Force identified the A-16 and the A-7F as alternatives. That
finding, however, ran afoul of opinion in OSD, which formed a special body, the
Close Air Support Mission Area Review Group, which has kept the project in the
study phase since then.
Senior leaders in the Army and the Air Force are in accord
about doctrine, objectives, and division of battle duties. There are some dissidents
in the lower ranks of the services, but most of the sour notes are from what
General Dugan called "those CAS experts on the Potomac."
Their vision of close air support, he said, is to have it
"piecemealed in time and space across the front, responding to but not
shaping the battlefield. Ones and twos, here and there, responsive but not
necessarily effective or decisive. A [reactive] rather than a pro-active
General Dugan acknowledged that this view is shared by many
in the junior and middle ranks of the Army, but observed that such opinions
tend to change as soldiers move up in the ranks and take responsibility for
broader pieces of territory.
One Army officer who definitely does not believe in using
aircraft in scattered ones and twos is Army Lt. Gen. Edwin S. Leland, Jr.,
Chief of Staff of US European Command. He formed his opinion from experience
with close air support in Vietnam and from seeing its applications elsewhere,
notably as commander of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
It is not a good use of tactical aircraft to send them after
one tank at a time, he told the symposium audience. Other weapons are better
choices against "eaches." When employing attack fighters, he said,
"use whole bunches against relatively big targets." (For more of
General Leland's thinking, see "A Soldier's View," p. 43.)
Surveying the Options
Gen. Robert D. Russ, Commander of Tactical Air Command,
told the symposium audience that the Air Force considered three broad options
for close air support modernization: development of a completely new airplane,
modification of the existing A-10 and A-7 fleets, and adaptation of some
aircraft already in production. Criteria included performance and survivability
in the AirLand Battle arena, availability in the early 1990s, and affordable
The idea of an all-new airplane foundered quickly. It would
take too long and cost too much. General Russ said that "it took nine
years to build the F-16 and eleven years to field the A-10. It's not likely
that, if we started today, we'd have a new airplane before the year 2000."
The R&D costs would probably be $3 billion, he added.
Next, the Air Force explored the reengining of the A-10. The
result would be an attack fighter with good effectiveness and a twenty percent
gain in speed over the existing model. The attendant penalty, however, is an
increase of 200 to 300 percent in fuel consumption and a sixty-four percent
decrease in range. The speed would still be lower than desired.
Two A-7s are being converted to the YA-7F, or "A-7
Plus," configuration and will fly sometime this year. They will have new
engines, avionics improvements, and various airframe modifications. "If
the test demonstrates that it meets the operational requirements, and if the
cost stays about half that of the F-16, it could be a partial solution,"
General Russ said.
Turning to in-production aircraft, General Russ said that
the AV-8B Harrier, used by the Royal Air Force and the US Marine Corps, is an
"excellent airplane." Counting costs for special support and logistics
infrastructure, though, it would be more expensive than the A-7 and A-16
options, he said. Flying the same profile and carrying the same payload as an
A-16, the Harrier would have thirty-five percent less range and forty percent
less loiter time.
General Dugan also addressed the Harrier option, agreeing in
response to a question that it would be able to operate off runways that had
been shortened by bomb damage. "The typical problem is to get from where
the runway is to wherever the fight is," he said. "if that's a couple
of hundred miles away, no matter what size runway the AV-8B gets off, it
doesn't quite get there with enough punch. The Marine problem is different.
Typically, you have one Marine division and one air wing operating as a close
team in a close geographic spread."
The aircraft that measures up best in all respects is the
A-16. It fills all the operational requirements, is in production, and is
"The A-16 may not be the perfect solution—but it's damn
close," General Dugan said.
A Soldier's View
If mobile enemy forces break through on a fluid battlefield,
AirLand fighters can be on the scene in a hurry. Airpower is best used against
big targets and at critical points. Lt. Gen. Edwin S. Leland, Jr., Chief of
Staff of US European Command, agrees with Air Force leaders on how tactical
airpower could best support the Army in the AirLand Battle.
His views are based on the experience of several tours in
Vietnam, his subsequent command of armor units up to division level, and two
years as head of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. In his
present assignment, he is concerned with joint forces employment by the largest
of the US unified commands.
Tactical airpower, he says, is at its best against exposed
and moving targets, [but] less effective if somebody's hunkered down in an
assembly area or in a prepared defensive position." Employing attack
aircraft in ones and twos with battalion task forces does not use them to best
"AirLand Battle doctrine is a maneuver doctrine,"
he says. "It's important that whoever attacks us not enjoy initial
success. The key word is agility. We need to maneuver ourselves around the
battlefield faster than [the enemy] can. The avenues of approach run both ways.
If they can attack us, we can attack them."
General Leland believes that in wartime, Soviet forces would
stick to their doctrine and fight the way they've trained, stacking one
echelon in after another at the point of attack. Tanks and other ground weapons
will dominate the engagement there. The density of air defense makes the center
a risky place to employ helicopters or attack fighters.
"In that particular environment, there are lots of
things that can kill [enemy] tanks," he said. "The additional little
bit of good I get from aircraft may not be worth the risk. I'd rather use the
aircraft a bit farther out, working a different target than the one that's
being worked here [in the center] by the ground forces."
Effective uses of tactical airpower, he believes, include
assailing the enemy's flanks and weighting a main attack with sheer firepower.
It is unique, however, in its capacity to attack certain critical targets
"such as a rocket that outranges anything we have." The Army needs
ground weapons that can assault the enemy deep, he says, but "right now,
the Air Force is FOFA [Follow-On Forces Attack]."
Also critical is USAF's ability to be on the scene in a
hurry when enemy elements break through and move on the Army's flanks or back.
It will not be possible to completely contain mobile forces on the fluid battlefield.
"We're going to get had somewhere," General Leland says. "Tacair
is very precious in responding to that."
Army attack helicopters and Air Force attack aircraft can
work effectively together on many kinds of targets, he believes—even some in
the enemy's rear echelons. This would be possible only if the helicopters could
go in at night and over rough terrain where enemy forces are unlikely to be.
"If you overtly the enemy with a helicopter, he's got
all the advantages," he said. "Helicopters make a lot of noise, and
they're very obvious. It does not take a sophisticated weapon to bring one
down." The intention of joint air attack is for the aircraft to achieve
the mass destruction, with the helicopters policing up the singles.
Does the rank and file of the Army believe that the Air
Force is serious about supporting them in the AirLand Battle? "I guess I
think the answer is yes," General Leland says. "I would not have
answered that way five years ago. The difference is the National Training
"Out there, we rotate through all of our mechanized and
armored forces that are in the United States. Every day, from just after first
light until dark, seven days a week, there is close air support working with
"We have a whole generation going through one of the
more impressionable times of their military experience. The Air Force is there
as a major participant. That operation has done more for building confidence in
the Army concerning the use of tacair than anything else since I've been around."
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the days top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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