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 choice.
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 studies.
The AirLand Battle Concept
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 (FEBA).
AirLand Battle doctrine assumes that the battlefield of the future will be fluid and nonlinear. It envisions deep operations by mobile forces on both sides. It predicts a high operational tempo, increased lethality, and intense use of electronic measures and countermeasures. Fighting would continue at night and in bad weather. Both the US and its European allies now define the Army corps commander’s area of responsibility as extending 150 kilometers into enemy territory.
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 rear-area battles.
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 force.”
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 cost.
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 affordable.
“The A-16 may not be the perfect solution—but it’s damn close,” General Dugan said.