Close-air support doctrine is outdated
History teaches us many lessons. The first is that those who do not learn lessons from history are destined to repeat them. Another is that since 1918, the Air Force and its predecessor organizations have never embraced the close-air support (CAS) mission. This is not to discount the pilots and units that have performed the mission with great skill and courage. Rather, it’s to make the point that as an institution, the Air Force has never had much enthusiasm for CAS and its cousin, counterinsurgency (COIN).
The great air power theorists have envisioned strategic bombing and battlefield isolation as the path to victory. Despite the lessons from the Royal Air Force experience in North Africa, the U.S. War Department’s 1943 Field Manual 100-20, “Command and Employment of Air Power,” states that “in the zone of contact, missions against hostile units are most difficult to control, are most expensive, and are, in general, least effective.” In the summer of 1944, XIX Tactical Air Command worked closely with Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army as a force multiplier, aiding one of the most dramatic campaigns in military history. One of the lessons learned was that a 24-to-48-hour planning cycle did not work. Instead, four or eight aircraft were kept on station over the advance columns ready to engage enemy positions within minutes of the target being identified. Controllers for these missions were also pilots, many of whom volunteered to ride with the tanks. Care was also taken to ensure that the ground radios could talk to the aircraft overhead.
In their November AFJ article, “Updating close-air support,” Lt. Col. Paul Darling and Lt. Justin Lawlor point out many of the issues concerning current CAS/COIN operations. It appears that as much as anything, many of these issues arise from different cultural backgrounds and a different service focus. Air Force personnel do not have the same experience base as soldiers.
The Marine Corps and Navy provide for a better operational model. The Marine Corps owns fixed-wing CAS assets flown by Marine pilots. The Navy carrier-based aircraft provide air superiority and battlefield interdiction. If things get tough, Navy assets could provide backup CAS. It is interesting to note that, in the period between World Wars I and II, the Marines were fine-tuning the tactics and procedures for CAS, while the Army Air Corps avoided addressing the mission.
The proposal for the fielding of the Air Force’s Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance (LAAR) aircraft needs to be taken a little further. There is also a need to change the way air support is delivered to the ground forces. Let’s think outside the box for a minute. First, the LAAR program should become the Joint Light Attack/Armed Reconnaissance program, with the Army as a full partner. Second, these assets and the terminal controller teams should be led by Army pilots, assigned to and under the command of corps headquarters or the equivalent. The controller teams could then be further assigned down to company or battalion level, as a given situation demands. Under this scheme, the Air Force would retain air superiority and deep-strike missions, much as the Navy can support the Marines.
The 1947 Key West Agreement created the Air Force and took combat fixed-wing aircraft away from the Army. Making a virtue out of necessity, the Army developed the attack helicopter seen today in the OH-58D Kiowa and the AH-64 Apache. The attack helicopter has carved out a useful niche in Army operations that is not likely to go away any time soon. However, operations in Southwest Asia have shown there is a need for something better. In Afghanistan in particular, helicopters have problems operating in the mountains with sufficient payloads and fuel loads (i.e., time on station) to provide adequate support to troops in contact with enemy forces. An Army JLAAR should be seen as a complement to attack helicopters and not a replacement.
Of course, there are objections to such a proposal, but there are also answers.
Objection: The Army is forbidden to own fixed-wing combat assets by the 1947 Key West Agreement.
Response: This is perhaps the biggest obstacle to change, but it shouldn’t be. The agreement was drafted shortly after World War II. During that conflict, the prevailing image was of waves of heavy bombers pummeling the enemy’s strategic heartland. After 60-plus years, that paradigm is no longer valid. It is time to rethink the roles of the services and how best to support the soldiers on the ground. Part of this rethinking process should be to allow the Army to have fixed-wing combat assets.
Objection: The LAAR will require facilities that the Army does not have, including runways.
Response: The LAAR is required to operate from dirt strips in forward areas with minimal maintenance. At least one of the candidate airframes (the Air Tractor AT-802U) has operated routinely from short dirt strips as a crop duster.
Objection: The Army does not use runways for combat operations.
Response: The Army operates various versions of the C-12 from runways in-theater. The larger unmanned aircraft that the Army is developing require runways. Doctrinally, a corps is supposed to have an airfield assigned.
Further rational for an Army LAAR includes:
Acquisition cost — Depending on which candidate aircraft is finally selected, published costs run between $3 million and $10 million per copy of the LAAR. By comparison, an AH-64D is listed at more than $20 million.
Operational cost — According to published estimates, the LAAR will operate at less than $1,000 per flight hour. The AH-64 costs more than $5,000 per flight hour to operate.
Payload — Under the right conditions, the AH-64 can take off with about 2,300 pounds of munitions, including launchers, on wing stores. LAAR candidates claim between 3,200 pounds and 8,000 pounds. Not only could an Army JLAAR carry more ordnance than an Apache, the increased payload would also allow for a greater variety of weapons to provide for a better match to the targets.
Endurance — The AH-64 has a mission time of somewhat more than four hours, including a refueling stop. The LAAR is required to have a minimum endurance of 6.5 hours, and most are claiming more time available. Supporting aircraft could then remain in a parking pattern near the battle area until called in. This can lead to a response time to a threatening situation measured in minutes, not hours, much like the units in XIX Tactical Air Command provided in the summer of 1944.
Flight speed — The AH-64, with full load, tops out around 140 knots for transit speed. All LAAR candidate aircraft cruise at more than 200 knots, with some claiming cruise speed of 300 knots. This will shorten time between takeoff and arrival in the battle area.
Service ceiling — All LAAR candidates have stated ceilings above 20,000 feet and can operate with full loads up to at least 10,000 feet. Currently, Army helicopters have to take off with either a short fuel supply or a light weapons load in the current theater of operations.
Darling and Lawlor stated in closing their article, “The many complexities of COIN are not an excuse to avoid simple solutions.” It is time to give the Army the tools, as well as the command and control authority, to support the ground soldier, even if it requires a major paradigm shift.
DONALD E. DAVIS is a former Army ordnance officer and an engineer. The views expressed here are the author’s own.