Today we're going a bit defense with an 'S', at least for a short while, in order to take the scenic route round and eventually end up back at some defence with a 'C'. So let's talk about the A-10 shall we?
The A-10 is probably one of the more controversial platforms in military service today. The US Air Force that operates it is not especially fond of it. That's largely because it's an old, single mission airframe. It does one job superbly; close air support. It has problems with others, though it can serve as an air interdiction platform. The Air Force objects to the A-10 because it has a multitude of other platforms that can perform a similar role and also do other jobs such as air-to-air or deep strike. People forget that outside of the COIN wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the A-10 has proved to be less than ideal in its primary attack role. In 1991 the A-10s suffered heavy casualties in both shot down and irreparably damaged aircraft (out of action for the air campaign) due to enemy fire. The A-10 was shifted to medium altitude work to essentially save it from itself, at which point its ability to carry and launch guided missiles became its primary offensive capability.
Three trends have served to further reduce the utility of the A-10. Firstly, the spread of man-portable and vehicle mounted short range surface to air missiles and anti-aircraft guns has blunted the A-10s preferred operating environment somewhat. Recent conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Libya have seen an increasing number of aircraft being shot down while operating at low altitude, many of them much faster types than the A-10 such as the MiG-29.
Secondly, the proliferation of small, air launched guided weapons has eroded the A-10s claim as the king of precision attack for close support. Weapons like the Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) and the UK's dual-mode Brimstone have handed fast air a new set of tools for picking off small point targets, even those close to friendly forces. With these weapons getting smaller and more numerous, while their warheads are becoming increasingly more tailored to minimising collateral damage, the A-10 and its main gun slips closer and closer to irrelevance.
Finally the growth in high-endurance platforms carrying such weapons has increased. Modern drones can loiter over the target area, menacing the enemy with bombs and missiles, for a lot longer than an A-10 can. Aircraft like the B-52, B-1 and AC-130 combine long loiter times with large and varied payloads, providing a flexibility that further eats into the A-10s domain. These factors combined together are slowly pushing the A-10 out the door.
Except that the US army has resisted this at every turn. There are a number of reasons why, but probably the most important reason for the higher ups in the army is the one that doesn't get talked about all that often, if at all; the A-10 capability is effectively a subsidy for the army.
They don't pay for the aircraft. They don't pay for its crews. They don't pay to base them, for the training, the spare parts, or the munitions that are used in their support. Forcing the USAF to keep the A-10 alive allows the army to retain a capability predominantly for its own purposes, but without any of the expense. On that basis it's odd that I've never heard a USAF general table a new offer to the army; you want it, you pay for it. The USAF could run the program and the army would pay all of its associated expenses. Only at that point would we find out just how much the army truly coveted the capabilities that the A-10 brings vs other platforms.
The result of this ongoing subsidy has been that the army has gotten away with a lack of investment in precision attack weapons. It has some, but not many. When you look at the air force and navy it's interesting to see the shift that has taken place. The navy has moved from big gun battleships and gun based air defence to weapons like Harpoon and Tomahawk for anti-ship and land attack, while air defence has predominantly shifted to a mix of long and short range missiles, as well as the adoption of modern aviation assets. The air force has gone from firing .50cals at enemy aircraft to firing AMRAAMs and Sidewinders at them. They've shifted from using dumb bombs and rockets on ground targets to GPS and laser guided bombs, as well as laser guided missiles. Where has the army been during this time?
At this stage I'd like to quote from Think Defence and his recent complex weapons series as he summed up the point in a basically perfect manner;
... the expectation of ubiquitous availability of close air support may be difficult to meet in operations where those aircraft may be engaged in interdiction or attacks against enemy air defences. In the defence, e.g. in a Baltic type scenario, the time available between grinding down enemy air defences and the commencement of ground operations may not be to our liking or expectation. Ground forces will have to be more self-sufficient in precision fire in support of deliberate actions or in response to unexpected activity.
Since the second world war the army has basically become reliant on the expectation of air support. And while air support continues to offer significant advantages in close support operations such as surprise and concentration of effort, this reliance has left the army deficient in the ability to deal with its own business. It has in many respects become dependent on the air force and navy to bail it out of certain situations with the mass use of airpower, lacking as it does a range of precision targeting and engagement abilities.
This is not a weakness exclusive to the US army and here is where we wrap around back into defence with a 'C'. The British army, and indeed most of the worlds armies, have fallen into a similar trap. Many lack the ability to adequately protect themselves from immediate air attack, though this is something the British army is now working on, as well as the ability to provide precision attack in support of troops in contact, and the ability to conduct precision strike against targets deeper in their area of operations.
I'll throw you this link to another part of Think Defence's complex weapon series, the "Harebrained Schemes" section which includes a number of what I think are actually good examples, and we'll now look at the concept in a bit more detail.
As mentioned above the areas of particular concern for me are 1) the close support of troops in a COIN environment with precision strikes, 2) the close support of troops in a more conventional environment with precision strikes, and 3) the ability of troops penetrating into the enemies deep zones, especially reconnaissance units, to call up precision attack on opportunity targets.
The case example brought up by Think Defence was a possible incursion in the Baltic region, where air assets would potentially be preoccupied immediately with counter-air tasks and deep attack. In addition to this it may simply be a case that the operating environment does not permit the use of aircraft in close proximity to troops due to the risk posed by a mix of enemy anti-aircraft assets. It could be that friendly air forces have suffered a degree of attrition that limits their available assets for ground support. It may be that the complexity and depth of the enemies rear support and military infrastructure requires more assets for the air to ground campaign and interdiction efforts (which are the prime and most efficient use of the air force, due to its range). It may simply be that the availability of air assets is limited - both in conventional and COIN environments - for political, economic, geographic or temporal reasons, aside from operational demands.
In all of these cases the army needs to be able to fill the void itself. It should also be emphasised at this point that really the main advantages and uses of airpower are not to be found in close air support. The navy retains airpower predominantly for the protection of its at sea assets, as well as to extend the range and quality of its ability to conduct strike operations against both enemy naval and land assets. Supporting troops in contact was never a main driver for the development of the aircraft carrier. Similarly the rise of the independent air force came about as the understanding of the uses of airpower rose over time, and the potential for airpower to strike at the heart of the enemy was realised. The air forces main missions involve protecting the home nation and forces from attack while simultaneously taking the offensive onto the enemies home soil. Supporting troops in contact is once again down the priority ladder, and for good reason. I think it can also be reasonably argued that reconnaissance and deep interdiction are more important ways that an air force can use the unique nature of its assets to contribute to the ground operations.
In this context the land forces really need to develop two types of precision attack; small weapons for use in close proximity to friendlies, especially in a COIN environment, and larger warheads, especially for use at range.
The smaller natures would focus mainly on hitting targets such as individual machine gun positions, sniper points and small buildings such as houses being used for cover. While the army has a range of existing tools for this kind of mission, including its own snipers and machine guns, anti-tank weapons and mortars, it seems there is a slot to fill here for a small precision weapon, especially in a COIN environment where the ability to hit one specific point with minimal risk of collateral damage would be highly advantageous. Rounds such as those used on the Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) fit the bill, a long with something like the Excalibur guided artillery round.
While these rounds are already in use their ubiquity seems to be lacking as investment - particularly in the UK - seems to be poor. There's probably a host of reasons for this, but one of the drivers seems to be simply the subsidy argument, that it'll all be ok because the air force and navy will continue to subsidise the army by meeting most of its precision strike requirements. This seems particularly odd considering the chain of command that soldiers in contact in Afghanistan and Iraq often had to pass through to get air support, where requests could take 10 minutes or more to generate an air asset on station which then had to be talked onto the target. The advantage of having artillery within range which could react much quicker would seem to be an odd thing to ignore.
The larger warhead requirement would on its own fill two sub-requirements. Firstly the requirement to support troops in contact with much larger precision fires, equivalent in some cases to putting a 1,000-lbs bomb onto the enemy. The ability to completely destroy an enemy position in a building, to obliterate a bunker, or simply to airburst a large warhead over a group of enemy soldiers - all without having to call for and wait on an air asset - would provide the army with quite a rare capability that it hasn't really had since the days of battleship fire support in world war two. Except instead of calling in a battery of rounds onto the approximate area, now the army would be able to place the incoming explosive on the spot where it needed it with a degree of precision.
The other sub-requirement of this would be the ability to provide fire support at longer ranges, beyond the reach of traditional artillery systems. This requirement is predominantly driven by the needs of both armoured forces - in particular their recce elements, who can often find themselves operating at significant depth behind the enemies main battle line - and those units in a COIN environment that may find themselves operating at significant distances from the nearest support.
This requirement has a lot more flexibility in potential options for its fulfillment. GMLRS can already, on paper at least, hit out to around 43 miles (75km) with a 200-lbs warhead. Lockheed Martin is however working on a GMLRS+ round with a range estimated at around 75 miles (120km). Meanwhile Boeing has partnered with SAAB of Sweden to produce a ground launched version of the SDB which can be fired from the M270 MLRS platform. The weapon fulfils the longer range requirment, with a maximum glide range of around 93 miles (150km). To put that into perspective, a launcher based at Camp Bastion in Helmand province would have been able to provide fire support to units operating around the Kajaki dam and still had a bit of range to spare (though it might have taken a while to make the journey).
The only downside of a system like the Ground Launched SDB (GLSDB) is that the explosive content of the warhead is only 38-lbs. In some environments, like the aforementioned Afghanistan scenario, that would be advantageous. Coupled with its range the weapon could fulfil a wide range of tasks, from the closer range precision requirement out to deep strike against smaller targets. But it does lack a bit of punch. Still, it goes like the absolute bloody clappers (skip to 2:05 in the video below:
But we need something with a bit more punch as well. A good example is the potential ground launched version of the German/Spanish KEPD 350 "Taurus". With an estimated range of around 310 miles (500km) and a 1,100-lbs dual warhead capable of penetrating hardened structures, the Taurus offers a lot of bang out to a fairly considerable range. If Taurus can be ground launched (in a two missile arrangement off a truck) then Storm Shadow probably could be as well. Not only could such a round be able to reach out and hit long distance targets in preparation for a ground offensive (such as a pre-observed command post or a bridge), but it would also be able to provide support out to longer distances to support forward recce elements, and could also provide a need for greater precision punch to troops in contact. Considering the vast array of man portable targeting systems such as BAE Systems TRIGR or the Jenoptik TYTON and NYXUS BIRD systems, target acquisition and ranging (including the generation of target GPS coordinates) shouldn't prove too much of a problem. Indeed in the future these devices might rival the machine gun as some of the most important pieces of equipment at the Platoon level.
A range of weapons like this would not only free the army from having to rely on the air force for precision fire support, as well as potentially speeding up response times to requests for such support, but it would also end the need of the air force and navy to spend as much time and money subsidising land operations. They would be able to re-focus more of their resources on their primary missions and those areas of land support where their strengths shine through the most prominently. The potential of such precision land attack extends even further though.
One of the areas where me and Think Defence differ is that he generally emphasises commonality and a desire to avoid too much replication of capabilities in different formats (such as different weapons for the same mission). I'm generally the opposite. While commonality has its advantages, I'm generally a proponent of specialism and over-lapping redundancy. One of the appeals to me of such ground based systems, especially ground based missiles of the cruise missile class, is the way they can compliment and even cover for other assets.
While an air launched cruise missile brings speed, range and surprise - for a price - a ground launched weapon of the same kind brings persistence. It can sit in a launch vehicle and hold a target under threat almost indefinitely, and do so at low cost (naval platforms generally tend to bridge the gap between both worlds). Thus long-range precision ground weapons can help to significantly expand the range of options available to military and political leaders. And this is where I want to take the idea one step further.
One of my gripes, of which there are many, is that the UK lacks both a long ranged, ground based air defence missile and a ground launched anti-shipping weapon (as well as an air launched one). Even as the French attempt to produce a vehicle based SAM using the Aster 30 as the base weapon, the UK seems unconcerned. I get the rationale; the RAF has its own missiles for its aircraft and the RN has its own weapons for its ships. But what about the little gaps in between?
If we look at the Falklands Islands, the one piece of British owned soil which could be argued to be most at risk (let's not get into arguments about how much risk just now), where is the anti-ship and anti-air capability? The Typhoons based their have no anti-shipping capability and the four of them represent pretty much the sole air defence capacity of the Islands. Would not a mobile SAM system give them a more layered response and make any attack more difficult? Would not a truck mounted anti-shipping capability make a naval attack that much harder?
Going beyond this much debated aspect of UK defence, let's look for example at RAF Akrotiri. The base cannot be permanently protected by the UK's Typhoon fleet. Ground based SAM systems and anti-ship systems would offer a measure of additional protection not currently available. Taken a step further, the UK would be able to offer these abilities, along with precision land attack, to any ally that required them, such as the Baltic nations for example, or an ally in the middle east.
One also wonders (for one is in posh mode) what might have been, and what could be, in terms of land-sea-air cooperation. Imagine operations similar to those in the western desert of Iraq during the 1991 gulf war replayed, but this time instead of significant air resources having to be diverted to support special forces in their scud hunting mission, now long ranged, ground based precision attack could be used to support them. While some air support might be needed, rather than these weapons posing a challenge to air power they would instead compliment it and free up assets for the main thrust of the air campaign.
What if ground based air defence platforms could be used to cover an area and free up air assets for other missions? What if ground based anti-shipping weapons could be used to cover a naval chokepoint, potentially freeing up naval assets for work in more open areas. And the beat goes on, with air lauched anti-shipping and naval based land attack capabilities, allowing all three services to compliment and cover each other as and when the situation requires. Rather than redundent systems stepping on each others toes, they would instead give policy/decision makers a variety of options and responses in terms of speed, persistence and political acceptability.
Predominantly though, if nothing else, I think the time has come for the army to stop relying on others to provide it with its precision attack ability, especially at their expense. It needs to take back ownership of the requirement to support troops in contact and to support its mobile forces. Instead of expecting aviation assets to be on hand at its beck and call all the time, the army should see the provision of air support more as a bonus. And as a compliment.
Next up here will be another post about COIN operations, then a look at a something from Ukraine. You can complain about this article on Twitter @defencewithac, or by e-mailing me at email@example.com.