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Light Attack / CAS - Background

The issue of fixed-wing close air support is by far the most heated one between the Army and Air Force. From the Army's view it may mean the life or death of many soldiers. Likewise, the Air Force is concerned with the lives of its pilots. The argument also concerns the efficacy of using precious aircraft sorties on dispersed targets close to, or intermingled with, friendly troops where the risk of fratricide is great and success not as great if those same sorties were used deeper on the battlefield. The Gulf War showed that a well-trained combat arms team can win with minimal fixed-wing close air support and rely on its organic artillery and aviation.

Although "close proximity" is not quantified, it is typically understood to mean close enough to where the risk of fratricide is increased. This single factor explains both services concern over fixed-wing close air support. Experiences of Air Force and Army officers quantify it as 3 to 5 kilometers from friendly forces, but as close as 500 meters if the situation is critical.

The matter is further confused because the close air support can be delivered between the forward line of own troops (FLOT) and the fire support coordination line (FSCL). The distance between these depends on the range of Army artillery and aviation; anywhere from 30 to 150 kilometers. It is ludicrous to call air support delivered 30 to 150 kilometers from friendly troops "close."

The FLOT is typically where the majority of friendly troops are arrayed. There will probably be a covering force in front of this during the initial stages of a battle. So it is possible that air attack could be delivered "close" to these troops. The FSCL is a "permissive" measure in that ground forces can fire across it if they have to, but coordination before the fact is desirable. The Air Force sees this line as "restrictive" to its forces; attacks can not take place within the FSCL.

Close air support of ground operations is seriously inhibited by the difficulty of acquiring targets from the air. With high speed aircraft there is generally insufficient time for airborne personnel to spot targets unless the targets are very large, and/or of shapes and contrasts readily identified from the air. Targets which are small, such as vehicles, or are subtly colored, camouflaged or partially or wholly covered from view from above, are seldom detected from fighter or bomber aircraft. In the case of slower moving aircraft, such as light spotter craft or helicopters, the time needed to identify a target from background exposes the aircraft to hostile ground fire. Moreover, such aircraft themselves are not ordinarily weapons carriers.

If approved by the air force chief of staff, a future close-air-support platform to replace the Fairchild Republic A-10 would be considered by a "planning choices panel this fall for possible inclusion in the services five-year budget plan for fiscal years 2018-2022.

General Carlisle, the Commander of Air Combat Command and Brigadier General Taliaferro, the Director of Plans, Programs, and Requirements, hosted the ACC Close Air Support (CAS) Innovation Summit on 22-23 September 2015 at Quesada Hall, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia. The Summit provides the opportunity for General Carlisle and key Air Force leaders to provide attendees insight into the challenges of providing Close Air Support as well as the ongoing Air Force and DOD research efforts that have the potential to address these challenges. With these insights, General Carlisle hopes participants will search within their organizations for innovative ideas, emerging technologies, and creative approaches to address the challenges.

Defining the requirement is the first concrete step toward potentially developing a replacement A-10 for the close-air support mission, often dubbed A-X. Lt. Gen. Mike Holmes, the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, said April 7, 2016 My requirements guys are in the process of building a draft requirements document for a follow-on CAS airplane ... Its interesting work that at some point well be able to talk with you a little bit more.

Speaking to reporters following a breakfast hosted by the Air Force Association, Holmes said That CAS replacement airplane, I have seen a draft of it, its out for coordination. Itll go to the Chief sometime this spring and let the Chief shape it, hes our chief requirements officer also in the Air Force, and then well fold that into the larger study were doing on the future of the combat air forces.

Several existing and development aircraft could meet the CAS mission, Holmes said, pointing to light fighters like the A-29 Super Tucano attack plane and the Beechcraft AT-6 Wolverine trainer aircraft. He also suggests the industry-funded Textron AirLand Scorpion or something that "other people are building or fielding" maybe light attack versions of the Finmeccanica M-346 Master or Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 Golden Eagle trainers.

The Air Force also looked at potentially re-purposing the T-X advanced trainer airframe for the CAS mission down the road, Holmes said. Some air force funding has been earmarked for AT-X studies, which will consider light attack variants of the USAFs next-generation trainer. A brand new A-X aircraft is being considered, but it would cost much more to develop. Current USAF plans would draw down the A-10 force between 2018 and 2021. The USAF down-playded discussions of using the T-X trainer to fulfill a close air support role.

With the refinement and sophistication of modern warfare, mission adaptability for aircraft had become an increasingly costly and often illusive objective, frequently best achieved or sought by compromises necessitated by the lack of appropriate equipment for the task at hand. Accordingly, the need to better attain these objectives by means of a versatile aircraft has never been in sharper focus than at the present. Consequently, a basic aircraft structure that could be readily adapted to rapidly changing circumstances and mission profiles simply and conveniently would obviate the need for an aircraft inventory of various types and configurations to meet the different mission requirements.

Lara Seligman, writing for Aerospace Daily & Defense Report on 21 July 2016 reported that "The U.S. Air Force is contemplating pursuing a low-end, light attack OA-X aircraft to augment the A-10 Warthog in a close-air support (CAS) role, while simultaneously aiming for a more robust replacement, dubbed A-X2, down the line..... OA-X would be a low-end, low-cost, non-developmental aircraft meant to augment the Air Forces existing light attack capabilities... For OA-X, the officials said the Air Force would likely look to an existing airframe, such as the A-29 Super Tucano or the AT-6 trainer... "

The Air Force had not established clear requirements for the missions the A-10 performs, and in the absence of these requirements, has not fully identified the capacity or capability gaps that could result from the A-10 divestment. Without a clear understanding of the capability or capacity gaps and risks that could result from A-10 divestment, it is also unclear how effective or necessary the Air Force's and the department's mitigation strategies will be. For example, although the Air Force has several efforts underway to generally mitigate the loss of capabilities that would result from A-10 divestment, it has not identified how or if it will replace the A-10's role in combat search and rescue missions.

  • the OA-X ("O" for observation, "A" for attack, "X" for experimental), would look more like a P-51 Mustang than a modern tactical aircraft. The propeller-driven OA-X would be for "permissive" environments, places where enemies had no air forces and little in the way of air defenses. Skeptics believe such places are fast disappearing, because cheap surface-to-air missiles are ubiquitous in global military trade. The Air Force planned to conduct a flyoff of two readily available candidates in 2016. The service is examining two fully developed aircraft, Beechcrafts AT-6 and Embraers A-29 Super Tucano. The service is looking at an initial order of about 20 aircraft for the OA-X mission a early as next year, with serious procurement in Fiscal 2018. The Air Foce would buy up to 250 of the lightweight, low-end planes.
  • the AX-2 / A-X2 jet would be cheaper to operate than the A-10. The A-X2, is a replacement of the A-10 that supposedly would be more affordable. The Air Force aimed for a faster, cheaper acquisition approach that could field an aircraft within five years. The aircraft would be designed for a 20-year lifetime and would forego long-term costs such as a service-life extension program.

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Teal Group, asked 18 August 2016 "How many more Iraqs, Afghanistans and Libyas does the U.S. body politic really want? Is boots on the ground for counterinsurgency, nation-building and peacekeeping really still a politically popular option? Or does the future of the U.S.s strategic posture actually involve the use of forces to confront and contain peer and near-peer rivals such as China or Russia? ... A-X2/OA-X supporters need to be clear: By advocating for these aircraft, they also expect more similar conflicts and are less concerned about the U.S. finding itself in a serious confrontation in the South China Sea or Eastern Europe.... slow, dedicated fixed-wing attack aircraft are operated by economically undeveloped countries that face very low-level threats such as Mali or the Dominican Republic."

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