Monday, August 7, 2017

End of the runway for the SPAD II?

David Axe at War is Boring has a summary of the current situation at the USAF higher with regard to close air support.

The tl:dr version is that:

1. The USAF still doesn't really enjoy doing CAS, and
2. The USAF still doesn't really like having to fly slow ugly-ass crates like the A-10, the post-midcentury version of the old Vietnam era "SPAD", the A-1 Skyraider.

As a history buff I can kind of understand why the USAF hates being in the CAS business. It had to fight hard to shake loose from Army control because the Army thought that the best use for aircraft was low over the troops. It's also goddamn dangerous, even moreso with improvements in AAA such as shoulder-fired SAMS as well as longer-range, higher-altitude counterair systems such as the Russian S-400.

That said...upgrades and improvements in the U.S. FA branch have been underwhelming in the past half-century. We're still using legacy systems from the early Cold War and, particularly, the fire support base in the light infantry units (including light mechanized outfits like the Army's Stryker brigades) is dependent on towed gun systems such as the M119A1 and the M777A2 that have some fairly significant issues.

So for the foreseeable future the U.S. Army is going to lean heavily on USAF CAS missions for heavy fire support. The problem appears to be that the USAF is still really unenthused about those missions.

As a former earthpig veterinarian I have a deep emotional fondness for the new SPAD, and so I can't be objective about the USAF's apparent eagerness to 86 it. But perhaps the real problem isn't so much to "Save the SPAD" but to try and avoid sending U.S. infantry to farkle about in places where the need for close air support is essential? Or to rethink the tactical/operational setup so as to provide more fire support in the form of FA fires rather than from the Wild Blue Yonder? OR, as both Sven and Ael mention in the comments, would an entirely new mix of armed drone platforms and improved FA systems be a better solution? Would the USAF be willing to accept an armed Army-controlled CAS drone as an exception to the Key West Agreement..?
Feel free to discuss...


  1. "We're still using legacy systems from the early Cold War"

    Not really. The M109 is a Frankenstein's monster by now, all components were replaced from M109 to M109A7. The original stubby gun was changed decades ago already.

    U.S. FA appears to lag behind state of the art in all but electronics, though. The heavy brigades use SPGs that are outranged, have slow resupply and slow rate of fire.
    The light and medium brigades and the marines use towed guns that are have a terrible traverse, terrible rate of fire, poor range and utterly lack survivability against a modern OPFOR arty.

    U.S. Army MRLs are now limited to relatively few guided missiles because the DPICM munitions were scrapped or are in the process of scrapping (weirdly, I did not read anything about whether the scrapping is complete or was halted under Trump).

    To have the USAF maintain a CAS mission doesn't really compensate for these issues. The Russians and Chinese are still lacking active radar seeker SAMs for forward battlefield air defence, but their (especially the Russians') air defences are respectable enough to require either elaborate (rare, non-continuous) strike packages or a lengthy DEAD campaign ahead of substantial CAS.
    The same reasons also put gigantic question marks behind all but the most careful employment of attack helicopters against first rate OPFOR.

    BTW, I don't think that CAS makes much sense for actual defence. Only very capable powers would dare to attack us (for real, not hysterical scratching as errorists do). They would make CAS impractical (and limit interdiction to what can be done with standoff munitions).

    Look up "Hovermast 120". Imagine such a thing with various payloads such as IR sensor, battlefield radar, ESM. They would be equivalents to the old observation balloons, complete with flash spotting, impact spotting, whole range of electronic warfare save for some jamming jobs.
    It could move, would be relatively expendable (the drone) and only FOGM/killer drone arty would be much of a threat to it.
    Such eyes in the sky combined with today's long arty ranges could go a LONG way to substitute for actually flying eyes in the sky. Fast drones that pop up and dive below horizon frequently while staying at the fringes of hostile battlefield AD could add some higher vantage points.

    And of course I wrote about all this long ago, so my excuse for typing so much instead of spamming links is really just that it's late here and concentration is low already. ;-)

    1. The survivability against peer foes was the second point in my note about WHY the USAF isn't real excited about CAS: any sort of reasonably-capable opponent will have the ability to make things very difficult for full-sized aircraft over or even close to the FLOT. Not just the Russians and Chinese; their clients as well as anyone with access to halfway decent MANPADS will make things damn hot for a low-flying manned aircraft. Hell, the Saddam Iraqis executed a successful ambush on an AH-64 unit near Najaf in 2003 with just regular old small arms and light AAA...

      I tend to agree with you that 1) the USAF and USA need to think harder on the possibility of drone platforms for CAS, and 2) the Army needs to do some serious investment in FA hardware. As you point out, the software is typically high quality. The actual gun systems, especially the towed gun systems? Not so much (and I admit to having read your post on the whole "split-trail problem" and the failings of U.S. towed FA systems in general...)

    2. The one piece of hardware that the U.S. FA is good at is the availability of muzzle velocity radars. Those improve the accuracy after the first shot a lot, though the same effect could be had if really good propellants (which aren't very temperature-sensitive) were used.
      (I think they are not used, but cannot guarantee it.)

    3. My experience - which is both dated and in light artillery only - is that the use of the sort of telemetry you describe was NOT routine. My guess is that given the long logistical tail and the austere OA it's probably still not in SW Asia...

    4. Muzzle velocity radars appeared in the 60's or 70's afaik, then typically as battery-level radar with other functions as well. German 110 mm LARS MRL batteries even had special rockets that self-destructed in flight. This gave the battery's radar enough trajectory data to correct for temperature and wind influences for the then still-surprising battery salvo with dozens of rockets.

      here's some milporn about LARS:

      The new thing about muzzle velocity radars is that individual guns have them. This has become sensible due to miniaturization and ruggedization and is almost a necessity for dispersed batteries (guns sited individually, not in formation) which in turn have become practical due to better navigation equipment.

    5. The AFATADS system enables the battery to be laid "nap of the earth" rather than in the old "line of steel". But, as I mentioned, at least in the mid-Oughts the telemetry in light artillery hadn't gone much further than that.

  2. Give Army the Close Air Support Drone mission capability. Drones are not real aircraft and maybe you can dodge some of the organisational dynamics with the next generation of technology.

    1. Seems reasonable to me, but I just wonder if that might be a hill the USAF would be willing to die on. The Key West Agreement is pretty draconian in limiting the USA to recon and medevac only...

  3. I'm a big fan of Close Air Support. But I have never believed that the A-10 is worthy of being a CAS aircraft.

    Despite the hype the A-10 was not originally intended for CAS. From the start of its design & development (1966) it was meant to be a tank killer and a competitive rival of the Army and USMC development of attack helicopters.

    It may have done well killing Sadaam's armor in the Gulf War. But how much of that, if any, was in a CAS role? It also killed a lot of Marines and British Tommies in blue-on-blue incidents.

    My other beefs:
    -It has no capability for night or all-weather operations.
    -The wing change-out that Axe mentions is the third or fourth or maybe fifth time that the A-10 has had problems with the wings and wing roots. I surmise there were horrendous underestimates of real world metal fatigue for that design.
    -Its major weapon system the GAU-8 may have been the right gun 40 years ago, but is not effective against modern armor. Why replace it, the aircraft was designed around the gun not vice versa.
    -It is no longer 'low and slow' like the A1. In Iraq and Syria nowadays it is dropping ordnance from the same altitude as F-16s and F-18s.

    Good things about it? Twin engines and armor which the F-35 does not have. Other than that, nada. But I have to wonder if that armor would stand up to modern SAMs and AAA?

    The Air Force may be correct in trying to get out from under this liability.

  4. About the same time the A-10 started development was when the AF made an agreement with Army Chief of Staff General Harold Johnson to abandon the Key West Agreement and allow the Army to have attack helos. In return the Army gave up transport aircraft.

    Was the AF thinking that development of the A-10 would supplant attack helos and make them unnecessary? Some thought so at the time.

  5. I think the advantage the A-10 had over the competing fast movers was as much in its pilots as its design, Mike. The hog drivers I've met are completely focused on the CAS mission, unsurprisingly, as opposed to F/A jocks who see it as an ugly necessity. The loss of the people is as detrimental to the mission as the loss of the, as you note, flawed aircraft.

    As far as the a/c vs helos thing, I think both services knew, and know, the limitations of the helos. I think the USAF was more than willing to give the USA the limited ground attack capacity in return for not having to dispatch a couple of P-47s every time an infantry squad needed a machinegun position bombed. But not in return for a new USAAF.

    I think drones are the game changer, but I don't have any sense for where the USAF stands on them. My sense is that a drone heavily armed enough to conduct real CAS might trigger their territorial reflex...but given how the AF brass seems to feel about the mission...maybe not.

  6. Drones doing CAS within meters of friendly troops???? That is a guaranteed way to increase blue-on-blue casualties.

    Comms latency would be a problem there also. Better make sure there is one of those Air Force TACP controllers with every rifle company regardless of who the drones belong to. Or their equivalent. I think now they only support special ops units. Back in the day the Corps used to send pilots down to the grunts at company level to control CAS, although that is long gone history now.

    As far as hog drivers being focused on CAS, you have a valid point. Will F-35 drivers feel the same way? Undoubtedly no except for those flying the B model.

    1. Yeah, LeMay forfend a winged zoomie wallowing in the mud. I think the current FACPs are all EMs.

    2. I'm unsure of how low the AF control parties are tasked. My guess is company-level at best.

    3. For over a decade now the TACP role is a joint training standard. Any of the services can create their own TACP equivalents with the qualifications to control air-to-ground fires. The Army specifically wanted the Air Force to fill that role for them for a variety of reasons, primarily manning and training issues. It's not something the Air Force muscled the Army out of. It's similar with Air Force weather officers supporting Army units.

  7. Part 1/2:

    Wow, that article to put this nicely...very opinionated. A few facts, a lot of conjecture, nauseating repetition of talking points, a dose of conspiracy and the required Douhet name drop is very familiar. Suffice it to say the quality of the article from an informative standpoint is low....

    As a CSAR guy I love the A-10. It's the ideal platform for the RESCORT/SANDY role although recently the AH-64 is filling that role more and more. Some of that stems from the capabilities of the aircraft, some stems from pilot attitude and training in a platform is completely ground focused (although there are SANDY trained F-16 drivers). Rescue is an A-10 role that doesn't get much voice in the CAS debate unfortunately.

    I think the argument that multi-role aircraft, especially single-person aircraft, dilutes specific capabilities in favor of a generalist approach is a good one, but I'm not sure it is good enough to justify a dedicated CAS aircraft.

    Additionally, critics like this author seem to be living in the past. You'll note the anecdotes they use are from Vietnam and WWII as if those have any relevance today. The Air Force has been doing CAS consistently for over 16 years now and a lot of it was done without A-10's so the absence of that in these articles is telling when it comes to actual CAS performance in combat.

    Additionally, precision weapons have changed CAS substantially. The A-10, before its recent C variant upgrade, was actually inferior in many situations because it lacked the synergy of a good targeting pod, precision munitions and the avionics and comm systems to use them and sync with the ground force. There are still many who seem to think that the only good CAS is low and slow strafing with the Mk 1 eyeball. It's hard for such people to understand that often a GBU dropped from 15k feet is a better CAS option.

  8. Part 2/2:

    Also absent in these types of articles are a few other things:

    - The role of battlefield air interdiction (BAI). In 2003 the combined air forces functionally destroyed three Iraqi divisions before coalition ground forces engaged them. There's long been a healthy debate about which is relatively more important - BAI or CAS and beyond that, whether it is better to try to destroy forces in the rear or fix and destroy them with maneuvering ground forces. The Air Force institutionally favors BAI and it seems like the old, institutional Army favors CAS. Both are important and situationally dependent.

    - What about the Marines? They've existed without anything like the A-10 and have relied on fast-movers for CAS for a long time. The F-35 isn't just an Air Force program after all.

    The bottom line (IMO) is that the A-10 is a valuable aircraft but it can't be kept around forever. It's biggest advantage is the gun and cadre of ground-focused pilots. It's not ideal in all CAS situations despite the hype, but it has a solid and useful niche. I think it would be difficult to fill that niche as well as the A-10 using a multi-role platform. However, given the expense in terms of procurement, maintenance and personnel, I think it's an open question whether it's worth fielding a new dedicated niche platform. The Air Force and Navy (with both aircraft and ships) have moved away from single-role to multi-role platforms and, actually, pretty much every other producer of military equipment (China, Russia, Europe) is doing the same thing. Niches are going way in favor of multi-role.

    As for drones, they have their uses, but come with some severe limitations. The Army does have armed drones but they are moving in a different direction than the Air Force. The Air Force is almost rid of all the smaller predator class drones in favor of the reaper and follow-on models that have much bigger payloads and better all-weather capability (the reaper is roughly the size of an A-10). The Army is focusing more on ISR and armed reconnaissance and is specifically looking to use drones to support Apaches now that the OH-58 is retired. Also, none of these drones have guns, so if the gun is what is important, then they can't be a replacement....


    1. On one specific note, Andy, I think a lot of Marine CAS was delivered through the AV-8, which is notably less zoom-y than the F-35 (or any of the USN attack a/c, for that matter).

      And my personal experience is that the USN isn't exactly the go-to guy for CAS; they sure as hell shot the shit out of our Division commo down in sunny Grenada. So my guess is that the USMC has worked out it's own version of "designated CAS outfit(s)" similar in practice to the A-10 drivers.

      Outside the, yes, the article is clearly an A-10 fanboi job. But the overall arc of USAF policy has clearly been to try and shoehorn CAS onto fast movers, not exactly a barn-burningly-sensible fit. I'm actually less cynical than Axe about the possibility of the USAF procuring (or developing domestically) some sort of Pucará-type light attack a/c if the U.S. is seriously going to consider continuing these nonsensical colonial wars.

      Me? I'm all in favor of NOT sending imperial grunts out to slay Afridis where they run. But...if my country insists, I'd just as soon some up with something more functional than loading air-ground support onto the fighter jocks. Just seems like a bad idea.

  9. Andy -

    Agree 100% that Axe's article is opinionated.

    I believe the AF is correct in going for BAI prior to unleashing CAS, or at least simultaneously. And achieving suppression of Air Defenses and Air Superiority even before that. There is no way CAS is going to be effective when CAS aircraft are being targeted as prey by enemy fighters and/or air defenses.

    PGMs obviate much of the reasons for gun strafing. But even if some strafing is needed, the A-10 with its GAU-8 is way too much overgunned for that job. And IMHO it is now undergunned for its primary role of tank killer against a peer power. The new 25mm ammo used by the F-35 GAU-22 gun system is much better suited against personnel, bunkers, or armor without changing the loadout.

    PS - Does the TACP/ALO school at Hurlburt Field accept non-SOF students from other services?

    1. Hi Mike!

      First of all, I miss-typed. TACP is an Air Force term - JTAC is the actual joint qualification.

      There are now (or at least as of a year ago when I last looked at this), JTAC schools in the Air Force, Marines and SOCOM. The SOCOM school is run by AFSOC but trains SOF personnel from all the services. AFSOC also runs the CCT schools. They are supposed to be pathfinders but most end up being JTAC qualified as well.

      I'm not aware of other services attending the conventional JTAC course but I honestly don't know one way or another. The Army does have the JFO program and there are also joint procedures followed by all the services to call in fires when there is not a JTAC available.

      BTW, the Army and Air Force formalized the agreement for Air Force JTAC support to the Army. Prior to that it was an ad hoc agreement. Like combat weather, TACP teams will be integrated into Army units for training and deployments.

      The problem with the F-35 gun is that it isn't as accurate and only carries enough rounds for a few strafes. I'm not sure if the same problem exists on the Navy and Marine variants but I would guess it probably does.

  10. Thanx Andy.

    Re the GAU-22, it has the same dispersion specifications as the GAU-8: five milliradians. But perhaps that did not work out on the test range.

    And yes, the external pod version on the USMC, Navy and Brit versions only have a few dozen more rounds available than the AF version. But my understanding is the burst length is select-able by the pilot so you are not going to empty the mag in one or two strafing runs. If you need to put a thousand rounds or more on target get an AC-130 on station. The GAU-22 is an updated version of the AC-130 gatling gun is my understanding.