“‘Fast moving aircraft are not designed to support ground troops,’ said Army Sgt. First Class Frank Antenori. ‘As much as the Air Force and Navy would like to think that, fighter aircraft that travel at speeds can’t slow down to identify the targets.’ Antenori made this statement after witnessing a friendly fire incident, in which bombs dropped from one of USAFs fast movers killed 16 Kurds and injured 45. He also said that “With fast movers, I never had any success,”, and that senior decision makers often become so enamored with technology that they fail to see what troops on the ground really require. While A-10s never missed, F-18s needed two or three bombing runs to get them on target, he said.
Western militaries have an ongoing love affair with supersonic multirole jet fighters, and as of recently with unmanned combat vehicles as well. There are very few militaries which have a dedicated ground attack aircraft, and fewer still which have an aircraft that is optimized for close air support in all conditions, as opposed to specialized counterinsurgency (COIN) warfare aircraft, or generalized strike aircraft. But specialized CAS aircraft can be extremely effective when properly utilized, and have no real alternative.
During 1991 Desert Storm A-10 caused half of the Iraqi military losses, including tanks, Scuds and helicopters. Put in the other words, A-10s which comprised a minor portion of the combat aircraft present have destroyed more tactical targets than all the “multirole” aircraft, attack helicopters and strategic bombers put together. This was despite the fact that USAF did everything it could to minimize the A-10s effectiveness. A-10s were assigned artificial “kill boxes” with task of destroying all targets in a kill box. Yet they were jerked from one kill box to another by central management, often being unable to finish a job in one kill box before being transferred to another, completely empty kill box. Coordination with ground troops was nonexistent (A-10 pilots had to steal Army’s invasion plan a day before the invasion to learn ground scheme of maneuver), and 8.000 ft minimum altitude limit was introduced which prevented the A-10 from flying low altitude column cover, armed reconnaissance, and from using its 30 mm gun (these altitude restrictions were frequently violated by A-10 pilots). Altitude limits also caused several friendly fire incidents on occasions when pilots did not ignore the directive. As USAF was planning on phasing out the A-10 back then, they were not given FLIR pods. As a consequence, A-10 pilots had to use Maverick missile’s own IR sensor in lieu of the pods. At the sime time, massive bombing campaign by the B-52s and F-16s failed to destroy four Republican Guard divisions, ensuring survival of Saddam’s regime. Once Iraqi army did move – towards the city of Khafji – two A-10s and an AC-130 took up the turkey shoot opportunity, destroying 58 targets in the 71 vehicle convoy.
Army Sgt. First Class Frank Antenori stated in interview that fast jets cannot slow down to ID their targets. This is not the only problem: while communication with troops on the ground may solve the ID problem, precision munitions dropped from high altitude are, regardless of their nature, too destructive to be used close to the troops supported. This was clearly shown by F-16s and F-15Es, platforms mounting “precision” ammunition and definetly not designed for gun attacks against ground targets, being forced to use gun in support of troops on the ground. Antenori has also revealed that, even when precision weapons were used, A-10s never missed while F-18s had to do two or three runs to get the target.
During 2001 Afghan war, a four-man US SpecOps team leading a force of 26 Afghan National Army troops was ambushed several times by 800 enemy Taliban fighters. While they managed to get out of the first ambush on their own, they got into trouble during the second ambush. A B-1B tried to help but had no effect. Sgt. Osmon asked for the A-10 support. By the time A-10s arrived, troops on the ground could not contact them, so A-10s had to determine everyone’s positions by eyeball. When A-10s opened up with their guns, enemy attack ceased and the Army team finally made radio contact with the pilots. Taliban tried to get the US forces call of the A-10 support by offering to release the captured ANA members in exchange. Soon the enemy dispersed, and the A-10s covered the reconstituted convoy during the entire six-hour return trip.
On September 20, 2002., a Special Operations base in Afghanistan came under attack from rocket and small arms fire. Two A-10s provided support, attacking the Taliban with four bombs and 500 rounds of cannon fire. During the same year in Operation Anaconda, an evac team got pinned down by enemy mortar fire. Only after one hour did first help arrive, in form of F-15Es which had to be talked into doing gun runs. It took them hours to secure the area, after which an evac chopper landed.
In 2003 operation Iraqi Freedom, both A-10 and fast jets frequently used their guns. Just the combat against Iraqi regular troops – not counting the insurgency warfare which came afterwards – saw 300.000 30 mm and 17.000 20 mm rounds being fired. This continued after the conquest, with F-15s, F-16s and A-10s frequently using their guns to support troops in close combat contact, where usage of precision munitions was too dangerous. But for the fast moving jets, this was a dangerous business as a single hit or a minor miscalculation could mean the loss of the aircraft, and potentially the pilot as well. On occasion, fast jets proved impotent even against fixed targets: Rangers who parachuted in to hold the Hiddith dam found themselves under enemy artillery fire for days, with USAF strikes incapable of silencing it.
In 2006, Afghan president pleaded for Western troops to avoid killing civilians. But the killings continued unabated, with fast jets being a major factor due to inability to see and understand situation on the ground.
On November 27, 2007., Maj. Troy “Trojan” Gilbert died when he crashed while strafing insurgents that were attacking crew of a downed Army helicopter in his F-16. He was forced to fly ever lower during his gun runs, and in a second pass he was unable to pull up in time and crashed. Reason why he flew low despite having all technological gadgets was that he needed to correctly identify insurgent vehicles trying to merge with civillian traffic which was only possible by a direct visual observation. Yet USAF sung him praise while completely ignoring the issue which killed him in the first place.
In Afghanistan, a Special Operations team attacked compound of the Taliban leader. Taliban responded with heavy fire, and Air Force controller was wounded; neither a Predator drone nor the F-16, both loitering overhead, could get a shot at the enemy as SpecOps troops were too close. Finally, two A-10s arrived and wounded controller asked them to make their runs “danger close”. A-10s fired High Explosive 30 mm shells which impacted 65 feet (20 meters) away from the team, well within the lethal distance of even smallest PGMs. Enemy attack broke, and A-10s escorted SO troops out of the kill zone. In another instance, US planes dropped two bombs on a family home, killing children aged between six months and five years, because they were too fast and too high to properly identify targets.
On July 24, 2013, a convoy of 12 vehicles with 60 US troops was ambushed in Afghanistan when a lead vehicle overturned. Unit called for a close air support, but did not have a way to confirm enemy position. Forward air controller called in the A-10s, which located the enemy by visual contact. Lead A-10 marked enemy position with smoke rockets, and his wingman attacked the enemy with 30 mm cannon. JTAC couldn’t bring the helicopters in due to heavy ground fire,and enemy did not run away after first two A-10 passes (as usually happens). When enemy closed enough to engage the unit with grenades, unit commander approved “danger close”. A-10s came in low – 75 feet (23 meters) above the enemy position – and used the gun 50 meters parallel to friendly positions. A-10s executed 15 attack passes, firing nearly all of their gun ammo and dropping 3 500-lb bombs on the enemy. After that, enemy disengaged but A-10s remained on station as it sometimes happens that enemy again attacks when aircraft leave. Commenting on the mission, lead A-10 pilot commented that “Even with all our (top-of-the-line) tools today, we still rely on visual references”. Afghan army found 18 enemies dead.
In another situation in Afghanistan, a Special Forces team attacked a compound of a Taliban leader, but were pinned down and FAC (JTAC) with the team was severely wounded. Neither a Predator overhead, nor the F-16, could get a shot – and the F-16 soon departed for lack of fuel. When two A-10s arrived, controller ordered them to make their runs “danger close”. HE cannon shells fired from the A-10s impacted mere 65 feet (20 meters) away from the team, dispersing the enemy. A-10s remained overhead providing cover while friendly troops left the kill zone. All members of the SOF team, including the controller, survived.
French air force in Afghanistan faced most of the same problems as USAF, but unlike USAF, it had no dedicated CAS aircraft to overcome these problems. Fast jets proved incapable of quickly aiding troops in combat due to the lack of loiter time. Nature of infantry combat also meant that French jets often had to use their guns to support troops, but that is problematic with fast jets. Avoiding frendly casualties was a major issue. Situation was no different for other air forces operating in Afghanistan.
Bombardment of ISIS by fast jets was somewhat effective when closely coordinated with troops on the ground. But air strikes have also caused 450 civilian deaths, giving ISIS a huge propaganda boost. They have proven completely ineffective in any roles other than support of Peshmerga and Iraqi government troops, and even there effectiveness was limited. On the other hand, A-10s were utilized at low level despite threat from MANPADS, causing panic among ISIS fighters and proving their survivability and lethality yet again. USAF, in its effort to scrap the A-10, is deliberately underutilizing it in campaign against ISIS – yet the aircraft has flown 11% of all sorties against ISIS.
In some cases US troops made decision to not go out on the mission if the A-10 was not avaliable, even when other aircraft were. When A-10s were avaliable, they would often go out with a minimal force because they knew A-10 was capable of saving them if necessary. A-10 is in essence a major force multiplier. A-10 was always the preferred choice against “danger close” targets, to the point that JTACs would turn away other aircraft. A-10 also has by far the lowest fratricide rate against the friendly forces out of all tactical jets in the USAFs inventory.
French counterinsurgency operations in Mali have clearly shown need for a dedicated CAS aircraft. Surveillance and reconnaissance were carried out by drones as well as by manned fixed-wing aircraft. Bombing and close air support were carried out by Rafale and Mirage fighters as well as Gazelle and Tiger attack helicopters. Light helicopters were preferred choice for close air support due to superior precision, while jets mostly struck fixed targets, often preplanned well in advance. For fast jets, missions against known, fixed targets took about two hours to plan and up to five hours to debrief. Huge fuel requirements of Rafale and Mirage jets have forced USAF to supplement very inadequate French air refuelling capability; by March of 2013, USAF had flown 83 refuelling missions for French fighter aircraft. However, light helicopters (and helicopters in general) are too vulnerable and complex to replace a dedicated fixed-wing CAS aircraft.
In 2014-2015 timespan, French Air Force had undertaken over 200 air strikes in Iraq, as well as some in Syria. Most of these targeted strategic installations of ISIL. Reliance on strategic air strikes is a divergence from far more successful close combat tactics typically favored by the French military. In fact, it is the first time that French had used strategic air power alone in COIN / counterterrorism operations, albeit strategic bombardment was utilized before – during the Vietnam war, AdlA commenced mass fire bombings of Vietnamese villages.
These incidents very clearly show all problems with fast jets performing close air support. Fast jets cannot reliably ID their targets, even with imaging IR sensors such as LANTIRN pod. Precision bombs, while allowing higher precision than dumb bombs when dropped from medium and high altitudes, are not as precise as low-altitude gun attacks, and require more time to set up for proper attack – just calculating the desired point of impact takes half an hour. In many situations, gun strafing is the only solution due to possibility of collateral damage. Also, when utilizing same weapons, low-and-slow aircraft will always achieve greater precision than fast movers. Bombs sometimes bump into each other and the aircraft when released, bending fins and causing guidance errors; this problem is more pronounced faster and higher the aircraft flies when bombs are released. Fast jets are too fuel-thirsty to loiter for extended periods of time, meaning that they cannot stay behind to secure the area even if they do manage to force the enemy to retreat. Even Korean war jets could not do CAS effectively, whereas A-10s oftentimes get to altitudes as low as 100 ft (and less) in order to perform accurate gun attacks.
Precision-guided munitions can also easily go astray. JDAMs are not terminally guided and so even minor initial errors translate into large miss distances, which means that they have to be used in the same way as dumb bombs. And while targeting information is typically provided by ground troops, controllers can be dead, wounded, otherwise unavaliable, or even provide incorrect targeting information. In one such case, a B-1B dropped two 500 lbs bombs on the US SOF troops, killing five of them. Unlike fast and/or high flying aircraft, pilots in dedicated CAS aircraft can correct such mistakes by themselves with visual verification. During the Operation Desert Storm, at most 60% of laser-guided bombs hit their targets. This is consistent with Paveway III program, during which – despite favorable conditions – only 19 out of 39 (49%) of the laser-guided bombs dropped actually hit their targets. Some of the misses landed as far as five miles away from the targets. During Kosovo war, British achieved 40% accuracy with smart bombs. In 2003 invasion of Iraq, US precision weapons on few occasions managed to miss the country itself, hitting Turkey and Iran. And only 2% of the people killed by drones were Taliban.
US Air Force has always tried to prevent the US Army from operating its own CAS fighters – it did not want to give even helicopters to the Army at first. In fact, USAF fears A-10s efficiency as a CAS aircraft so much that combat controllers are not allowed to ask for a specific aircraft but have to specify results and then local USAF headquarters send the “appropriate” aircraft. As a result, they regularly ask for an aircraft with two-hour loiter time and more than ten combat trigger pulls, attributes only possessed by the A-10.
Infantry combat typically happens at distances within 100 meters. Rarely, it can go as far as 300-500 meters. But while 250-lbs Lady Finger bomb of the Vietnam war vintage could be dropped 100 meters from the friendly troops, 500-lbs bombs – smallest size readily avaliable to USAF today – can’t be used closer than 600 meters; in Afghanistan, most bombing runs placed munitions within 500 meters from friendly positions. Smallest today’s cluster bombs have more than 200 bomblets and also can’t be used in firefight situations; missiles and rockets are also often a no-go as well. One of major reasons for this size creep is that many bombs are GPS or laser-guided, or can be converted to be so. Therefore, there is pressure to get most “bang for the buck”. Another such pressure is caused by the fact that fast jets drink fuel by the gallon, again creating pressure to cause as much damage as soon as possible. “Safe” distances mentioned before also only account for distance to the point of impact. Miss distance is not accounted for. While many weapons are stated to have CEP in single meters or tens of meters, CEP is nothing more than a circle which denotes where 50% of all weapons released are expected to fall. That circle is very elliptical, and it is also very misleading where precision munitions are concerned – miss distances for the remaining 50% of bombs can be very large. A guidance system malfunction can cause a bomb or a missile to go miles off the target, but these malfunctions are ignored by testers and do not factor into CEP (as stated by Lt.Col Rahm), consequently producing unrealistically optimistic assessment of weapons’ precision. Overall, low destructiveness and unmatched precision make gun the best, and oftentimes the only, choice for supporting the troops in contact.
Rather important ability, especially when enemies are very close, is a quick reattack ability so as to attack multiple targets before the enemy has the chance to disperse. Dedicated CAS aircraft – A-10, A-1 – have enough fuel and ammunition for multiple passes, and are highly maneuverable at slow speed, allowing for quick reengagement – or a dozen. In contrast, fast jets still adhere to Vietnam War F-4s motto of “One Pass, Haul Ass”. They can get there, drop bombs and return very fast – but they cannot stay around, loitering few kilometers behind the battlefield waiting for call, or overhead to deter enemy attacks – which is a far more useful capability. While Super Tucano has loiter time of four hours, and A-10 has loiter time of two hours, fast jets typically loiter for no more than twenty minutes. While USN and USAF have an 8-minute rule – that jets should arrive over target zone within eight minutes – this limits their loiter time, a fact that Taliban have learned to take the advantage of by dispersing for half an hour to hour, and then returning in force once fast jets had spent their fuel. Comments by ground troop commanders clearly point to loiter time as being far more important than cruise or top speeds. And even high speed does not necessarily mean that jets will arrive to combat quickly. In Afghanistan, there are only three air bases that have 10.000 ft runways necessary for fast movers. A-10 can fly from 4.000 ft dirt strip or steel mats, while A-29 requires less than 4.000 ft of runway (Super Tucano’s performance should be similar). This means that while fast jets are faster, A-10 or Tucano can arrive to the fight earlier by virtue of being based far closer than it is possible for the fast jets. Fast jets also have major issues with slow-speed maneuverability. Thin, swept wings required for supersonic flight result in reduced lift (due to propensity for separation caused by both lack of thickness and wing sweep), which limits both minimum speed and turning ability at slow speeds (150 to 300 knots).
In order to find targets, fighter aircraft have to fly low and slow, and have tight search radius. Super Tucano has search radius of 500 meters, compared to ~500 meters for A-10 and ~1.600 meters for F-15E and F-35. Super Tucano and A-10 are satisfactory and enable keeping constant visual contact with ground forces, while F-35 and F-15E have far too wide search radius. While targeting pods – as present on F-15E and F-35 (EOTS) – allow pilots to drop bombs accurately from high altitude, they typically provide straw-view image of the battlefield (radar is no better). When IR sensor does find target, its low-resolution monochromatic display is not suited for target recognition in cluttered ground environment. Even when communications are avaliable, it may take ten minutes for ground FAC to direct the fast mover onto targets. Time required to direct UAVs is about twice as long, as drone operators only have their screens and drone cameras to direct them. Reason is simple – neither can look out of the canopy and see the enemy, while relying on just radar and optical sensors leads to extremely limited situational awareness. High-flying jets are also unable to see IR strobes used to identify friendly troops. Combined with 20-minute loiter time, this means that a single fast jet can attack at most two groups of targets before having to refuel, and have higher possibility of hitting friendlies.
As Hans Rudel has pointed out, pilot has to be free to concentrate all his attention on hunting ground targets. For a pilot of multirole aircraft, that is impossible. And even though he flew Stuka, an aircraft with only 390 kph top speed, he still stated that “high speed is a poison for finding tanks”, and that under no circumstances should low speed performance be sacrificed to gain high speed capability. This was despite the fact that he was hunting for tanks in the flat, open Ukraine as opposed to cluttered environment of the Central Europe or Afghanistan. Further, CAS pilots have to work directly with ground units in order to achieve relevant response times (15-20 minutes); using centralized command and control system leads to response times of anywhere between 45 minutes and several hours. But this again requires a dedicated cadre of CAS pilots and CAS aircraft, pilots which will live with and study doctrine and tactics of ground troops, and aircraft which can operate in field conditions alongside those same troops. During World War II, such dedicated CAS units could achieve response times as short as 5 minutes, thanks to combination of decentralized organization, close basing and long loiter times. Yet modern technological advances seem to favor USAFs ineffective close control doctrine: wide-area surveillance systems, data links, centralized data-fusion/control centres (including AWACS) and complex C4 ISR network serve to distance close support aircraft from the very troops they are supposed to support, and to centralize decision making, thus unnecessarily increasing response times, casualties and likelyhood of failure. This system, among other things, means that the only targets which can be successfully attacked are fixed, heavily defended ones – precisely the kind of targets that low-flying CAS aircraft should avoid, and leave them to cruise missile strikes, or in the future, stealthy UCAVs.
Typical bombload for F-16, F-18 and F-35 includes two bombs. Super Tucano is capable of matching that, while A-10 significantly exceeds fast jets’ weapons load capabilities, with a total of 11 weapons stations (though at least one or two are likely to be taken up by fuel tanks during longer-duration missions). F-16 costs 7.000 USD per hour, compared to F-18s 11.000 USD and F-35s 32.000 USD. Compared to that, A-10 costs 11.500 USD per flight hour and Super Tucano costs 600 USD per hour. Overall number of maximum possible trigger pulls is as follows: 23 for the Super Tucano (12,6 1-second gun bursts plus 10 bombs/missiles), 46 for the A-10 (22,6 gun bursts plus 23 bombs/missiles), 17 for the F-16 (4,7 gun bursts plus 12 bombs/missiles), 15 for the F-18E (5,2 gun bursts plus 10 bombs/missiles) and 11 for the F-35 (2,6 gun bursts plus 8 bombs/missiles). This translates into following number of attack passes per 1 million USD: 38.333 for the Super Tucano, 4.000 for the A-10, 2.428 for the F-16, 1.363 for the F-18E and 344 for the F-35. Overall, Super Tucano offers 111:1 and A-10 offers 11:1 advantage over the F-35. Difference in between Super Tucano and A-10 is reduced however, and difference between both of these aircraft compared to fast jets significantly increased, when one considers effectiveness of each firing pass. A-10 can carry heavier weapons and has vastly higher inherent firepower than Super Tucano, whereas none of the fast jets can get as much effect from each pass as A-10 and Super Tucano can, being too fast too properly attack targets.
Fast jets are not survivable enough to carry out Close Air Support. In the Vietnam war, F-5s have suffered their only losses when carrying out CAS missions; out of 6 combat losses, 5 were to small-arms fire, and one was to .50 calibre machine gun and 20 mm cannon fire. For comparison, A-10 can survive any hits from shells up to 23 mm, and some strikes from shells up to 57 mm. During Gulf Wars, A-10 was the only US aircraft survivable enough to operate within the envelope of usupressed air defenses during the day – all other aircraft, even the stealthy F-117, operated above 10.000-15.000 ft in order to minimize losses. F-117 and F-111 operated only during the night; neither had any losses. What is often omitted is that an A-10 squadron flew as many night sorties as F-117s did, suffering no losses – it was combination of night flying and low number of sorties flown which allowed the F-117 to get away with no losses; radar stealth had no impact. If properly masked, neither IR SAMs nor optical AAA can be found until they shoot, as they do not use active sensors. During the Gulf War, neither of these were attrited at all (unlike radar SAMs) and posed a constant danger to low-flying aircraft; A-10 and British Tornado were the only aircraft that could survive against this type of defenses. Radar SAMs, systems allegedly so dangerous that they require replacing the A-10 with F-35, caused 16% of total casualties. IR SAMs caused 31% of all casualties, and AAA accounted for 38% of all losses – against both these systems, F-35 and stealth UCAVs are just as vulnerable as non-stealth counterparts, if not more so (but since neither of these will be allowed to do proper CAS, they may turn out to be statistically more survivable than the A-10). During the Gulf War, A-10 had a bullseye painted on it by USAF having it fly in dark green camouflage, completely inappropriate against either air threats in the desert environment, or far more relevant ground threats in any environment. As a result, 20 A-10s were hit by the enemy fire, with 6 being shot down. For comparison, AV-8B Harrier suffered 4 aircraft shot down, despite having appropriate camouflage and flying only 3.380 sorties – compared to 8.640 sorties flown by the A-10. And going back to the F-35 vs A-10 issue, F-35 is only expected to benefit from its stealth on the first day or two of the campaign, until radars are forced to shut down to hide. After that, it will carry external weapons, rendering its stealth irrelevant – and also significantly degrading its already insufficient maneuverability, combat radius and loiter time. And if the F-35 is forced to drop its weapons due to a pop-up threat it will be left with only two bombs in the internal bays, if even that. A-10 on the other hand will still have 23 gun bursts avaliable. It was designed to survive air defenses on World War III battlefields, ones more lethal than anything which would be encountered in nation-state wars, not to mention counterinsurgency ops, and it shows.
Most aircraft losses in CAS happen when pilot is tracking the target. Consequently, tracking time has to be minimized. This again requires getting close to the target and using a quick-targeting weapon – in other words, a gun. While gun track requires only a second or two, even a quick-tracking PGMs such as Maverick missiles require lock-on times in excess of 10 seconds. During this time, aircraft is flying a steady, predictable path. If it is engaged during the lock-on process, pilot has only two options: break the track and abandon the attack run to focus on surviving, or keep flying steady and pray the enemy fire misses on its own accord. This fact alone largely negates survivability advantages of high-flying aircraft, and clutter from high up may also cause prolonged lock-on times. Since experiments with pop-up tactics in the rough terrain have demonstrated that ground observers are rarely able to point at and track the aircraft in less than five seconds, this shows significant survivability advantage when using unguided weapons (gun and rockets) in low flight, combined with pop-up tactics; this is helped by the fact that the A-10 is “scarily quiet” due to its high-bypass engines. Lock on delay also means that precision munitions are less capable of hitting fleeting targets.
Weather can also negate the shelter of high altitude. Heavy overcast can render IR/optical sensors and missiles blind, in which case there are only two options for delivering firepower (radar is too vulnerable to clutter): GPS munitions or getting below the weather. But GPS munitions require preplanned delivery, half an hour or even hours in advance, and are thus utterly unsuitable for maneuver warfare. They also require direct contact with troops on the ground and are unsuitable for mountainous regions – mountains can interfere with GPS signal, and so can buildings and solar flares. Jamming GPS signal is also not very difficult for a technologically advanced opponent, and in a serious war, satellites that GPS munitions rely on will get destroyed very early on. Getting below the overcast is thus the only option, but that requires the aircraft to be capable of surviving enemy MANPADS, AAA and automatic weapons fire – in Europe and Korea, the sky is overcast at 2.000 – 3.000 ft (600 – 900 m) over 40% of the time. Iraq isn’t any better, with its weather patterns being mostly similar to European ones – weather is at least partly cloudy 50% of the time. Most infantry platoons do not have attached FAC, which means that unless the pilot can see both them and the enemy from his aircraft, air support is impossible. Even those that do have a FAC (GFAC, ETAC, JTAC) might be left without the capability if FAC is injured or killed, communication equipment damaged or destroyed, or radio contact otherwise unavaliable (jamming, terrain constrictions). All of this means that CAS aircraft has to be able to survive at low altitude – no easy task, since even in the absence of SAMs, a typical division has as many as 10.000 automatic weapons to turn any thin-skinned aircraft into Swiss cheese. Most hits are received from forward hemisphere and below. Since aircraft fly forward at high speeds, this speed gets added to nominal projectile speed, increasing penetration. This means that a divison can easily make the sky uninhabitable to fast jets to an altitudes up to 5.000 ft, well above the weather overcast allowance. Consequently, pilots will typically fly above 10.000 or below 100 ft – former being reserved for air superiority, interceptor and logistics/support aircraft, and latter being reserved for close air support and FAC aircraft. Lower altitude renders specialized air defense weapons mostly impotent, but it still means that the aircraft will receive at least some hits from small arms fire, and has to have excellent slow-speed maneuverability to avoid crashing into terrain. Higher altitude makes aircraft incapable of any effective close air support, or any close air support at all during the bad weather.
Despite all the cries about lethality of air defenses, relative lethality of modern air defenses is no greater than it was in World War II. Problem is simply that most modern air forces have no aircraft designed to survive in that environment, unlike Russian Il-2 Sturmovik or German Hs-129 Panzerknacker. Modern fast jets, with thin composite skin and no cockpit or engine armor, cannot survive AAA or even near-misses from MANPADS. In addition to its heavy armor and redundant systems, A-10 has higher turn rate and tighter turn circle than most if not all fast jets due to its straight, thick wings providing large amount of lift, enabling it to avoid ground fire in ways no fast jet could hope to. Its ability to fly low in face of the enemy small-arms fire means that it can easily avoid enemy radars without relying on technological pipe dream of radar stealth. A-10 was designed to survive in the face of integrated air defenses deployed by the Soviet Union in the closing stages of the Cold War, most lethal the world has known, and A-10 pilot community has vast experience of operating in face of the enemy air defenses. It was also always asumed that Soviet air force will be able to create contested environment and deploy advanced fighters. For these reasons, and as several JTACs argued, Secretary Hagel’s and USAF’s excuses of threat from advanced air defenses and fighter aircraft are utter bullshit.
Even if it is true that air defenses have grown more lethal to low-flying aircraft (an assertion with nothing to back it up), that statement on its own is irrelevant. Any meaningful assessment of attrition would consider the entire force as a package – aircraft, pilots and ground troops. Best way to prevent casualties among pilots is to not let them fly at all. But air forces are support element, main element – which dictates victory or loss – are ground troops. If reducing casualties among the air element means increased casualties in the ground element, then the tradeoff is unacceptable. Only dedicated CAS aircraft (A-10, Super Tucano etc.) can fly low and slow enough to see puffs of smoke in an infantry firefight, and determine which belong to the enemy. That being said, care should be taken – through proper training, approaches and equipment – to minimize pilot casualties while still providing effective close air support. This among other things means having spare aircraft for each pilot, so that pilots are not forced to fly into combat aircraft that are performance-limited due to incurred battle damage. But something like that is only possible if aircraft is of a simple yet effective design – in other words, an A-10, not F-35, Rafale or even Gripen, as all these are relatively complex and completely unsuitable for close air support.
Fast-jets-as-CAS-aircraft proposal ignores the major psychological effect that low-flying CAS aircraft have on both friendly and enemy troops. As many statements from troops on ground show, seeing friendly aircraft in close air support gives a major morale boost to friendly troops, which then know that they are not alone. It is also highly demoralizing to enemy forces, with insurgent forces in particular often retreating when faced with such danger – even in cases where they have displayed clear willingness to stand and fight in face of high altitude bombardment.
Most importantly, Close Air Support is a very specific skill that takes years of honing. In other words, it requires specialized pilots who train for nothing but CAS. But pilots in fast “multirole” jets either do not train at all of close air support, or spend only a small portion of time training for it – typically, air-to-air combat (especially air-to-air maneuvering, both dogfight and BVR), takes up most of their training hours (even the USAFs F-16C community, relegated to the “dirt mover” status by the brass to preserve the F-15s air-to-air throne, spend 40% of their time training for air-to-air combat). Even ignoring everything else, this reason alone means that fast jets cannot replace dedicated CAS aircraft, as proper knowledge base for close air support cannot be developed or maintained without pilots who specialize in close air support. CAS pilot has to be versed in both usage of his own aircraft and in ground troops tactics and doctrines so he can effectively employ his aircraft, and close support itself is a unique mission which has very little in common with other types of ground attack missions. A-10 pilots are the only pilots in USAF that continuously train with ground troops, becoming in essence part of the Army. This level of familiarity with ground troops, their requirements and tactics cannot be achieved by pilots of fast jets.
Fast jets are also harder to maintain than slower jets or turboprop aircraft. That as well as greater cost of multirole jets means that they provide far smaller force size at higher cost, negating sole advantage of using multirole aircraft (A-10 costs 20 million USD and 3.000 USD per hour of flight, compared to 70 million USD and 7.000 USD per hour of flight for F-16C; A-10 can also fly 3 sorties per day compared to 1,2 sorties per day for F-16C; in short, one can have 1 F-16A and 2 A-10s for price of single F-16C).
Effective CAS requires aircraft to be colocated with troops, or at least as close to troops as possible – mobility, short flight times and immediate reaction are the basis of CAS. Most (if not all) Western fast jets are incapable of operating from dirt strips and other demanding locations. Only aircraft capable of that are A-10 and dedicated COIN aircraft, all of which use turboprop or piston engines. This, combined with long loiter time and low altitude capability, allows them to effectively coordinate with ground troops, scouting ahead and protecting flanks of mobile ground units, thus avoiding surprises / ambushes and allowing the entire ground force to concentrate into attack. This was done by Patton in 1944, and enabled his lightning-quick march across the France, made possible by forward-basing of sturdy P-47s, typically alongside Army units in the field. They also have to be under direct Army command, either owned by the Army or attached to Army units. Under the current system of CAS requests, medium-size and large operations result in too many requests going towards a single central command, which will then naturally make mistakes in assigning priorities. This system also means significant delays in receiving air support, if it is assigned at all. What is necessary to correct this is a two seat FAC aircraft – either a modified CAS/COIN aircraft or a dedicated FAC aircraft – from which unit commander or controller will assign CAS priorities while enjoying full view of the battlefield, and CAS aircraft loitering nearby, independent from any kind of centralized control.
A-10 and other slow aircraft can also scout ahead of infantry and mechanized formations. Fast jets are incapable of any effective scouting, as infrared pods, radars and other sensors they have to use to see anything from high altitude provide very limited straw view of the area, and are typically grayscale as well. During mobile war, it is entirely possible to stand off from the enemy tank and end up right on top of the enemy SAM; however, when the enemy is on attack, mobile SAMs and guns have harder time tracking targets, and their sensitive electronics typically break down during movement.
Dug in enemy, while easily hit by precision munitions strikes, is also unlikely to be destroyed by the same – especially if strikes are carried out from the altitude. In many cases, fortified enemy units were bombarded for hours or days from the air with no results to show for. At Roberts Ridge, USAF spend hours bombing hell out of cave complexes, yet did not manage to kill a single enemy. Serbian army in Kosovo was virtually untouched by the massive 78-day NATO high-altitude bombing campaign. This, and the above paragraph, prove the importance of effective real-time coordination between CAS fighters and ground troops; in effect, ground troops have to “smoke out” the enemy so that CAS fighters can kill them. Any aerial bombardment that is not coordinated with ground campaign is a waste of time and resources.
CAS fighters can easily adapt to other missions, making them truly multirole. In addition to its basic role of shooting at infantry, tanks and other ground vehicles, A-10 has also been used to hunt helicopters, sink warships, and a myriad of other missions. Among those are forward air control, combat search and rescue, supression and destruction of of enemy air defenses, which makes it one of the most versatile aircraft in the entire USAF.
War is a living being, a living system with many interactive forces. Just being able to shoot antennae off an ant is not enough for proper close air support. It never was, it never will be. Close air support means being part of a system, to live and breathe together with ground troops, to do what is necessary without any prompting. Much like tanks, CAS aircraft are part of the ground maneuver force. This means that pilots have to be part of the ground force as well, have to know ground troops, their tactics, doctrines, way of thinking and reacting, their plans and backups – and not to have to steal plans days before the campaign to learn scheme of maneuver. It also means constant contact and communication, during combat, exercises and day-to-day duties. In essence, pilots have to become part of the ground force in every way imaginable, and that can be achieved only if they have no duties other than supporting ground troops – in other words, specialized pilots in specialized aircraft.
In the end, what is necessary today is a division of tasks, where Air Force would control any aircraft and tasks that are independent of the Army (air superiority, SEAD/DEAD, deep strike, deep interdiction, air base resupply, deep reconnaissance) while Army would control any tasks that have direct impact on it (close air support, battlefield interdiction, forward air control, air resupply of Army units, battlefield reconnaissance). Alternatively, Army would control the airspace up to 10.000 ft, and Air Force above 10.000 ft – USAF typically doesn’t allow its aircraft to fly below 10.000 ft anyway. USAF posession of the A-10 has centralized close air support, causing aircraft to be switched from an empty kill box to an empty kill box without coordination with Army units, whereas proper CAS requires CAS aircraft to be part of the ground maneuver. USAF, and Western militaries in general, seem to have forgotten that killing people is not a goal of warfare, but just a tool; goal is to force one’s ideas onto the enemy. That can only be done by ground maneuver and, if necessary, a lasting occupation of the ground. This in turn requires a proper CAS force, and not current “for HE delivery, call 2022-8899” standoff bombardment air force in status of a god – you know (or hope) it’s there but haven’t directly seen or felt it. There are no new things under the Sun, only new “developments” are simply new technologies allowing old approaches to be carried out more effectively, mere updates and improvements of war instruments dating back to antiquity. Thus lessons of combat from 50, 500 or 5.000 years ago are still relevant today: infantry is the basis of war since it takes the ground, but to take the ground one needs to maneuver while protecting the flanks. Maneuver requires presence of dedicated units, which in modern military means tanks and CAS aircraft. Easily-jammed, delayed-response, tunnel-vision UCAVs are not an answer (all UCAVs planned are exclusively SEAD assets, to be used to take out enemy air defenses already located and identified by manned jets; they are completely incapable of independent operation). Only the infantry can bring victory, and only dedicated CAS aircraft – manned by pilots who train specifically for and have no tasks other than providing support for ground troops – are responsive and aware enough to be of use to infantry when they are required. But USAF wants to eliminate the CAS mission alltogether so as not to feel as subservient service to the Army; because of that, they knowingly lie about the ability of fast jets to carry out close support of troops on the ground, about survivability and utility of dedicated CAS platforms, and about anything else they see as necessary to lie about in order to finally get rid of the CAS mission. USAF also apparently considers F-16C airshow Thunderbirds unit more important than the entire A-10 fleet, giving them the latest engines, structural and cockpit configuration – upgrades that it time and again denied to the A-10. And if budget is in trouble, why not cut the antiquated B-52, limited utility B-1, good-for-nothing F-35, or some of the equally good-for-nothing generals, who are apparently not only breeding like rabbits but also behaving like drunken billionaires? Apparently, for USAF and Pentagon brass, stealth fighters and generals’ wages and pensions are more important than lives of US and allied troops, lives which they can easily save by *not* retiring the most capable CAS platform the West – and quite likely the world – has ever seen. At least European air forces have an excuse – however flimsy it is in case of the “big four” – of lacking the money and logistical abilities for operating a properly structured air force; US do not have even that excuse. That being said, any country which can afford to operate heavy attack helicopters in addition to fixed-wing supersonic fighters, or medium-weight multirole fighters (such as Rafale and Typhoon), should be able to afford a combination of a multirole jet fighter and a CAS/COIN aircraft, at least of a prop variant. With Gripen NG and Super Tucano, there will soon be no excuse (and Gripen C can easily substitute until the NG arrives).