Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Further thoughts on the A-10/Close Air Support issue

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.


  1. Chris
    Having read both articles on the A10 you have published I would respectfully disagree with the conclusions you draw.
    Firstly looking at the historical element. As is usual with Americans they only think their own compatriots know best, hence they asked Americans about providing Close Air Support. It was no snub to the British, Australians etc. If you also look at the type of aircraft it is a lot easier to convert a fighter doing 250mph to a ground attack aircraft than convert a supersonic modern jet fighter to fly slow and low to identify which wall a group of insurgents is hiding behind.
    Secondly as evidenced by the Canadians in WW11 “allies” of whatever colour do have a habit of having “other” priorities when it’s not their own troops looking down the barrel of a massacre. Both the Canadian and British Armies have many experiences of asking for “allied” assets and being informed none are available. The latest example being Black Hawk rescue helicopters in Afghanistan where the Americans would prioritise an American Casualty over a British one even if the British Casualty was more life threatening. Hence why I think it ridiculous the RAF are mothballing helicopters and not providing enough medium size utility Helicopters to support any form of light infantry action.
    Thirdly, the comments regarding the Canadians in WW11 and the lack of Canadian aircraft in Afghanistan. It highlights the overwhelming concern of all Army Commanders (and Royal Marine Commanders) that when you ask for CAS mysteriously it’s not available. As most modern armies when engaged in anything other than pier to pier armoured warfare do not deploy or carry enough accurate indirect fire support they fundamentally train to have permanent CAS available. The indirect fire via Mortars is inaccurate (and yet again the MOD will not/cannot pay or guided munitions in our 81mm tubes) and in the modern combat area “collateral” damage is not acceptable. We know that the demands for anti-air operations and deep strike in any major conflict are going to be huge, in fact for the British Military with its only stealth capable aircraft being F35B’s it is unlikely the RAF will release them for CAS when they have a genuine need for difficult stealth deep strike missions. Post 2018/9 when Tornado retires Typhon doesn’t even have a lot of the air to ground ordinance integrated in to it, so the F35 is the only game in town. Why do you think the US Marines insist on having their own air arm? In the modern era of limited numbers of aircraft the CAS mission will be the first to be caned. As usual it will be the bloody infantry that suffers.

    1. Hello anon. Thanks for stopping by to comment, I'll try to address your points under the relevent comments.

      1. The point I made in the first piece is that actually for once the Americans didn't listen to their own side, as well as ignoring British and Commonwealth experience. They focused almost entirely on the German and Russian experiences.

      As for modern fighters, though supersonic is their natural upper limit they're quite capable of slowing to much lower speeds if needed. The key difference between now and then though is that a modern pilot can use a pod like Litening or Sniper, such that even from medium altitudes they can zoom in and fix on a particular point. By circling they can keep it under continuous observation until and through weapons release, even being able to provide footage afterwards for BDA. It's really quite a remarkable leap forward.

      2. I think the British experience of Afghanistan has shown that American pilots are more than willing to risk themselves and their crew to come in under fire, into tight spots, to recover wounded allies. I've seen no indications that Americans are anything other than willing to support allies.

      3. I'm not sure how you think additional Canadian aircraft would change the situation in Afghanistan. With a limited amount of space available it's likely that a Canadian deployment would simply give someone else a rest, as opposed to bulking up the force. Without seeing the specifics of the deployment plans that's difficult to know for sure. All I would say is that there are limits on how many aircraft can be available at once, and if a lot of people are requesting support then eventually that support will run out.

      On Typhoon, it already has clearance for dropping LGBs. Brimstone will be added either this year or next year I believe, so by the time Tornado retires Typhoon will be able to carry the same ordnance (actually slightly more due to the oddities of pylon layouts).

      The Marines insist on having their own air arm because it benefits their empire. Marine generals seem quick to complain about a lack of jointess elsewhere, while not understanding how their desire to hog funds for aviation assets along with their ridiculous requirement for a VTOL aircraft has done much to cripple the F-35 program, at the expense of the air force and navy.

  2. Fourth, the issue of cost. At the moment both the British Army and the American Army fly Apache Helicopters at great expense so as to guarantee CAS for their units. It is under their control and does not get dragged off to do other tasks. In fact recent historical evidence suggest that Army Aviation would do better to take over the operation of the A10 fleet from the USAF than let the USAF sacrifice the whole A10 fleet for 8 F35A’s. Have a think about how many on station flying ours the 100’s of A10’s can supply compared to those 8 F35A’s. Also the major operating costs of using complicated, costly and delicate fast jets to effectively supply mobile artillery. In an ideal world I would like to see the British Army supplied with some low end fixed wing CAS aircraft to cut the use of Apaches which are being worn in to the ground because we have nothing else. Use a drone? Please an A10 or Apache scares the S**t out of the opposition a drone doesn’t, half of warfare is physiological I have a bigger stick than yours. Also drones carry 2 expensive guided missiles costing 10’s if not 100’s of thousands each, how many cheap dumb bombs, rockets, bullets do A10’s carry ?
    Which finally draws me to the last point. The A10 can be replaced by fast air and it can’t operate in contested airspace. Firstly the cost of dropping guided rockets from 10,000 feet is enormous. Secondly if your rules of engagement require positive identification, even with good modern optics you need to get down to have a look sometimes, so you send your $1bn F35 down where it can have its very expensive and delicate low radar observability skin punctured by a good old lucky shot from an AK47. Fast air has other jobs to do, it ain’t always there. Yes the A10 is vulnerable to radar directed anti air, but so is every jet in the world. If you’re forced up to medium altitude by a pier to pier enemy then watch out because you’re an easy target for dedicated SAM’s. But that is why in Western Europe it was always designed to operate in a pier to pier war with a “Wild Weasel” aircraft package to take out the any radar directed anti-air system. Just because the USAF decided to retire/gap/use other assets to provide the coverage (which didn’t turn up in Gulf War1 or 2) this capability and the RAF have abandoned it completely doesn’t mean it’s the A10’s fault that the package doesn’t now work. The point is that the A10 like the Apache is designed to be hit and come home. Hence the titanium bathtub around the pilot. Again just because the USAF didn’t do it in the Gulf A10’s are supposed to come back with bits hanging off, the idea is you repair them, but since most USAF Aircraft maintainers are “Technicians” who want to replace items rather than repair and get the A10’s back flying the A10’s sat on the ground instead. Next we are not figting pier to pier wars. As I have said the effect of an A10 with its gun and war paint on scares the crap out of most Coin operators. Yes if you’ve ever stood close (within 10miles) to a B52 or B1 dropping its complete load it is awesome. But how many times do you do that ? How many times to you have a local inhabitants out of the way to do good old fashioned carpet bombing ? Finally the US already own the A10’s, they ain’t got to spend $2bn to provide more planes to cover the gap in retiring them.
    This argument really boils down to fast air jocks justifying their existence that they can do somebody else’s job nearly as good, combined with accountants who know the value of everything and the value of nothing not discimilar to pre WW11 bomber command insisting strategic bombing was the only need for the RAF in the 1930’s. The fact is you use the 80/20 rule enough times 80% x 80% x 80% x 80% x 80% = 33.33% of the capability you had before you made those 5 changes, and your loosing wars.

    1. 4. Apache was specifically designed as a precision tank killer to roll back the Soviet hordes not because of some belief that air forces would not provide CAS.

      The reason the A-10 has been identified for retirement is because of a US budget crisis. The simple fact is that there are a host of platforms that can do the A-10s job. The A-10 cannot replicate theirs. The A-10 is ironically quite expensive to keep flying because of its uniqueness, the F-16 by comparison shares an engine fleet with the F-15, reducing costs.

      re; the A-10 scaring the shit out of people and drones not, how many Taliban have you interviewd to verify this? For example in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia senior leaders of various groups have taken to some very extreme security measures to protect themselves from drone strikes. Something about the idea of having absolutely no warning before a high explosive device drops on their head - and it can be literally any time, any place - has got them spooked.

      "how many cheap dumb bombs, rockets, bullets do A10’s carry?"
      --- None, at least in the dumb bombs and rockets department, these weapons being incompatible with the operating environment of a COIN campaign. Reapers will carry 4 hellfire and two LGB. Combined with their ability to loiter for hours on end that represents quite the punch from one drone. And I have to confess I personally would be pretty afraid if one minute I was shooting at ISAF forces, and the next three of my friends disappeared in a pall of smoke without any warning whatsoever. I can see if there's a helicopter or A-10 about. I have no idea whether or not I'm being watched by a Reaper.

      5. "Firstly the cost of dropping guided rockets from 10,000 feet is enormous"
      --- And yet that's what the A-10 was forced into.

      "so you send your $1bn F35 down"
      --- Slight over statement of the costs there. It would also take one hell of a crack shot to hit a target moving at that speed with an AK-47.

      "If you’re forced up to medium altitude by a pier to pier enemy then watch out because you’re an easy target for dedicated SAM’s"
      --- Except that this is precisely what happened in GW1. Looking at the situation it was realised that the SAMs represented far less of a long term risk than AAA, not least because SAM coverage over ground forces tends to be limited (SAMs being expensive, limited assets best used for protecting high value targets).

      "A10’s are supposed to come back with bits hanging off, the idea is you repair them..."
      --- I don't think you understand just how serious it is when an aircraft has a chunk of its structure blown off. You don't just stick a new piece of tail fin on with some glue. In a war that might potentially last for a long time then you would like to see planes repaired and put back in the sky. But when the ground campaign is scheduled to start in a matter of weeks and you have an airfield rapidly filling up with damaged and unflyable aircraft, things need to change. Which they did.

      "How many times to you have a local inhabitants out of the way to do good old fashioned carpet bombing ?"
      --- You realise a B-52 or B-1 can carry everything from 2,000 pounders to diddly little 500 pounders? Importantly it can carry a mix of these weapons, and several of each. As well as being able to circle over the target area for longer than an A-10. Along with aircraft like the AC-130 the B-52 and B-1 seem to have become unequivocal favourites of ground forces in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

      "Finally the US already own the A10’s, they ain’t got to spend $2bn to provide more planes to cover the gap in retiring them."
      -- No, but they have to find several billion in savings. This might mean grounding a large number of F-16s (350+) for example, an aircraft that is much more versatile.

      "This argument really boils down to fast air jocks justifying their existence"
      -- No. It boils down to budget cuts and the USAF trying to meet these by keeping the most versatile, most useful assets flying.