What’s Next for CAS?

Nov. 26, 2014

The Air Force’s 2015 budget proposal to retire the A-10 Warthog—famed for its fearsome 30 mm gun and rugged survivability—elicited a firestorm of protest from A-10 fans and some ground troop supporters—many of whom seem unwilling to accept any other USAF platform for delivering close air support.

Air Force leaders, pilots, and even officials from the ground services admit, though, that the CAS mission is far more expansive than the future of one aircraft and it must adapt to changes in threats, technology, and future combat scenarios. Using experience gained in Iraq and Afghanistan across the fleet, USAF’s combat air forces are now experimenting with new approaches to CAS and related tasks—some also performed by the A-10—using assets such as remotely piloted aircraft and bombers.

In more than a decade of combat, mostly in support of ground troops, the Air Force has shown it has tremendous versatility in how it delivers CAS, according to Maj. Gen. James J. Jones, then the Air Force’s assistant deputy chief of staff for operations, plans, and requirements. Talking with reporters in March, Jones—who retired in June—said that by and large “those capabilities are already” in the force structure and that many functions now often assigned to the A-10 will be picked up by other platforms, such as the F-16.

The Air Force asserts it has no choice about the A-10, due to budget demands. To pay the bills, USAF must retire 283 A-10s over the next five years in order to invest in multimission aircraft crucial not only to the close air support mission but to others such as air superiority, global strike, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and others have condemned the Air Force proposal. In a joint May statement, Ayotte, McCain, and others called the plan “shortsighted and dangerous” and said that premature divestiture would put ground troops in “serious additional danger in future conflicts.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III has taken the brunt of the criticism, often directly. An A-10 driver during the latter days of the Cold War, he’s pushed back, arguing that CAS is a mission bigger than just the A-10. About 80 percent of all CAS sorties in Afghanistan since 2001 were flown by other aircraft, Welsh explained.

That figure shouldn’t be a surprise, Welsh said. At an April Senate hearing on USAF’s force posture, he said F-16 pilots have trained in full CAS tactics alongside the Army since the late 1970s and have gained vast experience conducting such missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The F-16 alone, he noted, has flown more CAS sorties than the A-10 over the last eight years. Meanwhile, to achieve the same savings as retiring the A-10 would mean cutting 350 F-16s.

An Emotional Mission

Besides the F-16, the F-15E has built a solid reputation as a CAS platform and the Strike Eagle community has also perfected dropping ordnance and firing cannons in close proximity to troops, close to the enemy.

“This issue really isn’t about the A-10 or even close air support,” Welsh said to Ayotte, but about the capabilities the Air Force provides as an air component to a ground commander.

Welsh acknowledged that CAS is a high profile and “emotional” mission. But even though USAF’s air combat has focused on air attacks and ground support for a dozen years, it can’t build its future force around that mission. Looking ahead at the likely threats of the coming decades, USAF must organize, train, and equip to go after logistical infrastructure, command and control nodes, provide air superiority for ground and maritime forces to allow freedom to maneuver, and other tasks codified in its service doctrine. That adds up to a “full spectrum fight against a well-trained foe,” Welsh said, and by doing this, the Air Force saves “big lives on a battlefield.”

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno has repeatedly sung the praises of the A-10 in congressional testimony, but has stopped short of opposing its retirement outright. “Soldiers like the A-10. They can see it, they can hear it, they have confidence in it,” Odierno told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 8.

However, Odierno said he understands and sympathizes with USAF’s dilemma. In many ways the ground services must now confront the same problem set as USAF—namely, how to perform CAS in the future, in a battlespace populated by top-tier opponents employing anti-access and area-denial capabilities. These threaten conditions the American military has enjoyed, unchallenged, for 30 years: access to space and freedom from attack from the air.

“What [are] the tactics, techniques, and procedures we need to provide close air support across the wide variety of potential scenarios [in which] we’re going to have to operate?” Odierno asked during the April 8 hearing. “We are working with the Air Force to come up with new solutions, as we move away from the A-10, if that’s what the decision is.”

Later in April, Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler, commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force, told reporters CAS is about more than just one type of aircraft.

“I think the A-10 is a great platform, but I also know … the challenges that the Air Force is facing,” said Wissler, the USMC’s former head of programs and resources. The Air Force has made “very hard decisions about what they have to do to maximize their warfighting capability.” During operations in Iraq and Afghanistan all aircraft in theater were tied to a joint tasking order, he said, and it is this approach to CAS that has proved successful time and again in combat.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I said to my air officer, ‘OK, give me a Marine Corps jet,’?” Wissler said. “I’ve called everybody’s platform. I really don’t care if it’s a marine on the other end or not. I cared that it’s a guy who can put a bomb on target.”

Wissler’s point is one USAF leaders are trying to make despite congressional pushback: The mission of CAS has diversified and changed since the A-10 first entered the force in the mid-1970s, thanks to precision weapons, RPAs, and other developments.

“The truth is, when you are pinned down and hiding between rocks, trees, and telephone poles, the fact that I can make the adversary go away with a precision weapon or a 20 mm [cannon] strike or a Hellfire [missile] strike, in the end that’s what ground forces care about,” said Air Combat Command’s Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III in September, when asked by reporters how USAF is retooling to perform CAS in a force without the A-10. “I can do [CAS] with the remainder of the fleet,” he said. “What I can’t do is air superiority with an A-10.”

The Heart of CAS

Lt. Col. Scott Mills, a veteran A-10 instructor pilot and now commander of the 66th Weapons Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., believes the heart of the CAS mission in the Air Force today rests with the pilots in the cockpits and the effects they can produce on the battlefield. “As a community, we adhere very strongly to the idea that CAS is about the person,” he said, or as he tells his pilots, it’s about “killing targets who are killing friendlies.”

Mills’ 66th WPS is the home of CAS instruction at the USAF’s Weapons School, the proving ground for the Air Force’s latest combat tactics. Whether a weapons officer in the back seat of an F-15E or a pilot operating an MQ-9 Reaper, “we want [pilots] to understand they need to think about the ground commander” when flying a CAS sortie, no matter what is happening or what aircraft is involved.

“How can I enable [the ground commander’s] freedom of action or best protect those around him, … and how can I teach that empathy to understand how to be a better, more effective combat arm?” Mills asked. Aircrews must understand the pluses and minuses of using their aircraft in close proximity to friendly troops, regardless of events on the ground, and act accordingly, he said.

This involves constantly improving the mastery of time, and the perception of time from the cockpit. One of the techniques used to train for troops-in-contact scenarios, or TICs, is to have multiple aircraft in the air, from F-16s to MQ-9s, in a given block of airspace, then begin by declaring a ground maneuver unit under fire.

“The time from which the pilot knows that that [scenario] is going on, to the time [he or she] can do something about it, we look at that time very, very closely—almost second by second,” Mills explained. It’s important to track what is understood, when the aircraft receives the information, and when the pilot or crew understood it, “because those are often two separate things,” Mills said.

Flying F-16s, F-15Es, and other aircraft over Iraq and Afghanistan has built up a foundation of experience to build better CAS tactics on, Mills said. Some of those lessons have come at great cost, as pilots have been lost in accidents—both in training and in combat—often due to spatial disorientation.

In particular, fighter crews have improved tactics through years of dropping bombs in close proximity to firefights, while working hard to grasp the dangers and limits of putting fast-moving combat jet aircraft in mountainous terrain where ground collisions are never more than seconds away. Through hard-won experience, crews have learned when close-in strikes and strafing runs are appropriate and the “pluses and minuses” of various scenarios.

The rapid increase of MQ-1 and MQ-9 remotely piloted aircraft in USAF, both in strike and ISR roles, has also altered how the service performs CAS, and they will likely play more of a CAS role in the future. When the Weapons School activated its 26th Weapons Squadron, the dedicated MQ-9 and MQ-1 RPA squadron in 2008, Mills said there were natural points of collaboration.

The 26th Weapons Squadron commander knew “they were going to have to do other missions” than CAS and couldn’t focus on it as much as the 66th WPS did. But since then the pilots and instructors have grown “incredibly capable,” Mills said. The skill and tactics in RPA weapons employment, communications with other aircraft, and leveraging of their sensors in close-in fights “have come a long way.”

USAF continues to experiment with other tasks where CAS-capable elements can help with other missions.

In his March briefing with reporters, Jones said F-16s would probably assume greater responsibility for armed observer and forward air control work formerly performed by the A-10. However, this requires a great deal more training and testing, especially for the combat search and rescue role. In 2013, fast jet aircraft, rather than A-10s, participated in the joint CSAR exercise Angel Thunder. It was a test of the concept, and there were some tough lessons learned.

Tricky Tasks

Because of the specialized training associated with “Sandys”—armed escorts that often accompany rescue helicopters and help with ground surveillance—the task is tricky, and the A-10 is well-suited for this role. “Where that goes, I don’t know. We’re doing tests right now to see who can handle [forward air control roles]. I know that’s a big push now, and we’re working on it,” Mills said. But there are limitations in other platforms as well, due to training and mission priorities in those communities.

At Nellis, Lt. Col. Bryan Callahan currently commands the 26th WPS. To preserve training time in other mission areas, his MQ-9 students cut back on training with CSAR sorties in the newly revamped Weapons School curriculum, he said. If the A-10 goes away, combatant commanders around the world are counting on Reapers in the near term to step into certain Warthog tasks, and pilots at the Weapons School “don’t get as much practice at that as they used to,” he said.

Pressed on this point, Hostage said CSAR would evolve along with CAS in a force without the A-10 because it must, to adapt to new threat environments.

“If you’re envisioning [the Vietnam War], where the Sandy concept came from, … that’s just one niche of combat rescue,” he said in a September interview. “What’s the battlefield look like?” In a high-end, anti-access environment, such as the Asia-Pacific, an A-10 “won’t get anywhere,” and dependence on tankers is a big limiting factor.

Besides adapting to a tougher threat, USAF will have to get creative in how it performs CAS and CSAR. It now has sufficient numbers of Special Operations Command CV-22 and other “nontraditional capabilities” to try new approaches, Hostage said.

For him, the conversation always returns to forecasting the threat.

“The idea of doing opposed CAS in an environment where an A-10 can survive, that’s … the past,” Hostage asserted. The A-10 flies too low and slow to survive modern air defenses, let alone those of the not-too-distant future. It’s also why CAS training increasingly focuses on potential scenarios distinctly different from the sorties flown in Afghanistan in the last decade, Mills said.

The 66th WPS now emphasizes conducting CAS in major combat operations and contested and denied environments, Mills said. “Though we may not see very much of that downrange right now, we still train as if that’s what’s going on.” When a squadron of fighters deploys to combat, they train to do CAS across a threat spectrum, he said. Without going into details, Mills said these scenarios push pilots and crews to balance threats to themselves with threats on the ground. “If the risk [to the ground commander] is extreme, I am allowing myself to go into those high-risk situations,” he said.

Young instructors at the Weapons School have put together challenging tests and scenarios to exercise CAS decision-making skills.

“I’ve gone out and gone through them, and they are very tough,” Mills said. Connectivity is important to effective CAS, and in heavily defended combat space, the reliance on communications links and tactics built up during operations in permissive Afghan airspace becomes severely strained. “The training we do, on the ground and in the air, is what matters,” Mills said. When aircrews and their counterparts in combat are highly trained in contested denied operations, “there’s no amount of electronic jamming which will put a damper on what they’re trying to do.”

From service leaders down to experienced CAS fliers such as Mills, there is a sense that a great deal more work needs to be done, both working with the ground services and building up the skills in other aircraft that have been for a long time specific to the Warthog community.

While unease and uncertainty exists about the future of the A-10, Mills said the vast CAS experience gained from countless rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan have informed the tactics that instructors teach students today to confront tomorrow’s threats.

“It’s never OK to sit back and watch a situation [on the ground] when action is required,” Mills said, be it in a high-threat environment or in a training exercise. Internalizing what is happening on the ground, understanding it, and acting fluidly are skills that will prove their worth in any aircraft.

Even when the A-10 leaves the force, the pilots who have flown it will take that experience with them and apply it to other aircraft and platforms called on for service in CAS. “They are professional military officers,” Mills said. “You can’t squash that knowledge out of them.”