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Close Air Support

The Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force all participate in close air support [CAS] or reinforcement of ground troops by close-in delivery of ordnance from aircraft. The Army and Marines view CAS as an essential component of their battlefield firepower. The USAF and Navy see the CAS battle as one of the several missions in the scope of an air campaign. While the Marines owned this component in their air-land team, the Army depends on the USAF to support their battle.

Pervading the issue are the finely drawn differences in service traditions, legacies, philosophies, organizational arrangements, and ways of doing business. Overshadowing these are the tendency of each service to go its own way in assessing the threat, deciding requirements, and equipping itself; disagreement of the services on how to conduct the mission; absence of useful data on weapon-system performance generally; and lack of a cohesive total DOD requirement for close-air-support resources.

Close-air-support strikes are made against such enemy targets such as as tanks and other vehicles, troops, bunkers, artillery and other battlefield objectives in support of maneuvering ground forces. Attacks may be preplanned; they may be in response to a ground commander's call; or the targets may be discovered during armed-escort or armed-reconnaissance flights. The mission requires well-trained and well motivated pilots, sensitive ground-to-air coordination, and effective weapon delivery without unnecessarily endangering friendly troops. It is often a dangerous mission for the aircraft.

Shortly after becoming a separate service, the interservice Key West Agreement of 1948 specifically assigned the USAF the task to provide CAS for the Army. Over the next two decades, the two services rehashed this division of responsibility in a number of supplemental agreements. The periodic clash over CAS responsibilities stemmed from the Army’s lack of satisfaction of USAF CAS responsiveness and coordination during the Korean War. In general, the Army also felt that the USAF did not put enough priority on the CAS mission.

After the 1966 Johnson-McConnell agreement, the Army sought a more capable attack helicopter, the AH-56 Cheyenne.10 The USAF responded vigorously and made the Cheyenne a hot controversy. Air Force leadership saw the Cheyenne as an Army ploy to grab the CAS mission. General John P. McConnell, the USAF Chief of Staff, countered with the A-X program, a move to produce the USAF’s first pure CAS aircraft. McConnell did not want to lose the CAS mission to the Army.

The services differed over, among other things, the best equipment to employ, the tactics to use, and the priority of this type of mission. Congressional committees have reviewed these differences and related problems from time to time, but the issues have been exceedingly difficult to resolve. Congressional concern was expressed that three different aircraft being considered for the close-air-support mission - the Army’s AH-56A Cheyenne helicopter, the Marine Corps’ Harrier, and the Air Force’s A-X - might duplicated or substantially overlapped in capabilities.

All three proposed aircraft are designed to defeat tactical targets, such as battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, field fortifications, and enemy troops; but the aircraft differred markedly. The Cheyenne was a “compound” aircraft having rotary blades; wings for lift, like a fixed-wing plane; and a pusher-propeller in the tail. The Harrier is the first vertical-takeoff airplane to become operational, after nearly 25 years of experimentation with this aeronautical concept. The A-X was to be a conventional fixed-winged aircraft, the first fixed-wing aircraft in more than a generation to be designed specifically for the close air support mission.

A cohesive plan covering total Department of Defense (DOD) requirements for close air support had not been prepared. Ordinarily such a plan would be the basis for determining the total number of aircraft and the capabilities they would need to carry out the close-air-support mission. Instead each service has independently planned and proposed the sizes and the tactical concepts of close-air-support fleets, without considering each other’s plans, the quantities and capabilities of existing aircraft, or the resources of US allies.

The need for a new close-air-support aircraft could be argued more convincingly if the services agreed on available inventory aircraft (their numbers, accuracy, payloads, response times, and other properties) and if it could be shown that there was a gap between these resources and the combined services’ needs.

Some factors hampering effective management of the close-air-support mission and the development of an overall plan were:

  • Constraints on the choice among weapon-system types that each service can develop. For example, an agreement with the Air Force limits the Army to helicopters.
  • Lack of joint military doctrine on how to conduct the mission and on which equipment to use.
  • Lack of adequate data on whether the weapons now being considered will perform effectively in their ultimate environments and on certain human abilities needed to operate the weapons.

Equipping, staffing: and training for support missions usually are under-financed in peacetime in favor of a service’s first-priority mission. The more complex support missions - such as close air support - which require close, even delicate, coordination between air and ground troops, therefore are difficult to gear up when hostilities break out. It was difficult to select one of the three aircraft with any confidence. It was not known, for example, whether they will be more effective than existing aircraft.

The following capabilities of the three aircraft were not tested in a combatlike environment employing the tactics planned for each of them:

  • Ability to find and identify enemy targets in time to launch weapons before the enemy can fire at the aircraft.
  • Survivability against a well-equipped enemy.
  • Effectiveness against typical close-air-support targets.
  • Capability for a high, sustained rate of attack (sortie surge rate) in the battle area.
  • Data on proposed target-kill capabilities and survivability conflicted and was incomplete.

Cost-effectiveness studies on those aircraft (none had been made on the Harrier) were optimistic in their assumptions about environments, tactics, and :he severity of enemy defenses, incomplete in comparing these aircraft with similar aircraft, and out of date with current cost estimates, which rose markedly in the past 2 years.

DOD completed an interim study of the three aircraft in June 1971. The Deputy Secretary of Defense, in summarizing the study, concluded that the proposed aircraft would complement rather than duplicate other aircraft because each was expected to have exclusive capabilities for certain battle situations not possessed by existing aircraft. He recommended that all three aircraft programs be continued until operational testing could be completed to resolve certain specified uncertainties about each. The list of uncertainties seemed to apply to each aircraft alike, but the summary did not indicate that each aircraft would be evaluated against the list. Although the proposed aircraft would be tested further, it was not clear whether they would be compared with each other and with existing aircraft when the operational test data was available.

Thus the Marines asserted that the Harrier had an exclusive niche to fill in amphibious operations; the Army alleged that the Cheyenne can employ effective weapon-delivery tactics unlike those of any fixed-wing airplanes; the Air Force contended that these other candidates are limited to permissive environments and that only the A-X could "live" through a mid-intensity conflict. The Army’s AH-56A Cheyenne helicopter was cancelled in 1972 and replaced by the AH-64, with full-scale production beginning in 1983. The Marine Corps’ Harrier entered service in 1971 as the AV-8A, and the Air Force’s A-X entered service as the A-10 in 1975. The Air Force and the Marine Corps believe that their aircraft, the A-10 and AV-8B, respectively, have the capabilities and characteristics to perform close air support missions effectively. The Air Force and the Marine Corps described several simiiar aircraft capabilities and characteristics and cited factors other than the ability of the aircraft to meet the close air support mission requirements as being important to their choice of aircraft. The AV-8B’s vertical takeoff and short landing capability allow it to operate from ships and austere sites, whereas the A-10 required more established air bases.

The essence of tactical close air support warfare has changed enormously over the years. In 1970, most U.S. air-ground operations still consisted of aging fixed-wing aircraft dropping unguided bombs. By 1975, remote controlled missiles had arrived along with guidance systems utilizing TV and radar tracking, and Nap-Of-the-Earth (NOE) flying helicopters had proven to be very effective CAS delivery vehicles. By 1980, lasers and infrared technologies were being widely used and for the first time the United States had deployed a fixed-wing attack aircraft, the A-10, that was designed specifically for close air support operations against tanks and other moving objects.

For US tacticians in the 1970s, helicopters were deficient in two important categories: They were slow-moving aircraft and could not go anywhere with much rapidity, and they carried a smaller weapons payload than fixed-wing fighters, which reduced the range of options as to how and where helicopters could be utilized. But there seemed to be quite a lot the helicopter could do. Helicopters could take off and land without requiring fixed, easily-bombed airfields; they were less vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, and most significantly, they were better than just about any other weapon around at stopping tanks.

By 2014 the Air Force proposed once again to retire the A-10 close air support fighter, but some proposed that these planes be transfered to the Army. Transferring the A-10 fleet to the Army address the Army's close air support needs, if the Army were to put into storage or sell abroad an equivalent number of its 600 plus Apache attack helicopters which are both costly to maintain and [according to some] difficult to use in real world operations. Both the A-10 and the Apache were designed to fight Soviet tanks. There are no longer many places in the world where the US might need to destroy large numbers of tanks in close battle. In keeping with their value in the extraordianry circumstance of a large conventional war involving enemy tank formations, some analysts proposed that a majority of close air support squadrons and attack helicopter battalions could be held in strategic reserve.

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Page last modified: 12-02-2014 19:04:42 ZULU