Every now and again I like to check the traffic sources for the blog to see who's out there and who's linking to the site. I noticed one link from Canada and followed it back to find a Canadian Army forum where people were discussing the issue of the A-10, who should own them and the general nature of Close Air Support (CAS).
Looking at it they seem to be having quite an interesting back and forth, and it occurred to me there were some points in there worth exploring a little further as they tend to crop up commonly in similar discussions elsewhere.
Now I don't want to jump into a forum where I'm unknown (and probably unwanted) to unexpectedly start handing out my opinions on a single topic before disappearing again, and I think the discussion has a wide appeal being that it effects most militaries (the subject of CAS that is), so I'm just going to lay those thoughts down here. If someone on the forum in question wants to link back to this - or to simply copy and paste sections they believe are germane to their discussion - then by all means do so.
To start, one subject raised was why the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) did not deploy combat aircraft to Afghanistan. It appears that the prevailing theory among some is because the RCAF are not interested in ground support. I would suspect that is highly unlikely to be the case.
It could be politics. It could be cost. It could be a combination of the two. But I'm a little bemused by the idea that if Canadian soldiers are deployed then Canadian aircraft would automatically be providing CAS for them. From the discussions I've had with various people it would appear that most aircraft in Afghanistan are essentially pooled together and deployed as needed, which means a Canadian soldier on the ground would be just as likely to receive American or British air support as he would be Canadian.
Clearly Canadian fighters would likely have been deployed close to where their troops were operating, so the chances of RCAF pilots providing support to their fellow countrymen would still be reasonably high, but there are - as a I understand it - no guarantees about who helps who. A request for air support is made and the nearest available platform is sent, regardless of the respective nationalities of ground troops and aerial platforms.
This is simply what alliances do. They work together to support one another and to share the collective burden. It's how an alliance is supposed to function. Afghanistan was by all accounts practically over flowing with strike aircraft from a variety of sources, with only so much space on the various airbases to accommodate it all, so I doubt the RCAF CF-18s were greatly missed, in the nicest sense possible.
The issue of CAS provision goes into a much deeper question regarding air forces though. I mentioned in the last article that I thought the ravenous support for the A-10 was the perfect example of why the Key West Agreement in the US was a good idea and why armies should be kept well away from fixed wing air power. Reading some of the arguments from the Canadian forum (by what I presume are Canadian soldiers?) I think the point is reinforced.
Let's go back to the start.
The primary mission of any air force, above all other considerations, is the Defensive Counter Air (DCA) mission. That is to say the protection of the home nation (and in some cases allies) from air attack by a hostile force, which may include terrorist attacks using aircraft. After this the next most important consideration is Offensive Counter Air (OCA), that is to say the destruction of an enemy air force above or on its own soil, to prevent it operating against own or allied targets, including ground troops. These two definitions also include a variety of sub-issues and variations on the common themes.
Thus the main reason for air forces to exist is to engage other aircraft, just the same as the primary reason for a navy to exist is to engage enemy ships, and an army exists to engage enemy ground forces. The best tool for delivering both the DCA and OCA missions are fighter aircraft.
Thus when people accuse an air force of being overly concerned with fast, pointy aircraft, what they're essentially doing is accusing an air force of being overly concerned with its primary mission, the mission for which it predominantly exists to carry out. That's like accusing a navy of being overly concerned with submarines or an army of being overly concerned with tanks and infantry.
As such air forces should spent a lot of time worrying about fighter aircraft and their application in warfare. It's their job. But as mentioned in the article about the A-10, fast, pointy aircraft are also some of the main providers of CAS in the modern era. Thus to be concerned with fast air is to also be concerned with the provision of CAS.
Part of the problem that seems to occur (and this is evident globally in discussions about CAS) is an expectation on the part of the army that CAS takes priority over all other considerations when it comes to airpower, and that somehow all modern combat aircraft should exist for the sole purpose of providing CAS.
In an environment like the war in Afghanistan, were there is little in the way of what might be termed "strategic" targets beyond the odd opportunity to bomb an insurgent meeting or supply dump, then clearly CAS becomes one of the primary missions for air forces in theatre.
But in a conventional war the application of air power becomes more convoluted. Aside from the DCA and OCA missions, a list of important targets begins to appear. These can range from political infrastructure to Petrol, Oil and Lubricants (POL) facilities, to communications and so on and so forth. Taking the 1991 Persian Gulf War as an example, General Schwarzkopf asked air commanders to treat the Iraqi Republican Guard and the Ba'ath Party infrastructure as strategic targets, whose destruction (or at least degrading) he believed would have a significant impact on the future shape of Iraq after the war (he was trying to create the conditions that would permit a successful rebellion against Saddam Hussein).
These targets - along with opportunities to strike at enemy supply columns and/or forces on the move to and from the front (interdiction) - present competing claims for air resources, claims which must be weighed against the requests for CAS.
Back in the second world war these competing claims were relatively easily solved. Although there was a bun fight regarding the best use of medium and heavy bombers, the fact that fighter aircraft lacked the firepower to seriously damage large targets such as steel plants combined with the relative lack of a substantial air threat (at least compared to allied fighter numbers) meant that fighters were available in fairly significant numbers to support allied ground troops.
Even here though there appears to be a conflict. One of the issues raised on the Canadian forum was the performance of the RAF's 2nd Tactical Air Force (2TAF) in support of Operation Totalize (the advance by the First Canadian Army towards Falaise, 8th-13th August 1944), namely the idea that the RAF ignored requests to conduct attacks on any German forces moving north to counter the Canadians along the main Caen-Falaise road in favour of sweeps deeper into German territory.
This is partly true. It's important to understand firstly that the RAF (and later the USAAF) conducted heavy attacks on German positions along either side of the road using bombers in preparation for the offensive. That's not exactly the actions of a force disinterested in the needs of the ground forces.
Secondly though it's important to keep in mind that 2TAF had a much wider remit than simply strafing German tanks. It was responsible for attacking targets not just of immediate tactical value, but also for attacking targets that were beneficial to the wider allied operations.
While this was probably little comfort for the men who had to go head to head on the ground with the immediate German forces, the fact is that 2TAF's various unit commanders understood that interdicting German supply lines to the Normandy theatre - including ammunition, fuel, spares and reinforcements - was of greater interest to the allied forces in the long run.
It is perhaps harsh on the Canadian troops that a greater effort was not made to help them out with their most pressing problem, especially as the diversion of air assets would have only lasted for a day or two, but it is also difficult to argue against the long term value of delaying the movements of larger reinforcement formations as well as hampering the delivery of vital German supplies to the entire front line.
In the modern context the situation becomes slightly more difficult because the main aircraft used to attack deeper targets are also the main aircraft used for CAS. In the early stages of a campaign, before ground forces have begun their advance, things aren't so bad as CAS requests will be relatively minimal. It's during this period when the main fixed targets will be attacked and the list of targets gradually goes down, providing a new set are not identified (such as the emerging SCUD threat in '91).
But once ground operations begin, so does the conflict for limited aviation assets. The air forces would argue that continuing deep strike missions and interdiction missions are just as important to the final outcome of the campaign as the success of the ground forces at the front, partly because some of the targets will be considered strategic in nature (see the example above about Schwarzkopf and the Iraqi regime), but in a big part because most of these missions will be against targets that support enemy ground forces.
Thus the air operations conducted against enemy communications, command facilities and supply lines are not some independent mini-war being waged solely by the air forces for their own glory, but are in fact designed to weaken the enemies ability to resist the allied ground campaign, hopefully reducing allied casualties in the process and helping to shorten this most dangerous phase.
The ground forces on the other hand would argue that the main air assistance should be delivered by a modern day form of the old "taxi rank" system, where aircraft arrive at a holding pattern close to friendly forces and can then be ordered to strike targets by ground controllers as and when needed, with very short response times. When low on fuel or munitions these aircraft leave and fresh aircraft arrive to take over.
The problem - argues the air side - is that this ties down valuable assets to waiting in the holding pattern until the army can find something useful for them to do. All the time that they're circling overhead they're not available for other tasks and if ultimately they're not required before having to turn back to base then a limited resource has just been wasted on an unproductive sortie.
One solution to this problem of conflicting priorities was put forward by one of the Canadian forum members who claims (it is the Internet after all) experience of air operations. The idea is to coordinate CAS and interdiction activities by the simple expedient (where possible) of routing some or all strike aircraft that are heading towards an interdiction mission such that they pass over advancing friendly forces on the way.
By coordinating the intervals that the aircraft pass over head as part of the air plan and having the aircraft make contact with forward ground controllers as they enter their area of responsibility it is possible to send aircraft out with the intention of them striking targets in the enemy rear whilst also providing aircraft for CAS requirements.
The down side of this approach is that it would potentially lengthen the response times for some CAS requests as aircraft would either have to be called back just as they were leaving the area or the forward controller would have to wait for the next pass. The advantage though is obvious, as sorties can be managed in a highly efficient manner to squeeze the most out of limited air assets and to make sure that a decent balance is struck between providing close support and interdicting enemy supply lines.
I notice that many of the comments in response to this suggestion went along the lines of "no, CAS is always the priority and we expect immediate responses to requests". This being just a touch ironic in a discussion that lead to the RCAF being accused of not thinking joint enough and being obsessed with its own needs!
The reality is simply that no army can have it all its own way. CAS is one of the most important roles performed by air forces in a conventional campaign, but it's one role among many. The army has numerous weapon systems at its immediate disposal for dealing with enemies in front of it, all the way from the infantryman's carbine up to attack helicopters and guided 227mm rockets.
What it doesn't have is the ability to sever enemy supply lines by taking out fuel tankers, ammo trucks, bridges and railway lines (limited US stocks of long range missiles aside). That's where the air force comes in. And as such the argument is not really a debate about whether the air force supports the army or whether it carries out its own missions, it's merely a question of how it goes about supporting the army, a question that is routinely driven by the desires of senior theatre commanders and politicians to both shape the battlespace and to shape the peace that comes after.
Unless there are sufficient air assets available on a particular operation then the army (US/Canadian/British/NATO/whoever) may have to just get used to a post-Afghanistan environment where sometimes it has to wait a few minutes more for CAS. There are other missions that need undertaking and the concept of an air force is not simply to be at the beck and call of its nations army. That's just life, especially in an era of declining budgets.
Which rolls nicely along to the subject of drones that came up in the forum, predominantly about whether they were more or less expensive in total than manned platforms. I think that's a difficult question to answer because "drones" covers quite a wide spectrum, as does "manned platforms". The thing that intrigued me more was the idea put forward that a drone is not a comparable CAS platform to something like an A-10.
Now in some regards it's not. No drone that I know of has a gun for an example, at least not right now. But a drone does have a number of admirable traits, not least the fact that it can loiter where needed for many, many hours, significantly longer than an a A-10 can. With sufficient forewarning you could plan a several hour foot patrol in somewhere like Afghanistan which would have drone cover overhead for the entire duration (a slight hint towards a planned future post). It is also equally as capable as an A-10 of engaging point targets with missiles or small bombs. Could it do so in a very hostile short ranged anti-aircraft environment? No, but then we've learned that neither can the A-10...
And just one final point, the person who posted the link originally mentioned that he didn't think fighters would have the gun power to replicate what the A-10 does. There are two aspects to this; one is conventional warfare based and the other is counter-insurgency based.
In the arena of conventional warfare the experience of US air forces in Iraq in 1991 was that the A-10 (and by extension other fixed wing aircraft) was too vulnerable when flying low. Fast though the A-10 (and other jets) may be, it can't always guarantee that it'll be attacking targets at a right angle from a radar guided AAA platform. When the angle closes it turns out those things are actually pretty accurate, as are short ranged heat seeking missiles when used correctly. As such most of the A-10's best anti-tank work was done with the Maverick missile (over 5,000 launched). The cannon became really an afterthought.
As far as counter-insurgency campaigns go then granted the 20mm cannon of something like an F-16 is not really a match in terms of raw firepower for the A-10's gun, and nor can it carry as much ammunition. But it can still carry a fair load, given the judicious use of the burst settings. And 20mm high explosive shells raining down from the sky at a rate that cant be matched by the cannon on an IFV is not something to be sniffed at.
Concerns regarding cannon use in a COIN environment would be how long cannons can survive as an option given the ever tightening restrictions on collateral damage, and also whether the potential proliferation of man-portable surface to air missiles (Syria has been rife with them) might force a rethink of future tactics away from low level strafing.